The history of Panama includes the long history of the Isthmus of Panama region prior to European colonization, from Pre-Columbian cultures, through the Spanish colonial era, and eventual independence as the modern country of Panama.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples, but there is no accurate knowledge of the size of the Pre-Columbian indigenous population. Estimates range as high as two million people. They lived mainly by hunting, gathering edible plants & fruits, growing corn, cacao, and root crops, in small huts made of palm leaves. The first permanent European settlement, Santa María la Antigua del Darién on the Americas mainland was founded in 1510. Vasco Nunez de Balboa and Martín Fernández de Enciso agreed on the site near the mouth of the Tarena River on the Atlantic. This was abandoned in 1519 and the settlement moved to Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Panamá (present day Panama City), the first European settlement on the shores of the Pacific.
Panama was part of the Spanish Empire for over 300 years (1513–1821) and its fate changed with its geopolitical importance to the Spanish crown. In the 16th and 17th centuries, at the height of the Empire, no other region would prove of more strategic and economic importance. On November 10, 1821, in a special event called Grito de La Villa de Los Santos, the residents of the Azuero declared their separation from the Spanish Empire. As was often the case in the New World after independence, control remained with the remnants of colonial aristocracy. In Panama, this elite was a group of less than ten extended families. The derogatory term rabiblanco ("white tail") has been used for generations to refer to the usually Caucasian members of the elite families.
In 1852, the isthmus adopted trial by jury in criminal cases and 30 years after abolition would finally declare and enforce an end to slavery.
Panama’s culture is a blend of African, American Indian, North American, and Spanish influences, which are expressed in its traditional arts and crafts, music, religion, sports, and cuisine. Panamanian music is popular throughout Latin America, and the country is known as well for its many festivals. Other aspects of traditional culture are well preserved, especially by the country’s Indian peoples. Panama is a cultural melting pot, adapting elements from a wide variety of sources and valuing innovation as much as the good things of the past.
The cosmopolitan urban culture near the canal contrasts with the rural culture of the savannas. The latter area, with its cattle ranches and horsemanship, is a centre of Hispanic tradition. Old folk songs and handicrafts are preserved there for example, around the towns of Chitré and Las Tablas. Also culturally distinctive are the territories of the various Indian groups, each with its language and handicrafts, such as the bright smocks (molas) decorated with reverse appliqué panels worn by Kuna women and the netted carrying bags made by the Guaymí. The Kuna have a strong tradition of storytelling (oral literature), including epic poetry that can extend for hundreds or thousands of lines. Other areas of cultural interest include the Caribbean islands of Almirante Bay, with their Antillean customs. Panama City’s Historic District is known for its colonial architecture, which dates to the 17th century. In 1997 the district was designated a World Heritage site, as were the old Caribbean coastal fortifications of Portobelo and San Lorenzo in 1980.
Panama has adopted elements of food and culture from South and Central America, the Caribbean (including African influences), North America, Asia, and the Middle East. This is especially true in the areas near the canal where more than half the population lives. Caribbean influence is strongest along the northern coast and among the Afro-Panamanian population, many of whom are descended from English-speaking Caribbean families who came to build the canal. U.S. influence is strongest among the urban middle and upper classes; these groups typically speak English as well as Spanish, increasingly use the Internet and cell phones, have greater opportunities to travel abroad, and consume expensive goods brought in from abroad and sold in some of Latin America’s best-appointed shopping centres. Major economic and social inequalities persist, and most Panamanians in isolated rural areas continue to be poor and to have traditional lifestyles.