The Cuna Indians of Darien,

Panamá, in 1681

In 1681, Lionel Wafer, an English Buccaneer and surgeon, was on the Isthmus of Darien, when he was severely injured by an accidental explosion of a barrel of gunpowder. Unable to move, he was nursed back to health by the local Cuna Indians of the area. He spent four months under their care. While there, he studied the geography, the natural history  and culture of the area and its inhabitants. His experiences while under the care of the Cuna, stimulated him into writing a book, "New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of Panama", published in 1699. This book is an important reference describing in excellent detail the natural history and inhabitants of Spanish America during these times. The three illustrations below, are by Wafer and his description of the Cuna Indians of Darien. The accompanying text is a direct quote from this book, and I have attempted not to change anything he wrote.


The following section is a copy of Wafers description of the appearance and dress of the Cuna Indians: (Note, they do not make and ware Molas, in 1681, they do body painting.). 

"They make Figures of Birds, Beasts, Men, Trees, or the like, up and ,down in every part of the Body, more especially the Face, but the Figures are not extraordinary like what they represent, and are of differing Dimensions, as their Fancies lead them.

"The Women are the Painters, and take a great delight in it. The Colours they like and use most are Red, Yellow and Blue, very bright and lovely. temper them with some kind of Oil, and keep them in Cashes for use; and ordinarily lay them on the Surface of the Skin with Pencils of Wood, gnaw'd at the end to the softness of a Brush. So laid on, they will last some Weeks, and are renew'd continually. This way they painted me.

"But finer Figures, especially by their greater Artists, are imprinted deeper, after this manner. They first with the Brush and Colour make a rough Draught of the Figure they design; then they prick all over with a sharp Thorn till tho Blood gushes out; then they rub the place with their Hands, first dipp'd in the Colour they design; and the Picture so made is indelible. But scarce one in forty of them is painted this way.

"One of my Companions desired me once to get out of his Cheek one of these imprinted Pictures, which was made by the Negroes, his Name ways Bullman; which yet I could not effectually do, after much scarifying and fetching off a great part of the Skin. The Men, when they go to War, paint the Faces all over with Red; and the Shouldiers, Breast, and the rest of the Bodies, here with Black, and there with Yellow, or any other Colour at pleasure, in large Spots; all which they wash off at Night in the River before they go to sleep.

"They wear no Cloaths, ordinarily; but only the Women have a Clout or piece of Cloth about their middle, tied behind with a Thread, and hanging down to their Knees; or Ankles, if they can get one large enough. They make these of Cotton; but sometimes they meet with some old Cloaths got by trucking with their Neighbour Indians subject to the Spaniards; and these they are very proud of. Mr Dampier relates how we prevail'd with a morose Indian, by presenting his Wife with a Sky-colour'd Petticoat, and nothing will oblige the Women more than to give them Cloaths, es of Gaudy Colours.

"The Men go ordinarily quite naked, without so much as a Clout about them, which few other Indians are without. But these have only a small Vessel of Gold or Silver, if they are able, or at least a piece of Plantain-Leaf, of a Conick Figure, like the Extinguisher of a Candle. They forceably bear back the Penis within its own Tegument, close to the Pubes; and they keep it therewith this Funnel tied hard upon it, with a String coming from it, and going about their Waists. They leave the Scrotum expos'd, having no Sense of Shame with reference to that, as they have with respect to the Penis, which they never shew uncover'd. But the Men will turn away their Faces even from one another, if by accident it be uncovered; and when they would make Water, they turn their Backs to their Companions, and squatting down, slip off the Funnel with one Hand, and having done, put it on again very nimbly. When they would go to Stool, they choose always to go into the River, both Men and Women; having a great Sense of Shame as to that particular. And in general, they are both a modest and a cleanly People.

