Archaeologists estimate that humans have lived on the isthmus of Panama  for 12,000 years, possibly longer. No massive structures, such as the pyramids found elsewhere in the Americas, have been discovered, and knowledge of the ancient inhabitants of Panama is sketchy.
Many of the archaeological sites that have been uncovered have been damaged by the elements, looters, and amateur excavations. But the surviving indigenous peoples of western Panama still tell intriguing if fanciful tales of lost cities in little-known and nearly inaccessible mountain forests—so who knows what may turn up one day? Archaeology in Panama is still in many ways in its infancy.
The earliest evidence of human habitation found to date is Clovis-type arrowheads found near what is now Lago Alajuela (Madden Lake) in the Panama Canal . Archaeologists dated them to about 9000 B.C. Agriculture appears on the Pacific coast of central Panama at around 5000 B.C. Ceramics appear around 3000 B.C.
A particularly rich site was Monagrillo , on the Azuero Peninsula , where archaeologists uncovered large numbers of decorated ceramics dating from at least 2500 B.C., the oldest in Central America and among the oldest known in the Americas.
Most of the archaeological treasures dug up in Panama are far more recent. The roots of the Barriles culture of western Panama are believed to go back to at least 700 B.C., but the culture reached its zenith between about A.D. 400 and A.D. 600, when the eruption of Volcán Barú  dispersed it. Intriguing, mysterious stone sculptures have been dug up that depict what appear to be chiefs or priests being carried piggyback by other men, as well as an elaborate and oversized metate (stone used to grind corn) that may have been used for sacrifices. Some of these are on display at Panama City’s anthropology museum, Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz .
But the bulk of the evidence of advanced civilizations, at least so far, is found in Central Panama. One of the most famous pre-Colombian archaeological sites in the Americas, Sitio Conte, was found between the Río Grande and Río Coclé near the town of Penonomé.
The site was a cemetery used for hundreds of years, approximately A.D. 750–950. It was discovered when the Río Grande changed its course in the early 20th century and washed gold ornaments and pottery from the riverbanks. Excavated by scientists from Harvard in the 1930s, most of its treasures are scattered among museums in the United States and Europe. It’s considered the richest pre-Colombian site ever discovered in Central America.
About 60 graves, more than 1,000 gold ornaments, and literally tons of pottery and carved stone were dug up there. One tomb, apparently that of a great leader buried around A.D. 750, contained about half the gold found at the site, as well as the remains of 22 followers. Nothing remains at the site today, which is on a private farm and cattle ranch and is not open to the public.
Another important archaeological site that raises more questions than it answers is Parque Arqueológico del Caño, on the outskirts of the town of Natá, not far from Sitio Conte. It contained a cemetery and a large circular field marked off by carved stone columns in the shape of animal and human figures. Some of these statues are six meters high, and they may have been used to demarcate a ceremonial ground or playing field. Unfortunately, nearly all these figures were removed in the 1920s by an American adventurer and taken to museums in the United States. Only their pedestals remain. The site dates from about A.D. 800–A.D. 1100.
Mysterious petroglyphs carved into boulders have been found near streams and rivers at dozens of sites around the country, including remote forests and islands. They consist mainly of abstract designs, especially spirals and squiggles, as well as crude animal and human figures. No one knows their purpose or when they were carved, but archaeologists have speculated they could be anything from ceremonial or sacrificial sites to “no trespassing” warnings. Wishful thinkers speculate they’re maps to buried treasure awaiting someone clever enough to crack the code.