Embera / Wounaan

The Embera

With an estimated population of 31.284 inhabitants (2010 Census), the Embera live in the jungle of the Darien Province in Panama and some inhabit the land along the Chagres and Gatun rivers. 

Embera means “good man” or “good friend”. They speak a dialect called Embera, a binding language. They practice shamanism which is communication with spirits.

The Wounaan

With an estimated population of 7,279 inhabitants (2010 Census), the Wounaan live in the province of Darien, scattered on the banks of the Chucunaque, Tuira, Balsas, Chico, Jaque, Sambu River and Bagre Rivers.

Wounaan means “people, person or village.” They speak a dialect called meu wounaan that belongs to the Chocó linguistic family (comprising languages ​​of western Colombia and Panama southwestern indigenes languages).

Today the Embera / Wounaan are an indigenous region of Panama. It was created in 1983 from two sites located in the province of Darien, specifically the districts of Chepigana and Pinogana. During the colonial period these aborigines were known by other names, such as: Citares, Zirambiraes, Citabiraes, Chocoes and others. They entered the isthmus around the XVIII century from the Choco region in Colombia. Recent studies indicate that before the arrival of Columbus, they probably held lands in Brazil. Scattered along the banks of the many rivers that cross the Darien, far from the comforts and problems of civilization, seem to be in comfortable harmony with their environment. Proud, peaceful, honest, but distrustful of strangers; they live a day to day existence in which there are few economic pressures. Ignoring the procedures and regulations of the government, they usually make their own laws. They are usually related to the most infamous stories of Indians in the Darien, possibly because of their wild appearance, which has ignited the imagination of the myths creators.

Both men and women go almost naked. Men have a muscular body, women an abundance of black straight hair and wear earrings. Men use a cover-sex or loincloth called Guayuco (Andia in their dialect) and a handmade skirt originally made ​​from seeds and in recent times with plastic beads (used on special occasions) called Amburä, but when they visit the city they wear shirts and pants; in the actuality the men wear moderns cloths when they make some works. The women use modern skirts, with eye-catching fabrics known as Paruma (Gua in their dialect), and wrapped her body to the knees with them. Both the man and the woman decorate their body with tattoos done with a tinge of a fruit of the tree Genipa americana or jagua. They also use a red paint made from achiote, the seed pod orange-red that is commonly used to give color and flavor to Panamanian cuisine.

They are semi – nomadic and live independently in one or two small families groups. They build their shelters along the banks of rivers that serve as roads and their source of livelihood. Their house is a raised platform on stilts several feet above the ground. They sleep on mats made ​​from tree bark and hammocks for children. In most areas, hunting and fishing are important activities that confer male prestige, besides providing food. Hunting is solitary, usually with a shotgun and a dog. In the mountainous regions, the blowpipe is still a normal use. Two types of poisons are used to tip blowguns: one is a vegetable poison known as curare affecting the heart, and the other is derived from a kind of frog. The most common hunted species are deers, peccaries, armadillos, agoutis, monkeys,and various birds. They use different techniques in fishing: hook and line, spearing, netting, poison “mullein” and, more recently, scuba mask. Agriculture is the main activity. They grow mainly plantain product which they trade, as well as corn, rice, tubers, like yams, cassava and others.

The women make pottery, although at present this practice is being lost, and basketry plant fiber such as baskets, mats and ornaments. Men work with wood as canoes, benches, oars, pot lids, and work the Tagua (vegetable ivory) among others. They are also noteworthy for their elaborate and fine baskets, wood carvings of high quality, commands canes (using fine Cocobolo wood), and canes wood tailored according to the hierarchy of the position held in the Embera-Wounaan General Congress.

They use the pirogue, canoe built with espavé wood, cedar, cedar hawthorn and yellow pine. The life of the Embera – Wounaan unfolds around the rivers. They often use as a transport donkeys and horses to move within the region.