"Yet the Men also have a value for Cloaths; and if any of them had an old Shirt given him by any of us, he would be sure to wear it, and strut about at no ordinary rate. Besides this, they have a sort of long Cotton Garments of their own, some white, others of a rusty black, shap'd like our Carter's Frocks, hanging down to their Heels, with a Fringe of the same of Cotton about a Span long, and short, wide, open Sleeves, reaching but to the middle of their Arms. These Garments they put on over their Heads, but they are worn only on some great Occasions, as attending the King or Chief, either at a Feast, a Wedding especially'; or sitting in Council, or the like. They don't march in them, but the Women carry these and their other Ornaments in Baskets after them; which they put on when they come to the Place of Assembly, and there make themselves as fine as. they can., When they are thus assembled, they will sometimes walk about the Place or Plantation where they are, with these their Robes on, and I once saw Lacenta thus walking about with 2 or 300 of these attending him, as if he was mustering them. And I took notice that those in.the black Gowns walk'd before him, and the white after him, each having their Launces of the same colour with their Robes.

"For an Ornament to the Face, beside their general painting and daubing their Cheeks with Red when they go to War, the Men wear at all times a piece of Plate hanging over their Mouths, generally of Silver, but the principal Men have it of Gold. ‘Tis of an Oval Figure, covering the Mouth from corner to corner; and this is the length of it. It reaches so low as to ly upon the Under-lip with its lowest side; and there is a piece cut out of the upper side, near the Extremity of it; which Edge being cut asunder, the whole Plate is like the Figure of Half-moon, only inclining more to an Oval; and gently pinching the Bridle of the Nose with its Points, it hangs dangling from thence. It is in the middle of about the thickness of a Guinea; but. grows thinner gradually towards the Edge. The Plates of this size are such as they use when they go to a Feast or Council, but that which they wear abroad upon a long March, Hunting, or at ordinary times, is of the same shape, but much smaller, and does not cover their Lips. Such an one I wore among them of Gold.

"Instead of this Plate, the Women wear a Ring hanging down in the same manner; and the Metal and Size also differing according to their Rank, and the Occasion. The larger sort is of the thickness of a Goose-quill; and not Oval, as the Mens Plates, but Circular. It goes through the Bridle of the Nose; which many times, by its weight and long use, especially in Elder Women, it brings down to the Mouth.

"Both Men and Women, at solemn Meals or Feasts, when they wear their larger Plates or Rings, take them out, and lay them aside till they have done Eating; when rubbing them very clean and bright, they put them in again. At other times, when they eat or drink, they content themselves with lifting up with the left Hand, if need be, the small Plates or Rings they then wear, (and the Womens Rings are seldom so small but they lie upon the Lips) while they use their right Hand in taking up the Cup or feeding themselves. And by the way, they always make the chief use of their Right Hands, and I never perceiv'd a Left-handed Person among them. Neither the Plates nor Rings hinder much their Speaking, tho' they lie bobbing upon their Lips.

"The King or Chief, and some few of the great ones, at extraordinary times, wear in each Ear, fastned to a Ring there, two large Gold Plates, one hanging before to the Breast, and the other behind on the Shoulder. They are about a Span long, of an Heart fashion (as that is commonly painted) with the Point downward; having on the upper part a narrow Plate or Label, about three or four Inches long, by an hole in which it hangs to the Ring in the Ear. It wears great holes in the Ears by frequent use.

"I once saw Lacenta, in a great Council, wear a Diadem of Gold-plate, like a Band about his Head, eight or nine inches broad, jagged at top like the Teeth of a Saw, and lined on the inside with a Net-work of small Canes. And all the armed Men, who then attended him in Council, wore on their Heads such a Band, but like a Basket of Canes, and so jagged, wrought fine, and painted very handsomely, for the most part red; but not cover'd over with a Gold-plate as Lacenta's was., The top of these was set round with long Feathers, of several of the most beautiful Birds, stuck upright in a Ring or Crown. But Lacenta had no Feathers on his Diadem.

