General information

Many of the fundamental questions in biology and anthropology require a comprehensive understanding of the past. The magnificent diversity of plants, animals, human cultures and languages in the tropics, has a rich and complex history that must be written before we can truly understand how to protect and preserve it for future generations.

The Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology (CTPA) brings together investigators from seemingly disparate fields of study –geology, archaeology, and terrestrial plant paleoecology—to compile an integrated history of the tropical habitat and its organisms. Through an arsenal of different techniques, some of which were pioneered at STRI, CTPA scientists study changes in terrestrial communities over geologic time scales, and human occupation and manipulation of tropical forests over millennia.

The Center for Tropical Paleoecology and Archaeology entrance


Our terrestrial paleoecologists focus on changes in climate and vegetation in the lowland tropical forest, together with their possible influences on prehistoric human ecology, that have taken place since the ice age (about 200,000 years ago) until recently. We have developed novel techniques to study records of plant microfossils lodged in ancient lakes and deep-sea sediments, and have significantly refined older methods, allowing us to provide more robust and precise records of environmental changes and their causes.

Our results show that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of changeless tropics, plant communities underwent profound perturbations during the past 200,000 years that were related to the advances and retreats of the great glaciers at higher latitudes. Floral associations reassembled into new communities after each glacial advance and retreat, as they did in North America and Europe.

Our paleoecological records also tell us that intensive human disturbance and felling of the lowland tropical forest for agricultural practices was occurring more than 7,000 years before the arrival of Columbus . Most likely, prehistoric humans were not conservators of their environments, but exploited and altered them to the limits of their technology.

Polychrome Vessel from Cerro Juan Díaz

Polychrome Vessel from Cerro Juan Díaz painted in the Cubit'a style of the Gran Coclé semiotic tradition and dated to ca AD 700, It depicts a night money (Aotus).

Our archaeologists study the human history of the tropics from when people first entered Central America sometime during the last ice age (between about 17,000 and 13,000 years ago) to after the discovery of the New World by Columbus . They use ceramics, stone tools, shells, and precious metals preserved at localities where people once lived and worked to inquire into the antiquity of human society in the tropical forest. They also explore the development of skilled specialization in pottery and metallurgy, and how and when indigenous tropical Americans attained complex forms of social and political organization.

Modern reference collections of faunal and floral species used by CTPA archaeologists to identify specimens found in ancient sites and to study dietary changes through time are among the best anywhere. Our research reveals how ancient cultures domesticated many tropical plants at an early time—as early as plant domestication took place in other cradles of agricultural origins—and provided the world with many of its more important food crops.

Through collaborative research and establishment of STRI-wide seminars and discussion groups, CTPA scientists maintain close relationships with STRI marine and terrestrial biologists who are studying modern ecological, behavioral, and evolutionary processes. This continuous bridging of different research themes at STRI—from an integrative approach to historical ecology taken by the CTPA to connections with other intellectual programs—highlights not only the tight links that exist between the various programs of study at STRI, but also the cross-disciplinary proclivities of most of STRI scientists.

Pre-Columbian shell ornaments fashioned out of Spondylus shells

Pre-Columbian shell ornaments fashioned out of Spondylus shells

Services and Support to Researchers

Vehicles for Field Work

There is a 4WD vehicle pool at Tupper that is for field use ONLY. To use the STRI vehicles, visitors must have a US Government Driver's Identification Card, in addition to their own full driver’s license. If your stay in the country exceeds 90 days, you must also obtain a Panamanian driver’s license.

Application forms are available from the Ancon reception. Users who do not complete this paperwork are not insured and may not drive STRI vehicles.

You will receive a copy of STRI VEHICLE POLICIES at the time you receive the US Government Driver's Identification Card. Please read these polices carefully, since improper use of STRI vehicles could lead to disciplinary actions, including possible removal of privileges for using STRI vehicles.

Computer room

This room has computers with internet access. To gain access to these computers you need to set up an account and sign an SI User Computer Agreement. Please contact the “Help Desk” people at Tupper by calling extension number 24357. STRI uses Microsoft Outlook as its email system, which requires you to have an account; but you may use your own web-based email service.

Conference Room

The Conference Room is for scientific seminars and conferences; it includes audiovisual equipment and a small lounge.

Conference Center


Walk-in Freezer

A Walk-in Freezer is available for projects requiring this type of room.