On the Road in Panama: The Secretary’s Travel Journal

Panama.  Named by native people who came to the land thousands of years before the Europeans, the word means “many butterflies” in one interpretation and “many fishes” in another. Either description fits this tropical wonderland.  A narrow isthmus between two of the planet’s largest continents, North and South America, Panama lies astride the tropics and separates the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by no more than 30 miles at its narrowest point, the location of the Panama Canal.

I travelled to Panama to visit the renowned Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute with members of the Smithsonian National Board, a group dedicated to the Smithsonian who provide important support for our mission.  The Smithsonian and Panama came to know each other in 1910, when Panama was yet a young nation, having seceded from Colombia in 1903 with considerable behind-the-scenes help from the United States.

The Republic of Panama

The first attempt to construct a sea-level canal was begun in 1880 under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Suez Canal, with financing and support from France. The French effort went bankrupt after reportedly spending US$287 million and was largely abandoned by 1890. In 1904, the United States resumed work on the Panama Canal. Completing the unfinished Canal was an opportunity for the United States to prove it was a nation capable of grand accomplishment where another great power had failed, and to expand its hegemony over the world economy through a key marine passage between two oceans. Building the Panama Canal was to prove a tough slog even for the “can-do” Yanks, and took 10 long, hard years, during which it was necessary to find a way to fend off malaria and yellow fever, create new forms of power equipment, solve problems with massive landslides and deal with a mountain of political issues. All this and more is told in David McCullough’s prize-winning book, The Path Between the Seas, a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the Panama Canal and how it came to be.

Entry from Eugene A. Schwarz's travel log, Schwarz was an American entomologist who worked with the Smithsonian during the 1911 survey of the Panama Canal Zone. (Photo via Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Early in the planning and construction of the Canal, scientists realized that linking two vast oceans that had been separated for millions of years could dramatically change the balance of nature. The Smithsonian emerged as the leader of the effort to conduct an assay of the biodiversity of the region to establish a baseline before the Canal opened. The work was wisely extended by the Republic of Panama to include the entire country. Working with colleagues from the Field Museum in Chicago and others, the Smithsonian mobilized a team of experts who, through a herculean effort, managed to complete the study by 1914.  This initial study could only touch the surface of Panama’s remarkable biodiversity and showed that understanding the tropical rainforests of Panama called for a permanent field station with long-term observational capability. Over time, the Smithsonian’s operations in Panama grew and our relationship with the Government of Panama deepened. By the 1960s, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute was fully established with staff scientists and dedicated facilities.

The Isthmus

The landmass that is Panama is a quirk of nature, existing as a result of an unusual coming together of five plates of the earth’s crust, the North American, the South American, the Caribbean, the Cocos and the Nazca.  Even the unique “S” shape of the Isthmus itself is likely a result of compression exerted by the adjacent North American and South American plates.

Culebra Cut 1904. (Photo via canalmusem.com)

North and south of Panama, earthquakes and volcanoes are common as the land masses lie along what is known in geological circles as the “Ring of Fire,” a feature circumnavigating the globe defining the boundary between great crustal plates that are colliding with each other. The Isthmus is a youngster among landmasses, with its present form having been established during the Pliocene Epoch around 3 million years ago. Exactly how it was formed and how long it took is a subject of debate. New evidence unearthed by STRI scientists (being published as this journal is written,) suggests the formation was a complex process beginning more than 50 million years ago. Our restless earth, the moving parts of its mantle playing a game of “now you see it, now you don’t,” created this geographic anomaly.  Some of the geologic process involved stately magmatic flows and gentlemanly sedimentation, but it also involved the unruly cousin one hopes to hide from visitors, volcanic eruptions. Reminders of this violent past are found in the three prominent extinct volcanoes that form the highlands of the countryside, the largest and highest of which, at 11,000 feet elevation, is Volcán Barú. Fortunately for us, it is thought to have last erupted in 500 A.D.  Since then, things have been remarkably quiet in Panama, geologically speaking.

The extinct Volcán Barú in Panama.

Panama’s geologic quiescence was a factor in the battle that raged in the U.S. Congress in the late 1800s and early 1900s over choosing a canal site. For a period, a faction that favored building a canal across Nicaragua seemed likely to win, but those in favor of the Panama route cleverly managed to bring to the attention of Congress a Nicaraguan postage stamp showing a drawing of the erupting volcano Mount Momotombo. By hyping the perceived danger from such an event, votes were dislodged that would have otherwise gone to Nicaragua, and the canal route in Panama won, changing the course of history for Panama, the United States and the Smithsonian. That history is captured in the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, which includes a collection of the infamous Nicaraguan stamps, some of which will be on display in the William H. Gross Stamp Gallery that opens next year.