"Beside these particular Ornaments there are yet other general ones, which they all wear, Men, Women, and Children of seven or eight Years old, in proportion to their Age. These are several Strings or Chains of Teeth, Shells, Beads, or the like, hanging from the Neck down upon the Breast, and to the pit of a Stomach. The Teeth-chains are curiously made with Teeth jagged like a Saw in several Rows, so contriv'd as that the Prominencies of the one Row may lie in the Notches of the other, and look like one solid Mass of Bone. This was worn only by Lacenta, and some few of the principal Men, on particular Occasions; and they put them on over the rest of their Beads. We us'd to call these, Tygers-teeth, though I know not for what Reason; for I never saw any such Creature there. Yet I have been inform'd there are Tygers on this Continent. Some of our Men who cross'd the Isthmus, told me, they kill'd one there; and at another time, when we went over with Capt. Sharp, some of the Men said they saw a Tyger, who stood at a small distance, and star'd upon them. I have heard also that there is a small sort, but very fierce, in the Bay of Campechy.

"But for the rest of them, both Men and Women, they wear not any Teeth, but only a few scattering sometimes here and there in the Chains, among the rest of the Baubles. Each of them has, it may be, about the Neck 3 or 400 Strings of Beads, Shells, or the like, but these divided into 7 or 8 Ranks; and the Strings of each, by being turn'd a little about one another, make, as it were, so many Ropes of them. These hang usually one below another, yet in no great order; and the Women generally have theirs hanging all on a Heap or Cluster. Whatever Bugles or other such Toys they get, they find a place for them among their Chains; which the heavier they be, the more ornamental. She is a poor Woman who has not fifteen or twenty Pound weight upon her; some have thirty or more; and the Men have commonly near twice as much in weight as the Women, according as their Strength is, and their Ability to compass them.

"When they are in the House, or on Hunting, or going to War, they wear none of these Chains; but only when they would appear in State, upon occasion of a Feast, Wedding, Council, or the like. As they go to the place of Rendezvous, the Women carry them for them, as they do their other Trinkets, in Baskets; one at each end of a Pole laid across the Shoulder. When they come to the place, they put them on, and walk about; and sometimes will dance in them; till with the Motion and Weight they Sweat extreamly. When they sit down to eat, they take them off till they have done.

"The Children have only a few small Chains; and a String or two of Beads or Bugles they will put upon their very infants. And the Women, besides these Chains, have sometimes Bracelets about their Arms, of a small quantity of the same Materials twisted several times about. Both Men and Women, when painted, and. set out with - all these Fineries, make no ordinary Figure."

The Indian's Manner of Bloodletting

The following is Wafer's description of the method used by the Cuna Indian's for  bloodletting:

"We had not been long here before an Occurrence happen'd, which tended much to the increasing the good Opinion Lacenta and his People had conceiv'd of us, and brought me into particular Esteem with them.

"It so happen'd, that one of Lacenta's Wives being indisposed, was to be let Blood; which the Indians perform in this Manner: The Patient is seated on a Stone in the River, and one with a small Bow shoots little Arrows in the naked Body of the Patient, up and down; shooting them as fast as he can, and not missing any Part. But the Arrows are gaged, so that they penetrate no farther than we generally thrust our Lancets: And if by chance they hit a Vein which is full of Wind and the Blood spurts out a little they will leap and skip about, shewing many Antick Gestures, by way of Rejoycing and Triumph.

