History

Living within the boundaries of the Darién, the group commonly known as the Chocóes emigrated from Colombia's Chocó region long ago. Anthropologists divide the indigenous people here into two groups – the Emberá and the Wounaan – though, language apart, the groups’ cultural features are identical. Both groups prefer to be thought of as two separate peoples though.

Before the introduction of guns, the Emberá and Wounaan were experts with the boroquera (blowgun), using darts envenomed with lethal toxins from poisonous frogs and bullet ants. Many scholars believe these groups forced the Guna out of the Darién and into the Caribbean coastal area and islands they now inhabit.

The Emberá and Wounaan are known for their incredibly fine dugout canoes. Known as piraguas, they have shallow bottoms that are ideal for use in the dry season when rivers run low. The Panama Canal Authority has long employed Emberá and Wounaan craftspeople to make the piraguas used to reach the upper parts of the canal’s watershed. At the same time, as late as the 1990s, the US Air Force solicited Emberá and Wounaan help with jungle living. Many of them trained US astronauts and pilots at Fort Sherman, near Colón, in tropical-wilderness survival.

Today the majority of the nearly 10,000 Emberá and Wounaan in Panama (another 6000 or so are in Colombia) live deep in the rainforests of the Darién, particularly along the Ríos Sambú, Jaqué, Chico, Tuquesa, Membrillo, Tuira, Yapé and Tucutí.