Jun 05, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Strange Medical Mystery Unearthed on Panama’s ‘Witch Hill’

Archaeologists and medical historians have uncovered a strange and unexplained burial in Panama’s Cerro Brujo, or “Witch Hill.” The discovery was made by a team of archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institute who found a set of remains buried upside-down in a fetal position in a trash heap in an abandoned pre-Colombian. The settlement is found on Panama’s Caribbean coast and was inhabited as far back as the 7th century. The remains are believed to have been buried around the year 1300 A.D., some 150 years after the settlement was permanently abandoned. They were first discovered in 1970, but a new analysis has revealed more surprising information about the remains which shows they might have had some sort of supernatural significance.

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Only the skull, the arms and legs, and a few fragments were recovered.

According to Nicole Smith-Guzmán at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, the body appears to have been placed in a curious manner within the trash heap, implying some unknown ritual purpose:

And based on the fact that the body was tightly wrapped in the fetal position and buried face down with two clay pots and a shell trumpet like those still used by indigenous Ngäbe people in this area today, we consider this a ritual burial.

The mysterious placement of the body led researchers to re-examine the remains. After submitting the skeleton to CT scans and assembling 3D recreations, researchers found that the remains belonged to a teen between 14 and 16 years old who was suffering from a deadly bone cancer. The teen’s right humerus had a massive cystic tumor and the skull showed signs of excessive bone growth usually associated with bone cancers.

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The arm tumor was likely very painful and caused a host of other health problems. This case is now the first known example of cancer in Central America.

The placement on the trash heap might at first suggest that the teen’s diseased remains were thrown out like garbage out of fear or disgust, but their published study insists that quite the opposite is likely:

Rather than being cast out of society as a cursed individual, or discarded carelessly in the trash as a diseased individual, this young person seems to have been buried with care alongside ritually significant items at a site connected with their ancestors. [...] Therefore, it is reasonable to propose it likely that the remains of the adolescent were carefully laid in burial 6H in a village once occupied by her ancestors owing to cultural group beliefs about the relationship between disease, death, and the spirits of the deceased.

Based on the cultural beliefs of the modern-day Ngäbe people (sometimes written Ngobe) of Panama, the researchers believe the remains could have been left as a type of skeletal “heirloom” or as a ritual tomb. According to Ngäbe shamanist beliefs, an imbalance between the natural and supernatural worlds can allow malevolent spirits to enter victims’ bodies in the form of nightmares wherein the spirits steal their poor victims’ souls.

Volcano Baru
The Cerro Brujo or "Witch Hill" settlement was in the shadow of Volcano Baru and had to be abandoned twice due to eruptions.

Could the teen’s skeleton be some type of offering to restore the balance with the supernatural, or even some type of sacrifice to appease vengeful spirits? Well, what else would you expect to find in a place called “Witch Hill?”

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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