Ancient Pearl Divers in Panama?



The first time anthropologist Nicole Smith-Guzmán noticed a nob of bone protruding from the ear canal of an ancient skull in Panama, she didn’t know what to make of it. “I never expected to find this sort of bony growth because we’re taught this is a cold-water thing.” And the isthmus of Panama is nothing if not tropical.

The little spur Smith-Guzmán identified had created a slight mound in the skull’s ear canal—an annoying impediment for the person who once had to deal with it. Known as external auditory exostoses, or EAE, the bony masses can be globular or shaped like teardrops. Depending on their severity, these growths, commonly called “surfer’s ear” today, can cause repeat ear infections and even deafness.

Scientists still don’t understand the precise mechanisms behind the formation of EAE. For a time, the growths were thought to be caused by some genetic anomaly. Further research, however, pointed to a different source: repeated exposure to and submersion in cold water. Just how cold the water has to be and how often people have to swim in it remains up for debate. But for such ear canal growths to be found in human remains in a place like Panama was unexpected and perplexing.

Maybe, Smith-Guzmán thought, the first EAE she saw in 2015 was an anomaly. But she kept an eye out for more while continuing her work as a research collaborator at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Smith-Guzmán had been tasked to review the skeletons excavated by Richard Cooke in the 1970s. As she worked, more skulls afflicted by EAE appeared. And then came another surprise.

“At Cerro Juan Díaz archaeological site, three skeletons within the same burial unit had this bony growth,” Smith-Guzmán says. “At this point, you start thinking these are people who know each other during life and might be doing the same sort of activities together.” And those activities might well have included diving deep into the waters of Parita Bay to retrieve oysters, shells and even pearls.


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