Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


The Choco Indians of Darien Province, eastern Panama, are one of the least accessible and unacculturated aboriginal groups in Central America. Divided into Embera and Wounan speakers, they number just over 11,000, or about one-fourth of the Choco who live throughout the Pacific lowlands of Colombia and Panama. This study, a traditional cultural geography, documents Choco life in Panama, with emphasis on the process of recent village formation. One village, Lajas Blancas, served as an example for a detailed documentation of agricultural systems and settlement forms. Data were also collected from 42 other communities during August 1981, and from August 1982 to July 1983. For centuries the Choco hearth has been along the Pacific coast of Colombia. During the colonial period, the Indians gradually moved northward into Panama where, by the late nineteenth century, they had settled the lower sections of most large rivers. By the 1950s, they reached the Canal. The Darien Choco have lived in relative isolation with few notable cultural changes. Dispersed in single-family house- holds, they have practiced slash-mulch, slash-burn, and dooryard orchard-garden cultivation adjacent to their post-dwellings. Hunting, fishing, animal husbandry, and pet-keeping round out their economy. Traditional Choco life was altered during the 1960s. Missionary influence and Choco desires to educate their children brought teachers, schools, and settlement agglomeration. Government involvement and international concerns about the spread of hoof- and-mouth disease from Colombia brought more contacts with Panamanian nationals. Another agent of change was a peculiar individual nicknamed Peru. Living inside Choco society, he helped initiate a movement to gain national support and a semi-autonomous political unit (comarca). The movement was supported strongly by the popular government of Omar Torrijos. The most obvious recent change in the human landscape of Darien is settlement agglomeration. Since 1953, 75 percent of the Choco have clustered into 53 villages. Village life has a new spatial organization of economic activities. Agriculture remains the major component, but now slash-burn fields produce for a growing cash market, as well as for local consumption. Deforestation and subsistence hunting pressures have depleted plant and wildlife resources. Still, the future appears bright for the Darien Choco and one might conclude that Panama has performed well as its Indians confront modernization.