"I was by while this was performing on Lacenta's Lady: And perceiving their Ignorance told Lacenta, that if he pleased, I would shew him a better way, without putting the Patient to so much Torment. Let me see, says he; and at his Command I bound up her Arm with a Piece of Bark, and with my Lancet breathed a Vein: But this rash Attempt had like to have cost me my Life. For Lacenta seeing the Blood issue out in a Stream, which us'd to come Drop by Drop, got hold of his Lance and swore by his Tooth, that if she did any otherwise than well, he would have my Heart's Blood. I was not moved, but desired him to be patient, and I drew off about 12 Ounces, and bound up her Arm, and desired she might rest till the next Day: By which Means the Fever abated, and she had not another Fit. This gain'd me so much Reputation, that Lacenta came to me, and before all his Attendants, bowed and kiss'd my Hand. Then the rest came thick about me, and some kissed my Hand, others my Knee, and some my Foot: After which I was taken up in a Hammock, and carried on Men's Shoulders, Lacenta himself making a Speech in my Praise, and commending me as much superiour to any of their Doctors. Thus I was carried about from Plantation to Plantation, and lived in great Splendour and Repute, administring both Physick and Phlebotomy to those that wanted. For though I lost my Salves and Plaisters, when the Negro ran away with my Knapsack, yet I preserv'd a Box of Instruments, and a few Medicaments wrapt up in an Oil Cloth, by having them in my Pocket, where I generally carried them."

Notes: Lacenta was the Casique of the Cuna Indians on the north side of the Isthmus of Darien. At this time, the Cuna's lived primarily on Tierra Firme, and occupied all of the land on the north side of the mountain range, all the way to the sea. They did not all live on the islands, as they do today.

The Indians in their Bohio in Counsel

This is the description Wafer wrote about their homes:

"Their Houses. lie mostly thin and scattering, especially in New Plantations, an, always by a River-side. But in some Places there are a pretty many together, so as to make a Town or Village, yet not standing close or orderly; in .Rows or Streets, but dispers'd here, and there, like our Villages on Commons, or in Woodlands. They have Plantations lying about them, some at a nearer; others at a greater distance; reserving still a Place to build the common War-house on. They change not their Seats or Houses, unless either for fear of the Neighbouring Spaniards, if they think them too much acquainted with the place of their Abode; or to mend their Commons, when the Ground is worn out of Heart; for they never manure not.

"In building, they lay'no Foundations; only dig Holes .two or three Feet asunder; in which they set small Posts upright, of an equal heighth, of 6, 7, or 8 Foot high. The Walls are walled up with Sticks, and daub'd over with Earth, and from these Walls .the Roof runs up in small Rafters, meeting in a Ridge, and cover'd with Laves of some Trees of the Palm kind.

"The Building .is all irregular. The Length is about 24 or 25 Foot; the Breadth proportionable., There is no Chimney, but the Fire is made in a middle of the House, on the Ground; the Smoke going out at a hole on the, top, or. at Crevises in the Thatch. The House is not so much parted into. Rooms, as all of it a Cluster of Hovels, joining together into one House. No Stories, no Doors, nor Shelves; nor other Seats, than Logs of Wood. Every one of the Family has a Hammock tied up, hanging from end to end of the Hovel or Room.

"Several Houses in a Village or Neighbourhood, have one War-house or Fort in common to them; which is at least 120 or 130 Foot long, about 25 broad, the Wall about 9 or 10 Foot high; and in all to the top of the Ridge about 20 Foot; and cover'd with Leaves as their other Houses. The Materials and Method of Building are also much the same as in the other Houses; but there are no Partitions. The sides and Ends of these War-houses are full of Holes, each about as wide as ones Fist; but made here and there at Random, in no regular Figure or Order. Out of these they view an approaching Enemy, and shoot their Arrows. They have no way of flanking an Enemy.

"These Houses are always seated on a Level, on the Nap or Edge of a gentle Hill; and they clear the Coast of Woods acid Shrubs, for a Bows-shoot quite round it. There is a Door-way at each end; and to Barricado it, a sort of Door made of Macaw-wood and Bamboes, both split and bound together with Withs; 'tis about a Foot thick. This they have ready to set up against an

"Enemies entrance; and two or three Posts in the Ground to support it. 'Tis a great inconvenience of these Forts that they are easily set a Fire; and the Spaniards shoot into the Thatch Arrows with long Shanks made red hot, for that purpose. There is usually a Family of Indians living in the War-house, as a Guard to it, and to keep it clean, and they are always kept pretty neat, as their private Houses also are. The War-houses serve them also to hold their Councils, or other general Meetings.

