Research Overview

Was Pre-Columbian Lived Experience Different from Spanish Accounts?

Many archaeologists have relied on contact-period Spanish accounts of indigenous groups on the Isthmus to inform ideas about cultural activities, particularly burial rites among these groups. However, the observations and interactions between the Spanish and the indigenous Isthmian groups they encountered were far from unbiased. Our analysis of human remains in conjunction with archaeological evidence of their mortuary contexts allows us to “fact-check” these chronicles, permitting the correction of potential misrepresentations of pre-Columbian lifeways. Our research has shown that in many cases, the violent and barbaric portrayals of indigenous Isthmians in Spanish accounts are not reflected in the archaeological record, and thus, cannot be taken at face-value in application to understandings of past human lifeways.

How Mobile were the Ancient Human Inhabitants of the Isthmus?

From the expansion and reduction of certain painted ceramics styles across time and space, we know about the timing of cultural changes taking place in ancient Isthmian communities. What remains uncertain is whether these changes marked an influx of new groups of people migrating into the region, or alternatively, increased long-distance cultural influence through trade route expansion. We are pursuing this question by looking for macroscopic signs of new biological phenotypes in human remains through biodistance analysis of human dental metric and non-metric traits, and microscopic, biochemical evidence of foreign peoples through strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of bones and teeth.

What Cultural Activities and Diseases Left Traces on the Remains of Pre-Columbian Peoples?

Like many cultures worldwide, ancient Isthmian communities interacted with deceased kin over a prolonged period of time. Rather than a behavior of extradition and exclusion, the ancient populations inhabiting the Isthmus of Panama took special care of the sick who died before their prime, often leaving more sumptuary ornaments in the graves of infants and children than in those of adults. We are interested in refining our understandings of the types of activities practiced by, and diseases that afflicted, individuals and populations in the Isthmo-Colombian Area. Through a OneHealth approach, we plan to use these improved understandings to clarify the multifaceted impacts and consequences of past human activity on the tropical ecosystems in which they were situated.


B.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2008
M.A., Louisiana State University, 2010
Ph.D., University of Arkansas, 2015

Selected Publications

Sánchez Aguilarte VV, Rivera Sandoval J, Smith-Guzmán NE. 2023. Utilizando la exostosis del oído externo para rastrear cambios temporales en actividades acuáticas humanas en Panamá precolombino. Chúngara: Revista de Antropología Chilena.


Isaza-Aizpurúa II, Jiménez-Acosta M, Smith-Guzmán NE, Sharpe A, Martín JG, Cooke RG. Precolumbian lifeways at three estuarine and two platform island sites in Pacific Panama. 2023. In: Dolores Elkin and Christophe Delaere, editors. Underwater and Coastal Archaeology in Latin America. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.


Smith-Guzmán NE. 2022. A paleoepidemiological approach to the challenging differential diagnosis of an isolated 1500-year-old anomalous molar from Panamá. International Journal of Paleopathology 39:1–13. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijpp.2022.07.002


Smith-Guzmán NE, Sánchez Herrera LA, Bray WM, Cooke RG, Redwood S, Díaz C, Jimenez Acosta M, Ranere A. 2021. Resurrecting Playa Venado, a Precolumbian site in central Panama. In: McEwan C, Hoopes J, editors. Pre-Columbian Art from Central America and Colombia at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, no. 5. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks. Pp. 279–329.


Smith-Guzmán NE, Sánchez Herrera LA, Cooke RG. 2021. Patterns of disease and culture in ancient Panama: A bioarchaeological analysis of the early graves at Cerro Juan Díaz. Bioarchaeology International 5:78–95.


Sharpe AE, Smith-Guzmán NE, Curtis J, Isaza-Aizpurúa I, Kamenov GD, Wake TA, Cooke RG. 2021. A preliminary multi-isotope assessment of human mobility and diet in pre-Columbian Panama. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 36:102876.


Smith-Guzmán NE. 2021. An isthmus of isolation: The likely elevated prevalence of genetic disease in ancient Panama and implications for considering rare diseases in paleopathology. International Journal of Paleopathology 33:1–12.


Smith-Guzmán NE, Rivera-Sandoval J, Knipper C, Sánchez Arias, GA. 2020. Intentional dental modification in Panamá: New support for a late introduction of African origin. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 60:101226.


Smith-Guzmán NE, Cooke RG. 2019. Cold-water diving in the tropics? External auditory exostoses among the Pre-Columbian inhabitants of Panama. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 168:448–458.


Smith-Guzmán NE, Cooke RG. 2018. Interpersonal violence at Playa Venado (550-850 AD), Panama: A re-evaluation of the evidence. Latin American Antiquity 29:718–735.


Smith-Guzmán NE, Toretsky J, Tsai J, Cooke RG. 2018. A probable primary malignant bone tumor in a pre-Columbian human humerus from Cerro Brujo, Bocas del Toro, Panamá. International Journal of Paleopathology 21:138–146.


Smith-Guzmán NE, Rose JC, Kuckens K. 2016. Beyond the differential diagnosis: New approaches to the bioarchaeology of the Hittite Plague. In: Zuckerman MK, Martin DL, editors. New Directions in Biocultural Anthropology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.


Smith-Guzmán NE. 2015. The skeletal manifestation of malaria: An epidemiological approach using documented skeletal collections. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 158:624–635.

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