What Are the Seven Indigenous Cultures of Panama?

Panama is a true melting pot; most of its inhabitants are Spanish and Indian, or mestizo or Spanish, Indian, West Indian, and Chinese. Sprinkled in are Middle Eastern, Yugoslav, North American, and Swiss cultures. Before these ethnicities met and blended to create the cosmopolitan atmosphere for which Panama is known, there were indigenous tribes that hunted, gathered, and carved out their own traditions in the land. There are seven distinct indigenous cultures, each of which is rich in history and culture.

Over five percent of Panama’s population is comprised of indigenous peoples of the Kuna, Embera, Waounan, Ngobe, Bugle, Nassau, and Teribe cultures. Let’s take a look at the most prominent of these cultures.

Kuna. The Kuna people live primarily on the San Blas Islands, who maintain their own government. This culture within a culture has traditionally been a “warrior” tribe and they have managed to survive by being open to modernization. At the same time, they work to retain their unique culture and honor their history. Visitors will find the bright molas a wonderful souvenir to take home with them. More than clothing, the molas are works of art.

Ngobe Bugle

The Ngobe Bugle territory was established in the 1990s, and members of these two cultural groups are scattered throughout the mountainous region. Agriculture, primarily banana and coffee plantations, are important to the cultures’ economy, and the tribes are increasingly known for their handicrafts. Chaquiras, or necklaces and bracelets made with plastic beads, are especially popular. The Ngobe Bugle cultures represent over 63 percent of Panama’s indigenous population and are concentrated in the Bocas del Toro, Veraguas, and Chiriqui provinces.

Embera Waounan

The Embera Waounan peoples were originally from South America and now live in the Darien Jungle in a comarca, or territory. They earn their livelihoods from agriculture, fishing, and hunting. Visiting gives the traveler the sense of going back in time as you look at the traditional clothing, body paint, and jewelry of the people. Signs of modernization – such as cell phones – contrast with old-world carvings and handicrafts to create a thoroughly unique culture.

Most of Panama’s population lives in urban areas and the country is full of 21st Century technology and amenities. The indigenous peoples, though, help give us not only a glimpse of life a century ago, but also insight into how these proud cultures are striving to retain their identity while adapting to the modern world.