Indigenous Emberá Indians of Panama

Indigenous Emberá Indians of Panama

Blog by Debra Harwood


Embera ladies


Panama is home to different and distinct Indigenous tribes and here at Casa de Montaña, from time-to-time, we will be sharing a little bit about each tribe through our blogs. We begin with the Emberá (Choco) Indians who live in the Darien province of Panama.

In the late 1700’s the Emberá began migrating from the Choco region of modern-day Colombia into what is now called the Darien Province. They also settled as far west as Gatun Lake in the areas of what would later be called the Canal Zone.

The Emberá homes are constructed of natural materials and are raised around 8ft off the ground. They cook in their homes by using 3 large logs placed on a dirt bed then lit at the ends and pushed close together so a pot can rest on them. When done cooking they just pull back the logs until needed again. Originally they did not live in villages but around 1950’s started to form small settlements along the bank of the rivers which play a central role in daily life for fishing, bathing, transport, and many domestic chores.

embera home

emberea boat

embera cooking







Boats have also played important roles in Emberá tradition. The craft of constructing dugout canoes was historically a very significant skill for Emberá men, at times serving as a rite of passage or prerequisite for marriage according to history.

The main crops cultivated by the Emberá are plantains, bananas, corn, sugar cane, rice, beans, and yucca root. Unfortunately, slash and burn techniques are still in wide use and soil depletion and deforestation are problems in many areas.

child with inktatooing

Jagua is an important fruit in the life of Emberá 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 the Emberá people.

The canasta is the famous woven basket of the Emberá. It is made out of a fiber people call chunga and is so tightly woven that it can hold water! These baskets vary in sizes and colors but all are labor intensive to make. Master weavers can take up to six months to finish a large piece which might sell to a collector for over a thousand dollars. Most women make smaller pieces to sell to tourists. So remember when you see these baskets that a lot of time has gone into creating them so maybe this once you can forget about trying to barter.

baskets 2

Today there are approximately 33,000 people living in Panama and 50,000 in Colombia who identify as Emberá.

An established Emberá alphabet has been officially recognized by the government of Panama, consisting of:

21 consonants (b,b, ch, d,d, dy, g, j, k, 1, m, n, p, r, rr, s, t, v, w, y, z) and

12 vowels (a, e, i, o, u, ʌ, ấ, ẽ, ĩ, ő, ũ, λ)


To date, there have been very few books published in the Emberá language. These are mostly educational materials produced by the Panamanian government or by Christian missionaries. The most significant of these to date is a Bible translation containing the Old Testament and parts of the New Testament.

Here is a YouTube video about Emberá people that you may find interesting:

I can truly say that the Emberá are a kind and happy people. My childhood years were spent living on the Rio Chico as my parents were missionaries in the Darien region for over 25 years. From these gentle sweet people I learned that the accumulation of money and worldly possession do not bring contentment or happiness to one’s life.

men and women

At Casa de Montaña Bed & Breakfast, we are always curious about learning more and more about the indigenous people of Panama and the customs that make Panama so diverse and welcoming! We will post additional blogs in the future to provide additional information about the indigenous cultures. When you stay with, let’s talk about this and other topics (such as your cultural heritage) during our vibrant Social Hour. I am really proud to be a Panamanian who was fortunate enough to be raised in an environment that truly supported and nurtured me. See you soon at Casa de Montaña!



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