"In the Plantations, among their Houses, they set so much of Plantains, Maiz, or the like, as serves their Occasions. The Country being all a Forest, the first thing of their Husbandry is usually to cut down the Trees, and clear a piece of Ground. They often let the Trees lie along on the Place 3 or 4 Years after they are cut down; and then set fire to them and the Underwood or Stumps, burning all together. Yet in the mean time they plant Maiz among the Trees as they lie. So much of the Roots of the Trees as are under Ground, they suffer to lie there and rot, having no way to grub them up. When the Ground is pretty dear, they how it up into little Ridges and Hillocks; but in no very good Form nor regular Distance. In each of these Hillocks they make a hole with their Fingers, and throw in 2 or 3 Grains of Maiz, as we do Garden-beans; covering it up with Earth. The Seed-time is about April; the Harvest about September or October. They pluck off the Ears of the Maiz with their Hands, as is usual also elsewhere. And tho' I was not there in their Harvest-time, yet I saw the Maiz of the preceding Harvest laid up in the Husk in their Houses. Instead of Threshing, they rub off the Grain. They make no Bread of it, nor Cakes, but use the Flower on many Occasions; parching the Corn, and grinding it between two Stones, as Chocolate is made. One use they put the Flower to is to mix it with Water in a Calabash, and so drink it off; which they do frequently when they Travel, and have not leisure to get other Provisions. This mixture they call Chicha, which I think signifies Maiz.

"They make a Drink also of their Maiz, which they call Chichah Co-pals; for Co-pah signifies Drink. They steep in a Trough of Water a quantity of Maiz bruised, about 20 or 30 Bushels, if it be against a Feast or Wedding; letting it lie so long till the Water is impregnated with the Corn, and begins to turn sour. Then the Women, usually some old Women, who have little else to do, come together, and chew Grains of Maiz in their Mouths, which they spit out each into a Gourd or Calabash: And when they think they have a sufficient quantity of this Spittle and Maiz in the Calabashes, they empty them into the Trough of Water, after having first taken out the Maiz that was infus'd in it; and this serves instead of Barm or Yeast, setting all the Trough of Liquor in a small Ferment. When it has done working, they draw it off clcan from the Sediment into anothcr Trough, and thcn 'tis ready for use. It tasts like sour small Beer, yet 'tis very intoxicating. They drink large Quantities of it, and are very fond of it. It makes them belch very much. This is their choice Drink; for ordinarily they drink plain Water or Mislaw.

"Mislaw is a Drink made of ripe Plantains. There is of two sorts, one made of Plantains fresh-gather'd, the other of dry ones. The former they roast in its Cod, which peeling off, they put. The Plantain into a Calabash of Water, and mash it with their Hands, fill 'tis all dissolved; and then they drink it ap with the Water. The other is made of Cakes or Lumps of Plantain dried; for the Plantains when ripe and gather'd will not keep, but quickly grow rotten if left in the Cod. To preserve them therefore, they make a Mass of the Pulp of a great many ripe Plantains, which they dry with a gentle Fire upon a Barbecue or Grate of Sticks, made like a Grid-iron. This Lump they keep for use, breaking off apiece of it when they please, and mashing it in Water for Mislaw. They carry a Lump of Plantain with them for this end whenever they travel; especially into Places where they can't hope to get ripe Plantains, tho' they prefer the dried ones. Green and half-ripe ones they eat instead of Bread with Flesh;. but they boil them first. They do the same 'with their Yams and Potato's, which they sometimes roast; as also the Cassava-root. And their Plantations are never without some or other of these, and usually in good plenty; especially the old Plantations.

"I saw no Herbs or Sallading in their Plantations, neither did I ever see them eat any kind of Herbs. But they never forget to have in their Plantations some of their beloved Pepper; and they usually are pretty well stor'd with ''Pine-Apples, which they have very plentiful, and eat of them every Day.

