In October 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the “New World,” made his first landing on an island in the Bahamas, and was greeted by native people. In less than a century, the Taino and Carib peoples had been annihilated, the victims of aggression and European diseases. A similar fate befell the societies in the Isthmus of Panama. These cultures are known to us through ethno-historical accounts, archaeological finds, and works of art.
In the Caribbean region (Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and the Antilles) and in the southern part of Central America (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama), the earliest evidence for the existence of chiefdoms – several villages governed by a single ruler – dates back to 3000 BCE. Though the area acted as a bridge between Mesoamerica and South America – and, from the 16th century on, also between Europe and the rest of the Americas – no major urban civilizations developed there. Nevertheless, its inhabitants produced very fine stonework and ceramics, as well as precious objects in gold and jade. These artworks gave visible expression to fundamental beliefs concerning the order of the universe and the power of shamans; they accompanied and depicted rituals; and they testified to the status of sacred leaders.