During construction of the Panama Canal at the start of the century, many laborers died of malaria and yellow fever. To find ways to control the diseases, North American biologists came to the isthmus of Panama. Some of these scientists were so impressed by the diversity of the natural environment that they later negotiated for a permanent nature preserve for ongoing research. Barro Colorado had been a mountain, but after Gatun Lake was created to serve as the Canal watershed, it was an island -- an ideal headquarters for scientists and students of natural history.
Under Smithsonian aegis since 1946, the institute's programs and facilities have expanded to include paleoecology, archaeology, tropical forests, and marine research. Today the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's (STRI) training programs and research resources serve a wide community of international scientists. The Republic of Panama has designated STRI as custodian of a 12,000-acre nature preserve surrounding Barro Colorado.
Several international agreements have formalized the Smithsonian's role in conservation of Latin America's natural environment. After the Eighth International Conference of American States (1938, Lima), the U.S. government created an Inter-Departmental Committee on Cooperation with the American Republics.
The Smithsonian was charged with a program for "...the conservation of flora and fauna in the New World on an international basis." With approval from Ecuador, a laboratory for research on biological conservation was planned in the Galapagos Islands. Waldo L. Schmitt, a curator of marine invertebrates and a veteran researcher at the U.S. National Museum, led the efforts. Schmitt knew the Galapagos well, having participated in Hancock's expeditions during the 1930s and Roosevelt's 1938 cruise to the islands.
He made two reconnaissance missions in 1941- 42, choosing South Seymour island as the best location, before plans were interrupted by World War II. In the 1970s the Institution renewed its attempts to protect the Galapagos Islands through the Charles Darwin Foundation.
Scientists also collaborated in cultural conservation. An early effort was Matthew W. Stirling's 1930s study of the Jivaro of the Amazon, and the Kuna Indians of Panama. Stirling is best known for his pioneering work in Olmec archaeology in the states of Veracruz and Tabasco, Mexico. His interest in Olmec civilization had been sparked by a blue jade mask Thomas Wilson described in the 1896 Smithsonian Annual Report. After joining the U.S. National Museum in 1921, Stirling was "struck by the number of examples made of blue jade... not otherwise found among the many jade specimens from Mexico, although present in Costa Rica." In 1932 he saw a photograph of the only colossal Olmec head then known, discovered by José Melgar in 1862. He felt certain that the blue jade mask and the head were somehow related. Where that head rested was where he wanted to dig. The results of his excavations at several important sites were published in Stone Monuments of Southern Mexico, 1943.
Under Stirling's enthusiastic direction in 1938, the Smithsonian and the National Geographic Society began a joint research project in the Olmec region that lasted sixteen years. The extraordinary monoliths uncovered at the sites of Tres Zapotes and La Venta "caused a great stir in archaeological circles, and threw up a whole series of problems of the highest importance for an understanding of the past," wrote Ignacio Bernal.
Stirling's most controversial find was a stone slab with a typical Olmec jaguar face carved on one side and a Mayan style date on the other. The slab was broken so only part of the date was readable, but Stirling made a guess. His estimate far predated the Maya culture, at that time thought to be the mother culture of Mesoamerica. Stirling and a few other scholars -- among them the artist Miguel Covarrubias and Alfonso Caso, a leading Mexican archaeologist -- believed that the spectacular finds of La Venta and Tres Zapotes belonged to the oldest culture in Mesoamerica. The advent of radiocarbon dating and the discovery of the other half of the carving with the date would verify Stirling's original insight. With the exception of a few "type" specimens, all of the artifacts uncovered by the Stirlings and other Smithsonian archaeologists remained in Mexico under the care of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
Smithsonian archaeologists Philip Drucker, Duncan Strong, and Waldo Wedel joined the cooperative research begun by Stirling, which still continues. Rebecca Gonzales Lauck, the Mexican archaeologist who reopened excavations at La Venta several years ago, has studied their original photographs and field notes at the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives.