Embera Traditions

The name “Embera” means “people.” Collectively they are known as the Chocó. The Chocó, or Embera people live in small villages of 5 to 20 houses along the banks of the rivers throughout the Chucunaque/Tuira/Balsas River watersheds in the Darien Province of Panama. There are generally three villages on each tributary that branches off from the main river system. Each village is about a half day’s walk apart. The villages are built on a small rise, set approximately 100 feet in from the river. The houses of the village are set about 20– 50 feet apart atop the rise on posts, with no walls, but tall thatched roofs. Around each village, the jungle is partly cleared and replaced by banana and plantain plantations, a commercial crop for the Embera, who sell them to get cash for their outboard motors, mosquito nets, and the like.

Traditionally, and sometimes even now the men sport “bowl cut” hair styles, and when not in towns, may still wear nothing but a minimal loin cloth. The women wear brightly colored cloth wrapped at the waist as a skirt. Except when in towns, the women do not cover their torsos, and wear long, straight black hair. The children go naked until puberty, and no one wears shoes.

They paint their bodies with a dye made from the berry of a species of genip tree. The black dye is thought to repel insects. On special occasions, using this same dye, they print intricate geometric patterns all over their bodies with wood blocks carved from balsa wood. The women traditionally wear silver necklaces and silver earrings on special occasions; many of the necklaces being made of old silver coins. They punch a hole in the coin and run a silver chain through it. Many of the coins on these necklaces date to the 19th century and are passed down from mother to daughter.

photos: Eric Lafforgue