and Wounaan are two distinct indigenous groups that inhabit eastern
Panama and northwestern Colombia.
Embera people at the Ministry of the
Environment in Bogot√° protesting the construction of the Urr√°
The two different groups were formerly and widely known by the name
"Chocos", "Chocoe" or "Choco-Indians" because of their
autochthonous origins in the Pacific coastal Province of Choco in
Distribution and characteristics
They live in small isolated native villages mostly in the Dari√©n
Province of Panama along the Pacific coast opposite the Pearl
Islands, and along the many tributary watercourses of numerous
rivers, including the Chucunaque, Sambu, Tuira, Jaque, Balsas, and
Sabana Rivers; and along the tributaries of the San Juan River in
Due to the natives' ubiquitous presence in an otherwise lightly
populated jungle wilderness, as well as their cultural similarity,
late nineteenth century Colombian anthropologists lumped the two
cultures under the common rubric of "Chocoe". That inadvertent
scientific error has caused substantial confusion about the two
distinct groups for nearly 150 years. While linguistically their
native languages may contain up to 30 percent cognates, the spoken
languages are mutually unintelligible to indigenous Wounaan and
Embera. It is estimated that the two languages diverged
approximately 800 to 1200 years ago. Their similarity is roughly
equivalent to modern English and German.
Panamanian census counts estimate that there may be around 9,000
Wounaan and 22,000 Embera in that country. Population numbers in
Colombia reportedly may exceed those numbers for both groups.
Note: Waounan and Embera people have long shared the same territory
and their recent history and present culture is similar, so this
general information shall serve for both groups. This is not to
downplay the distinctions of the two, for they speak separate
languages, their traditional roles --Waounan were artists, and
Embera warriors--set them apart and they are organized politically
as separate groups.
They are short. Women wear colorful cloths from the waist down with
flowers on their heads and necklaces and men wear loincloths
. Loincloth (Guayuco in Waounan,
Taparabo in Spanish) and bead necklaces.
For trekking in the jungle, many indigenous men around the world
choose to wear a loincloth which only covers the genitals. It's
simplicity has long been likened to primitivism by missionaries and
westerners when in fact it is a very practical piece of clothing
for tropical jungle environments. Pants and long shirts soaked with
mud and water are heavy and burdensome and they facilitate skin
problems such as rashes and infections. The loincloth or taparabo
as it is known in Panama, is still worn regularly by a few elders
and on special occasions by most male villagers. The Waounan people
call them guayuco and Embera call it anelia. Due to influence from
the church and modern Latino society, most villagers have traded
their loincloths for pants or shorts.
Many people still walk barefoot in the bush but some prefer to wear
sandals. Shoes or sandals are a must when leaving the village to
visit neighbors to go to the Capital. In some villages, old people
still wear their loincloths, and more recently villages with a
desire to revive their cultures and attract tourism have restarted
to wear a loincloths made of colorful cotton. Some men enjoy
wearing on their bare chests bandoliers of plastic beads, but the
real trademark of both Wounan and Embera culture is ebony body
painting done with the juice of the jagua fruit.
Women are usually bare-chested, wearing only a skirt they call
paloma (Uhua in Embera). Originally their skirt was made with palm
fibers, today dyed cotton fabrics are purchased in Panama were they
are usually imported from South-East Asia. Women, like men, used to
cover their bodies regularly with the black dyes of jagua, a
practice still used for ceremonies. They cover their chests with
intricate plastic bead necklaces and ornamental collars made with
dozens of coins. Women also like to add a bit of red color on their
faces with the natural dye of achiote. Recently lipstick and rouge
have replaced achiote.
Jagua is an important fruit in the life of Embera and Waounan
people. It is used as a black dye to paint people's skins. The
pigment remains embedded in the skin until the external layer is
naturally exfoliated, generally lasting between 10 to 12 days. It
is indelible dark blue or black, like a two-week tattoo. The jagua
body painting is still in use for all celebrations and is one of
the most enduring and important customs for both Waounan and Embera
Both men and women practice body painting with the jagua fruit.
Some people cover nearly their full body. Even the lower half of
the face covered from a line extending back from the corners of the
mouth. Some designs are solid blocks of painting with small patches
of skin left open to show contrast. Others are elaborate patterns
drawn with delicate lines by artists with the thin tip of a bamboo
stick. Each design has its own meaning and each age group and
gender are assigned specific ones.
Waounan and Embera people make wide use of silver or gold jewelry.
Most common are wide bracelets and arm and ankle bands. For special
celebrations and dances women will wear heavy necklaces made from
coins hung from and woven into a lattice of string. For regular
use, both men and women will wear more simple necklaces crafted of
metal from melted coins
Originally semi-nomadic forest dweller the Embera and Waounan were
known as hunter-gatherers. They hunted with blowpipes and poisonous
darts--a technique still in practice in Colombia--bows and arrows
and long spears. In addition to hunting, people also set traps for
rodents and birds. The most common targets for hunters were deer,
wild boar, coati-mundi, gneke, etc.
A significant part of the diet came from the collection of jungle
plants, fruits, heart of palm, roots and tubers.
Houses were traditionally built very high on stilts, up to ten
feet. At those heights the house was protected from wild animals
such as the feared jaguar called locally tigre (tiger), wild boar,
rodents etc. It also offered protection from flooding and even from
other people. Houses today are still built on stilts but not as
high (the threat of invaders and jaguars is less of a concern),
just a few feet of the ground to avoid the flooding of the rainy
season and to prohibit the invasion of the insects that nest and
congregate in the grasses. People climb into their house using a
log in which they carve small steps.
Traditional houses are composed of a single room with the fire pit
at one end and living space at the other. One or two sides are
closed with walls of bamboo or other wood. Walls offer some privacy
but by leaving half of the house open, breezes serve to cool the
house and keep insects from congregating. The roofs are made of
thatch.Schools in most villages have been built by the government
and their concrete structures are a striking contrast to the
thatched-roofed organic feel of the houses of the village.Each
village has its casa communal used for official meetings, to
receive guests, or for ceremonies. Traditionally communal houses
were crowned with large round, sloping roofs and are by far the
largest structure in the village
Their government is political and administrative, with General
Chiefs as maximum authority and sahilas
for each village.
Waounan people are famous crafters. It is believed that they were
the original basket weavers and wood carvers of the region. Today
most indigenous groups produce versions of their canastas and
cocobolo carvings. The Embera people have adopted the techniques
and have expert artists of their own.
References & External links