Panama, officially the Republic of Panama, is a transcontinental country in Central America and South America, bordered by Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The capital and largest city is Panama City, whose metropolitan area is home to nearly half the country’s 4 million people.
Panama was inhabited by indigenous tribes before Spanish colonists arrived in the 16th century. It broke away from Spain in 1821 and joined the Republic of Gran Colombia, a union of Nueva Granada, Ecuador, and Venezuela. After Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada eventually became the Republic of Colombia. With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903, allowing the construction of the Panama Canal to be completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. The 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties agreed to transfer the canal from the United States to Panama on December 31, 1999. The surrounding territory was first returned in 1979.
Revenue from canal tolls continues to represent a significant portion of Panama’s GDP, although commerce, banking, and tourism are major and growing sectors. It is regarded as having a high-income economy. In 2019 Panama ranked 57th in the world in terms of the Human Development Index. In 2018, Panama was ranked the seventh-most competitive economy in Latin America, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Covering around 40 percent of its land area, Panama’s jungles are home to an abundance of tropical plants and animals – some of them found nowhere else on earth. Panama is a founding member of the United Nations and other international organizations such as OAS, LAIA, G77, WHO, and NAM.
The earliest discovered artifacts of indigenous peoples in Panama include Paleo-Indian projectile points. Later central Panama was home to some of the first pottery-making in the Americas, for example the cultures at Monagrillo, which date back to 2500–1700 BC. These evolved into significant populations best known through their spectacular burials (dating to c. 500–900 AD) at the Monagrillo archaeological site, and their beautiful Gran Coclé style polychrome pottery. The monumental monolithic sculptures at the Barriles (Chiriqui) site are also important traces of these ancient isthmian cultures.
Before Europeans arrived Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples. The largest group were the Cueva. The size of the indigenous population of the isthmus at the time of European colonization is uncertain. Estimates range as high as two million people, but more recent studies place that number closer to 200,000.
When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples fled into the forest and nearby islands. Scholars believe that infectious disease was the primary cause of the population decline of American natives. The indigenous peoples had no acquired immunity to diseases such as smallpox which had been chronic in Eurasian populations for centuries.
Conquest to 1821:
Rodrigo de Bastidas sailed westward from Venezuela in 1501 in search of gold, and became the first European to explore the isthmus of Panama. A year later, Christopher Columbus visited the isthmus, and established a short-lived settlement in the Darien. Vasco Núñez de Balboa’s tortuous trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1513 demonstrated that the isthmus was indeed the path between the seas, and Panama quickly became the crossroads and marketplace of Spain’s empire in the New World. Gold and silver were brought by ship from South America, hauled across the isthmus, and loaded aboard ships for Spain. The route became known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road, although it was more commonly known as Camino de Cruces (Road of Crosses) because of the number of gravesites along the way.