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The Isthmus of Panama was formed about three million years ago when the land bridge between North and South America finally became complete, and plants and animals gradually crossed it in both directions.The existence of the isthmus affected the dispersal of people, agriculture and technology throughout the American continent from the appearance of the first hunters and collectors to the era of villages and cities.This is the official definition given in social studies textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education in Panama.However, others believe the word Panama comes from the Kuna word "bannaba" which means "distant" or "far away".When Panama was colonized, the indigenous peoples fled into the forest and nearby islands.Scholars believe that infectious disease was the primary cause of the population decline of American natives.These evolved into significant populations best known through their spectacular burials (dating to c.500–900 AD) at the Monagrillo archaeological site, and their beautiful Gran Coclé style polychrome pottery.

Blending all of the above together, Panamanians believe in general that the word Panama means "abundance of fish, trees and butterflies".Estimates range as high as two million people, but more recent studies place that number closer to 200,000.Archaeological finds and testimonials by early European explorers describe diverse native isthmian groups exhibiting cultural variety and suggesting people developed by regular regional routes of commerce.At the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the known inhabitants of Panama included the Cuevas and the Coclé tribes.These people have nearly disappeared, as they had no immunity from European infectious diseases.

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