This stamp is why we do not refer to the "Nicaragua Canal."

Determining the actual date when the global processes creating the Isthmus closed the gap between North and South America is crucial to scientists, because it sets the clock for the time when animals and plants that had evolved separately over millions of years could pass from one continent to the other and co-mingle. And while closure by the Isthmus created a green light for the flow of flora and fauna between the continents, it set a big red light on what had previously been a free exchange of marine organisms from the Pacific to the Atlantic and changed the pattern of marine evolution.  Beyond its local effects in the land and ocean surrounding the Isthmus, the closure redirected the Gulf Stream to the north, pushing warm currents up the east coast of North America and then down along the coasts of England and France, making these areas temperate instead of inhospitably cold. This, in turn, is believed to have led to the sequences of glacial advances and retreats in North America and Europe as the path of the Gulf Stream fluctuated with time. Talk about a big change with global implications!  It is not surprising that scientists have long been seeking the smoking gun that would provide definitive evidence for the time of the Isthmus’ creation.

Beginning in the Caribbean and ending in the northern North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream System is one of the world’s most intensely studied current systems.

Until recently, the accepted wisdom was based on the early work of Smithsonian scientists in the 1920s who concluded that the closure occurred around 3 million years ago, when the process of building the Isthmus was complete. Most evidence since then has supported this orthodoxy. Now, a new generation of Smithsonian scientists is saying, “Wait up, closure may have started a lot earlier than we thought.” Ironically, the original point of their research had nothing to do with the creation of the Isthmus of Panama. Our scientists have the unique opportunity to examine older geologic processes through one of the largest construction projects on the planet—the deep excavations for two giant new locks for the Panama Canal that will allow the largest ships to transit the shortest distance between two oceans. The excavations expose rocks that date back to the Oligocene epoch 25 million years ago, a period of interest in terms of plate tectonics, but they also shine a light on the sweep of geologic history covering the period of the closure as well.

The Panama Canal Company has made the massive excavations on the Pacific and Atlantic side of the Isthmus available to Smithsonian scientists during the period of construction. The formations on the Pacific side of the excavations are “rock stars” to geotechnical engineers like me. The Culebra Cut is found here, named for the Culebra shale formation, famed for containing thin layers of a clay mineral known as montmorillonite.  Most people only encounter montmorillonite if they have cats; this mineral is used in kitty litter because of its remarkable ability to absorb 900 times its mass in water. In nature, when a thin layer of montmorillonite is exposed to water, it becomes the equivalent of a lubricant between harder rock layers and if undercut by an excavation, gives rise to landslides—massive landslides during the construction of the Panama Canal. Engineers constructing the Canal in the early 1900s were frustrated—to the point they almost gave up—when excavations opened in the Culebra Formation one day were closed the next by landslides. It was only by dint of sheer effort that they overcame this problem. Today, landslides due to the Culebra formation still are a threat, but they are tamed to a large extent by new technology developed over the past 50 years.

Culebra Cut was known as “Hell’s Gorge,” with its heat and dust and noise. Landslides plagued work in the Cut. Overnight, railroad tracks and trestles collapsed, stopping all progress until they were rebuilt. (Photo via canalmuseum.com)

The Smithsonian science team working in the lock excavations, led by paleontologist Carlos Jaramillo, have found themselves in a scientific candy store, but one scheduled to close soon.  Although the Panama Canal Company generously allows Carlos and his collaborators access during the excavations, their goal, of course, is the construction of the new locks and the excavations will be flooded in 2013. The STRI team has worked tenaciously for the past three years to take maximum advantage of the lock construction and their discoveries have been groundbreaking. I’ll discuss this later when we arrive at one of the Smithsonian sites and see it for ourselves.

The Human Story

Humans are believed to have moved into Central America and what is now Panama as early as 13,000 years ago. Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the first half of the 16th century, a number of groups, including the Juan, the Ngobe-Bugle, the Embera, the Wounaan and the Naso were the most prominent indigenous people on the Isthmus. Much like the Inca in Peru, these groups had a thriving culture, but did not have a written language. Most of the tangible objects of their culture were lost in the course of the conquest and over time, so little of their civilization is known to us. Unlike the Inca, the native people of Panama did not leave major works or buildings, at least none that we have found. Some believe that the jungles of Panama may yet hide evidence of cities and roads that have been covered by the fecund growth of the tropical rain forests. Evidence of similar civilizations is now being unearthed in the rain forests of the Amazon; research findings there may open a new chapter of history in Panama.  One  Panamanian archaeological site, El Caño, previously investigated but now being re-examined, is opening new avenues of discovery and yielding artifacts of “golden kings” that suggest the cultures of Panama before the Spanish arrived were of an advanced nature.

