[IQP] El Caño Archaeological Park Biodiversity Past and Present

Sponsor: Fundacion El Cano / Footprint Possibilities
Student Team: Connor R Bourgeois

Lokesh Gangaramaney

Jax Riley Sprague

Luke Roger Trujillo

Abstract: El Caño Archaeological Park documents a process of cultural evolution resulting in stratified social structures in Pre-Columbian societies. To better understand the specific culture of this region, Fundacion El Caño, the foundation conducting research at the archaeological site, has undertaken a comparative study of flora specimens found in archaeological contexts and flora currently present in the park. To aid with their study, over 40 unique species were identified in the park and many of them were preserved as herbarium specimens through approved botanical and archival techniques. Flora specimens were collected, pressed and dried, mounted, identified, labeled and prepared for curation at Museo El Caño as a comparative collection for future reference and continued study.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary

El Caño Archaeological Park in Panama documents a long history of socio-cultural evolution during the Pre-Columbian era. Our sponsor, Fundación El Caño, has undertaken a comparative study of the flora found in El Caño Archaeological Park today and the flora found in archaeological contexts during the excavation of Pre-Columbian tombs. By analyzing and comparing contemporary and ancient flora, archaeologists can observe how the environment of El Caño has changed over time in response to human activities and natural processes that have altered the landscape and, possibly, climate change. This will also provide insight as to how this civilization lived, discovering the crops they used for tools, food, shelter, and clothes.

To classify the species within the park, the team learned the basic concepts of plant taxonomy – the science of finding, identifying, describing, classifying, and naming plants. The hierarchy of classification is kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Genus and species are used for the species name of each plant. Panama contains approximately 10,000 unique plant species. It has a tropical climate with a wet and dry season, both spawning very different environments. Some common plants in Panama are heliconia, hibiscus, ginger, and bougainvillea.

Pre-Columbian cultures in Central America are known for their complex societal structures and advanced technologies that much of the world had yet to discover. Some Pre-Columbian cultures produced complex writing systems and developed their own literature. Their cities are recognized for their pyramids, plazas, and palaces, as well as ball courts and stone monuments. Lower status families lived in adobe homes. Homes had amenities for sleeping, cooking, eating, worship, and steam bathrooms. The nobility had similar room dedications but on a much larger and grander scale.


To accomplish this goal, we created three main objectives guiding the project:

  1. Collect information on each unique plant in El Caño Archaeological Park.
  2. Use Pl@net, iNaturalist, and PictureThis applications to identify the plants.
  3. Create a spreadsheet to synthesize the data.

For collecting smaller plants, specimens that possessed many of the plant’s organs were chosen: stems, flowers, fruits, and leaves. The team made plant presses from two sheets of plywood layered with several additional sheets of cardboard. Newspaper lined the cardboard and the plants were situated so as to not overlap when pressed. Heavy-duty mechanical clamps secured the press, increasing pressure and reducing drying time to two weeks. From there they were glued onto moisture-absorbing, acid-free watercolor paper and placed in a page-protected scrapbook.

In order to keep the herbarium specimens scientifically significant, we recorded their scientific name, family, location, habitat, growth habit, frequency, height, color, collector’s name, species determiner’s name and collection date on the sheet, numbering them as they were collected. This information was recorded in a spreadsheet before transferring them onto labels. These labels were printed and taped on the page protectors of their corresponding plants.

For the trees of the park, we constructed a xiloteca. Specimens were collected by sawing off a portion of the trunk revealing the outer bark pattern. These samples were placed inside a clear briefcase and labeled with the number that corresponded to their identity in the spreadsheet. Fruits were vacuum sealed and labeled with their species name and identity number.

The team utilized the apps Pl@ntNet, iNaturalist, and PictureThis to identify flora in El Caño Archaeological Park. These apps allow the user to select an image of an organ of the plant and compare it to visually-similar plants in order to determine the species.

For data organization, we created a filing system with folders for the various family names of the identified specimens. From there, subfolders were made with the genus names. Inside the genus, folders are subfolders for the different species identified. Photos of each plant were placed in their respective species folders as they were identified.

Results and Conclusions

Initially the team set out to preserve 25 specimens and identify a total of 50 at El Caño. Upon further investigation of the biodiversity, the team preserved 32 unique specimens and identified 44 total species. From there, the specimens collected were classified into a large variety of habits. After all specimens were identified, the team investigated the origin and invasiveness of each species. Of all the specimens, 8 were found to be invasive, 23 were found to be native, and 21 were found to be non-native. Most of the specimens that the team identified were found to have a wide variety of historical and medicinal uses.

The team concluded that the environment of the park has largely changed since PreColumbian times due to bird droppings, landscaping, flooding, and agriculture. In addition, the biodiversity is quite different during wet and dry seasons, so the team recommends that Fundación El Caño repeat this study during the dry season to ensure all species were found.