"The Men first clear the Plantations, and bring them into order, but. the Women have all the trouble of them afterwards; the digging, howing, planting, plucking the Maiz, and setting

"Yams, and every thing of Husbandry, is left to them, but only the cutting down Trees, or such Work that requires greater Strength. The Women also have the managing Affairs within Doors, for they are in general the Drudges of the Family; especially the old Women, for such Works as they are able to do, as Cooking, Washing; and the like. And abroad also the Women are to attend their Husbands, and do all their Servile Work. Nay, they are little better than their Pack-horses, carrying all the Luggage of their Honshold-Utensils, Victuals, &c. and when they come to the place where they are to lodge, the Wife dresses Supper, while the Man hangs up the Hammocks; for each of them lies in their own Hammock.

"But notwithstanding the Women are put thus to all manner of Drudgery, about the House and Plantations, and in Travelling abroad, and are little better than Slaves to their Husbands; yet they do their Work so readily and cheerfully, that it appears to be rather their own Choice than any Necessity laid upon them. They are in general very good condition'd, pitiful and courteous to one another, but especially to Strangers; ready to give any just attendance or assistance they can. They observe their Husbands with a profound Respect and Duty upon all occasions; and on the other side their Husbands are very kind and loving to them. I never knew an Indian beat his Wife, or give her any hard Words. Nor even in the Quarrels which they are wont to have in their Cups, do they shew any Roughness toward their Women who attend them.

"Besides these Cares, the Women have that which more immediately belongs to them, the Care of their Children. When a Woman is deliver'd of a Child, another Woman takes it in her Arms within half an hour or less after 'tis born, and takes the lying-in Woman upon her Back, and goes with both of them into. the River and washes them there. The Child for the first Month is tied upon a Board, or piece of Macaw-wood split (for that serves them usually for Boards, having no Saws) and this piece of Wood is swathed to the Back of the Child; and their Children generally ow very strcight. When there is occasion to clean the Child, thry take it off from the Board, and wash it with cold Water; and then swath it on again. The Mother takes up the Child to give it Suck, Board and all, and lays it down again in a little Hammock made for that purpose; the up part of which is kept open with short Sticks.

"As the Children grow up, the Boys are bred to their Fathers Exercises; especially shooting with the Bow and Arrow, and throwing the Lance; at both which they are very expert. I have seen Things pcrform'd by them with a Dexterity almost incredible. For Instance, a little Boy of about eight Years old, would set a Cane up on end, and going about twenty Paces from it, would split it with a Bow and Arrow, and not miss once in several Essays. This I have seen, and this is the chief of their Exercise. And as they generally accompany their Fathers on Hunting, (especially when about 10 or 12 years old, and big enough to carry their own Provision, and a Calabash of Corn-drink) so they will shoot little Birds they meet with, and strike in with the Hunt. Their young Children they never carry abroad with them on a journey, or on a hunting or fighting Expedition. The Boys, when grown somewhat big, always go abroad with the Father and Mother, and do what little Services they can; but the Girls stay at home with the old Women.

"They seem very fond of their Children, both Father., and Mothers, and I have scarce seen them use any Severity towards them. And the Children are suffer'd to divert themselves which way they will. Swimming in the Rivers and catching Fish, is a great Exercise even for the small Boys and Girls; and the Parents also use that Refreshment. They go quitc naked, both Boys and Girls, till the Age of Puberty; when the Girls put on their clout, and the Boys the Funnel.

"The Girls are bred up by their Mothers to their Domestick Employments. They make them help to dress the Victuals, arid set them to draw Strings out of Maho-bark, and to beat Silkgrass, for Thread, Cordage, and Nets. They pick the Cotton also, and spin it for their Mothers Weaving. For Weaving, the Women make a Rollcr of Wood, about three Foot long."


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Bruce C. Ruiz
October 5, 2002