Archaeologist Julia Mayo of STRI began conducting ground surveys of El Cano in 2005. In 2008, the archeologist’s team uncovered the tomb of a chief and a more recent second tomb discovery has led to more clues about ancient Panamanian culture. (Photo by David Coventry/National Geographic)

The beginning of the end of the indigenous cultures began in 1501 with the discovery of Panama by the Spanish explorer Rodrigo de Bastidas.  He was followed in 1502 by Columbus on his fourth and last voyage to the New World.  When Columbus died in 1506, Diego de Nicuesa was authorized to create settlements in the Isthmus. Initially rebuffed by the native people, he found safe harbor and created a town named Nombre de Dios, near present day Portobello. Thus began a process of establishing settlements across Panama which served to facilitate the movement of goods as trade developed across the growing New World Spanish Empire. This was accelerated when Vasco Núñez de Balboa reached the top of the coastal mountains in Panama in 1513, climbed a tree and saw the Pacific Ocean, the first European to do so. The Spanish soon after advanced beyond the mountains and marched southward through South America and northward to Central America and Mexico, sweeping aside the civilizations that existed there. The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors changed the world that had existed in Panama and the Americas for thousands of years. The natives were decimated by diseases such as smallpox and were killed or enslaved in the interests of the empire. Those who survived did so by retreating deep into the jungles or the mountains. Today, the native people in Panama are seeking to re-establish their identity, and deliberations are underway about reparations in the form of access to natural resources and former sacred sites.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa taking possession of the Pacific Ocean.

Through their conquests, especially of the Inca in Peru and the Aztecs in Mexico, the Spanish acquired a treasure trove of gold and silver, and added more over time by mining.  All of treasure and more was shipped back to Spain, in turn, attracting the attention of English privateers and pirates, including notables such as Sir Francis Drake and Henry Morgan, who sacked coastal cities, leading the Spanish to move their settlements to more defensible inland locations.   By the early 1800s Spain was wracked by its war with Napoleon and France and its New World Empire was lost, setting in motion a hundred-year story in which independent nations were formed in South and Central America, and the growing power that was the United States began to become involved.

As was the case with the European powers, gold was the trigger that lured U.S. interests to Panama—but it wasn’t gold found in South America, but that found in California in 1848.  Although California was half a continent away from Panama, the Gold Rush led thousands of East Coast men with gold fever  to trek across the Isthmus so they could reach the Pacific and travel north to California by boat.  The need for cross-Isthmus transit led U.S. interests to build a railroad across Panama in the 1850s. Thirty years later, the French undertook to build a canal across Panama. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Panama Canal

The Smithsonian has a deeply vested interest in the Panama Canal, not only because of STRI, but also as see through the lenses of a number of our museums. For example, The National Museum of American History has numerous artifacts in its collections related to the Canal, including surveying instruments used by both the French and Americans and archival documents. One of the surveying levels used by the French is in a case in my parlor next to my office.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum holds paintings that focus on the Canal and its construction and as noted, the National Postal Museum collections include Nicaraguan stamps showing the supposed dangers posed by earthquakes and volcanoes.

One of the most recent objects included in our Panama Canal collections was given to me by the President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, on a 2011 visit to Washington, D.C. Our discussions led to an agreement to extend the partnership between Panama and the Smithsonian for another 100 years. At the conclusion of our meeting President Martinelli presented the Smithsonian with a framed copy of a French bond which was issued in the 1800s to raise funding in support of the effort to build the Canal. When the French effort to build the Canal failed, the bonds were worthless and the French economy almost collapsed; thousands of French citizens lost all they had. Most of the worthless bonds were destroyed and I was pleased to accept this rare item for the Smithsonian’s collections.

STRI facilities on Barro Colorado Island

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

The rich history of STRI is well documented on their website.  Today, STRI employs over 40 outstanding scientists and another 400 or so dedicated staff. Its research covers biology, geology, paleontology, anthropology and archaeology and extends worldwide. From the beginning, Smithsonian scientists knew that nature is a connected web, but today we better understand that what happens in the tropics does not stay in the tropics. Our understanding of climate, disease vectors from animals to humans, insect-borne diseases, invasive species and biodiversity all depend on knowledge obtained from places like STRI. STRI also allows the Smithsonian to lead in such global efforts as the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory, which originated in the pioneering work done for more than 70 years on Barro Colorado Island.  Once a mountaintop, this 4,000-acre island was created by the formation of Gatún Lake, when the Charges River was damned. It is the most intensively observed natural preserve in the world and attracts 1,000 scientists and students each year who conduct their own research.

In Part Two: High above the forest canopy and deep beneath the surface of the earth, Smithsonian scientists are hard at work.

Posted: 24 February 2012
About the Author:

Wayne Clough served as the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 2008 to 2013. He oversaw several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum.