To make my writing go a little easier, I have copied some excerpts from the Culture chapter of the Lonely Planet – Panamá:
Of the several dozen native tribes that inhabited Panama when the Spanish arrived, only seven now remain. Perhaps the most well-known group in the West, due to their distinctive dress, are the Kuna, who inhabit the Archipiélago de San Blás and run their native lands as a comarca (autonomous region).
The Emberá and Wounaan inhabit the jungle of the eastern Panamá Province and the Darién, and although both groups distinguish themselves from one another, the difference is more linguistic than cultural. Historically, both groups have eked out a living on the edges of the jungles through hunting, fishing, subsistence farming and rearing livestock, though rapidly increasing deforestation has reduced the extent of their traditional lands.
The Emberá are also exceptional woodcarvers and basket weavers. Traditionally the men carved boas, frogs and birds from the dark cocobolo hardwood, though recently they have taken to carving tiny animal figurines out of the rock-hard tagua nut.
The women produce some of the finest baskets in Latin America, which are woven from palm fibers, and require several months of intensive labor to complete. Both carvings and baskets fetch a high market price, and provide a much-needed secondary income for most communities.
Emberá homes are extremely well suited to the rainforest environment. Built on stilts that are 3m to 4m off the ground, the floors consist primarily of surprisingly thin, but amazingly strong, strips of palm bark. This vaulted design protects occupants and food from ground pests and swollen rivers, and the palm bark is plentiful in the forest and easy to fashion. A log with stairs carved into it provides easy access to the home.
To permit breezes to enter, more than half of the typical Emberá and Wounaan home is open-sided. The roofs are made of thatch, which keeps the rain out and acts as good insulation against the tropical sun. The kitchen typically occupies one corner and has an oven made of mud. Beneath the home, medicinal plants and edible vegetables and roots are grown. Pigs and poultry are often raised in pens.
Over the past few decades, the Emberá have gradually replaced their traditional attire with Western clothing. Except for a few older individuals, the men have set aside their loincloths for short pants and now prefer short-sleeved shirts to going around bare-chested.
The women, who traditionally wore only a skirt, increasingly don bras and some have taken to wearing shirts as well. Many still wear traditional jewelry, especially wide silver bracelets and elaborate necklaces made of silver coins.
Today, the majority of Emberá inhabits the fringes of the Darién, and lives beyond the range of destruction brought forth by loggers, farmers and ranchers. However, an increasing number of communities are turning to tourism for survival, particularly in the Canal Zone where traditional lifestyles are no longer feasible.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD