Where do the Wounaan come from?

The creation story of the Wounaan of Panama tells that in the beginning the creator was carving a Woun (a Wounaan person) out of cocobolo (rosewood), but his hand slipped and he cut himself, so he molded the first Woun out of clay instead. Interestingly, Panama is the southernmost extent of cocobolo’s range, and in the Colombian Wounaan stories, cocobolo is not mentioned. Traditionally, the Wounaan shamans in Panama made their curing staffs out of cocobolo, but apparently the use of cocobolo for making their well-known, lifelike animal carvings didn’t start until a few decades ago.

The earliest reports from Spanish missionaries and explorers make very little mention of Wounaan settlements outside of Colombia. In part this could be because many Wounaan (traditional enemies of the Kuna) reportedly moved into areas of the Darien previously inhabited by Kuna people who were forced out by a Spanish edict. At that time the Wounaan were living in very small, remote settlements along rivers not likely to be visited by early chroniclers. Apparently the Kuna lived in organized villages where the Spanish could interact with them, while the Wounaan were more nomadic and likely to terrify outsiders with their body painting and poisonous blow darts. Good archaeological evidence of habitation in the Darien is scant, telling us only that there was substantial human habitation (but not by whom) in the region at least 3,000 years ago. In any case, the Wounaan seem to have increased their numbers in the Darien during the 18th and 19th centuries respectively, and by the 1960s, their population stretched as far as Panama Province, just east of the Panama Canal (Herlihy 1986).