Panama Mission Relief - Embera


The Emberá and Wounaan are two distinct indigenous groups that inhabit eastern Panamá and northwestern Colombia.

They live in small isolated villages mostly in the Darién Province of Panamá 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 Colombia.

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 northwestern Colombia.

While linguistically their native languages may contain up to 30 percent cognates, the spoken languages are mutually unintelligible to indigenous Wounaan and Emberá. 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.

Wouanan and Emberá people have long shared the same territory and their recent history and present culture is similar. Originally semi-nomadic forest dweller the Emberá 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, capabari, and agouti. 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.

Both Wounaan and Emberá have within their native religeous beliefs the concept of a Creator God who made everything including man. The Emberá have a creation story which includes the first man being formed out of clay. There is even something similar to a flood story in their oral traditions. Both groups are anamistic in their beliefs.

They readily accept teaching about God and His son Jesus and have general concepts of right and wrong as well as a rough moral code.

Besides their native languages most Emberá and Wounaan speak and understand limited Spanish. Translations are currently underway to provide the entire Bible in both languages. This should be finished sometime 2016.

Recently both Wounaan and Emberá villages on the Colombian side of the border are suffering attacks by communist guerilla groups which are funded by the illegal drug trade. Many have fled and become refugees in neighboring countries.

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