Research Overview

How did pre-European peoples impact Neotropical environments?

For millennia, pre-Columbian peoples throughout the Neotropics modified the environment. Human intervention increased as human population grew, occupying new habitats. Climate change, hunting, and agriculture caused some animal species to vanish or become rare. Other species benefited from commensality with humans. Where seasonal drought was intense, firing the felled vegetation accentuated vegetation change. Stone tools and (outside the Andes) absence of draught animals mitigated pre-Columbian impacts enabling wooded habitats to expand after European conquest triggered human population crashes and great economic change. Many forests today still evince the millenary imprint of indigenous American achievements in isolation from other continents.

Was the Isthmus of Panama primarily a passageway for migrants between North and South America?

Primarily, no. The first people transited southwards along the Pacific coast. Clovis hunter-gatherers entered 13,000 years ago, and stayed. When agriculture set in 8,000-6,000 years ago, the population split up; but fissioning groups did not move far. Exchange was most intense among neighbors. Wider trade networks after 2,500 years ago doubtfully involved movements of distant peoples into Panama, but did so in north-west Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Archaeological culture changed more east of El Valle than further west. Only archaeo-genetic data will allow distinguishing populations emanating from continental areas to the south from endogenous cultural processes, i.e., changes in trade and ideology.

What are the major discontinuities in the cultural and environmental history of the Central American land-bridge, and what might have caused them?

Spanish settlement was a mega-discontinuity. Disease, violence, and slavery triggered population collapse, and huge changes in agricultural productivity and trade. Asymmetrical male and female survival engendered a hybrid population with a predominantly indigenous female heritage. The ten surviving indigenous peoples descend from earlier land-bridge groups or close neighbors. Many forests returned to cover cultivated lands. Cattle and Eurasian grasses altered some landscapes. The arrival of the Paleoamericans ca 13,000 years ago initiated forest clearance, but ensuing anthropogenic effects were strongly regional. Major social discontinuities occurred in north-western Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua 1,300 years ago or earlier as peoples from outside moved in due to political upheaval in Mesoamerica. Culture change followed, but was variable at the community level.

What were the roles of savannas and coasts in the development of pre-Columbian society?

The largest indigenous societies existed mainly along the lower stretches of Pacific rivers where alluviated banks and tidal wetlands provided optimal potential for agriculture based on maize, squash and root-crops, for hunting white-tailed deer and iguanas, and for exploiting large biomasses of inshore fish and marine invertebrates. Highland valleys in Chiriquí and Costa Rica were optimal for maize and bean cultivation, but local aquatic resources were minimal. The Pearl Islands (Pacific) and Isla Colón (Caribbean) also supported large populations. Here fishing and turtling favored reefs and clear water currents. Huge manatee were an important food source. Hunting in Caribbean coastal forests focused on guineapig-like rodents and peccaries whose biomasses respond to garden cultivation.

How did the history, nature and effects of Neotropical agriculture differ from those of other areas where food production developed?

Agriculture is about as old in the New World as in Eurasia. Carbohydrate staples (grains and roots) are present on both land masses, but differ taxonomically: wheats, barley, oats, rice and turnips in Eurasia; maize, quinoa, cassava, sweet potatoes and potatoes in the Neotropical realm. Eurasian farmers’ practices and mobility were enhanced by ungulate fertilizer, traction, and carriage. Domesticated Neotropical animals are few: camelids and guinea-pigs (in the Andes and West Indies), muscovy ducks, and domestic dogs (bred for food by some cultures). Captive or managed wild mammals and birds became important tropical food source. Such differences led to unequal continental responses among human groups to agriculture. In Eurasia, movements of entire populations were linked to agricultural expansion. In the Neotropics, crops moved faster than human social groups.


B.A., University of Bristol, England, 1968.

Ph.D., Institute of Archaeology, London University, England, 1972.

Selected Publications

Martín, J.G., Bustamante, F., Holst, I., Lara-Kraudy, A., Redwood, S., Sánchez-Herrera, L.A., Cooke, R.G. (2016). Ocupaciones prehispánicas en Isla Pedro González, Archipiélago de Las Perlas, Panamá. Aproximación a una cronología con comentarios sobre las conexiones externas. Latin American Antiquity 27(3): 378-396. DOI: 10.7183/1045-6635.27.3.378.

Cooke, R.G., Wake, T.A., Martínez-Polanco, M.F., Jiménez-Acosta, M., Bustamante, F., Holst, I., Lara-Kraudy, A., Martín, J.G., Redwood, S., 2016. Exploitation of dolphins at a 6000 yr old Preceramic site in the Pearl Island Archipelago, Panama. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 6: 733-756.

Martínez-Polanco, M.F., Jiménez-Acosta, M., Buckley, M., Cooke, R.G., 2015. Impactos humanos tempranos en fauna insular: El caso de los venados de Pedro González (Archipiélago de las Perlas, Panamá). Archaeobios 9 (1), diciembre 2015. ISSN 1996-5214.

Cooke, R.G., A.J. Ranere, G.A. Pearson, R. Dickau, 2013. Radiocarbon chronology of early human settlement on the Isthmus of Panama (13,000-7,000 BP). Cultural affinities, environments and subsistence change. Quaternary International.

Cooke, R.G., M. Jiménez, and A.J. Ranere, 2008. Archaeozoology, art, documents, and the life assemblage, In: Reitz, E.J., Scarry, C.M., Scudder, S.J. (Eds.), Case Studies in Environmental Archaeology, 2nd edition, Springer, New York, pp. 95-121. 

Cooke, R.G., and M. Jiménez, 2008. Pre-Columbian use of freshwater fish in the Santa Maria biogeographical province, Panama. Quaternary International 185: 46-58. 

Pearson, G.A., and R.G. Cooke, 2007. Cueva de los Vampiros, Coclé, Panama. Nuevos datos sobre la antigüedad del ser humano en el Istmo de Panamá. Arqueología del Area Intermedia 7: 39-70. 

Cooke, R.G., 2005. Prehistory of Native Americans on the Central American land-bridge: colonization, dispersal and divergence. Journal of Archaeological Research 13: 139-188.

Cooke, R.G. and L.A. Sanchez, 2004. Panamá Prehispánico (I), Panamá Indígena (2). In, A. Castillero C., editor, Historia General de Panamá, Volumen 1, Tomo 1, Comité Nacional de Centenario de la República, Presidencia de la República, Panamá, pp. 3-78. 

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