Darien and the Choco Indians
By Fannie P. Hernandez
The Panama Canal Review -- Fall 1971

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Defying change, the copper colored Chocoes live in the wildest, most primitive existence ... very much as the Spaniards found them early in the 16th century.  Scattered along the banks of the many rivers that crisscross the Darien, far from the comforts and problems of civilization, they seem to be in complete harmony with their surroundings. Proud, peaceful, honest, but suspicious of outsiders, they live a day-to-day existence in which there are few economic pressures. Ignoring government procedures and regulations, Chocoes usually make their own laws.

They are the Indians most often maligned in stories about the Darien. Possibly because of their savage appearance, they have stirred the imagination of the mythmakers. They are, however, more friendly than their Cuna cousins. Both men and women go about practically nude. The male has a muscular frame, an abundance of straight black hair and wears earrings. The rest of the attire of the Choco man consists of a small G-string and a generous coating of dark body paint made from the dye of a native berry from the genip tree. They also use a red paint made from achiote, the orange-red seed pod which is commonly used to give color and flavor to Panamanian cooking.

The Chocoes are semi-migratory and dwell independently in small one or two family groups. They build their shelters along the banks of rivers which serve as their highways and source of livelihood. The dwelling is a platform raised on posts several feet above the ground. Overhead is a roof of thatched palms, the joints tied with vines. There are no protecting walls. To reach the Choco house, one climbs up a ladder made by cutting notches into a pole or a log. At night, the family turns the steps to the underside of the log to bar dogs and other unwanted callers. At one end of the floor, which is made of flattened-out split cane, is the "kitchen." It consists of a cement or clay platform approximately a yard square. three logs placed spoke fashion rest on the square and the cooking pot sits over a small fire burning at the hub.

A calabash tree provides the kitchen utensils. Scooped out small calabash are for drinking and eating or used as spoons, though ordinarily the Chocoes use their fingers to eat from the common kettle. Another one with a hole cut into the top and a piece of oily twisted bark stuck in the hole serves as a lamp. And still another good-sized calabash with holes punched into it is a colander. Long seed pods serve as graters.

Choco women wear only a simple knee-length sarong, their ink black hair falling on copper shoulders, their breasts, bare. Both men and women have a great fondness for adornments. They wear quantities of glass beads around their necks or draped over their shoulders, and on special occasions, flowers in their hair. For additional beautification, they paint the lower part of their faces and their bodies, often making intricate designs with different colors of paint.

Scattered about the floor and hanging from the posts of the dwelling and those supporting the roof over the "kitchen" are baskets, earthen pots,bows and arrows, spears,knives, and other handmade hunting and fishing and household items. The baskets are made of strips from the fronds of a palm tree which are light on one side and darker on the other. The Choco women weave them turning the strips and making an attractive twill pattern. Earthen pots are slowly being replaced by "pailas," the cast aluminum or iron pots found in Panamanian kitchens.

The Chocoes sleep on the floor of the shelters. Their beds are the bark of trees which women have made soft by beating under water. There are no bed covers. A wooden block serves as a pillow. There is no protection from the excessive heat, the insects or frequent downpours, and the Darien is one of the world's rainiest regions. The shelters are easily replaced making it possible for the Chocoes to disappear deeper into the wilderness. Navigating their long narrow dugout canoes, they will select another spot on the same river or another stream which will provide laundry and bathing facilities and also serve as the fish market and water supply.

Fish are caught with nets, spears or bows and arrows. If not consumed immediately, they are smoked and dried. The rivers also provide turtle and caiman, favorite foods of the Chocoes. They shoot the turtles with rifles or swim under water and catch them with their hands, tossing them ashore. A wooden wedge is driven between the head and shell to prevent it from getting away before it reaches the cooking pot. To save the turtle for a future meal, it is tied near the water.

The forests furnish wild game which provides the Chocoes protein food. Born hunters, they use bows and arrows to hunt the jungle animals. The tapir, peccary, deer, armadillo, iguana, and monkey are favorite jungle fare.

Jungle trees provide balsa for making rafts and the bark of certain trees is used to make remedies for snake bite, skin ailments, malaria, etc. Other trees furnish fruit and dyes for painting their bodies. Palm fronds are used for the roofs over their shelters and the juice of the green coconuts provides "milk" for the Chocoes.

Chocoes cultivate mainly corn, rice, yucca, potatoes, yams, beans, and otoe and grow plantains, bananas, pineapples, papayas, guavas, aguacates, and other fruits and nuts. Their diet is rich in vitamins and high in roughage.

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Last Update: October 20, 1998

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