All About Molas and the Kuna Indians


The mola is thought to have been in existence for little more than 125 years. Books written by the privateers John Exquemelin and Lionel Wafer in the late 17th century describe the dress of the Kuna people during their visits to the coast of Tierra Firma which indicated there had been little change since the discovery of the New World. For instance, the Kuna women of 1682 are pictured, in a print after Wafer, as being clothed much like they were when the first European discoverers Rodrigo de Bastidas in 1501 and Christopher Columbus in 1502 came to the coast of San Blas.

Pascual de Andagoya, who arrived in Darien in 1514 wrote the women are very well dressed, in embroidered cotton mantles which extend down so as to cover the feet, but the arms and bosom are uncovered". In "A Letter Giving A Description of the Isthmus of Darien", printed for John Mackie in Edinburgh 1699, there was written "...they use no other clothes than an apron tied to their middle coming down so as to hide their privates; such aprons are made of the rinds of trees, which they strongly beat upon stones till they are softened; the Same they use for Bed-Clothes except a few who make them of cotton. They are whiter than the whitest in Scotland."

The development of the mola originates from early body painting which was first transferred to cloth painting and then to sewing decorative belts on to sack-like dresses. The Kuna women of 1681 are described as using body paint much like the neighboring Choco Indians use today. Wafer wrote, “the women are the painters, and take great delight in it. The colors they like and use most are red, yellow and blue very bright and lovely. They temper them with some kind of oil, and keep them in calabashes for use, and ordinarily lay them on the surface of the 'skin with pencils of Wood, gnawed at the end to the softness of a brush; they make figures of birds, beasts, men, trees or the like up and down in every part of the body, more especially the faces; but the figures are not extraordinary like what they represent and are of Differing Dimensions as their Fancies lead them".

The period 1725 to 1875 is a vacuum as far as this research on molas has revealed, but more information should be available through the perusal of exploration reports made during the heyday of surveys to investigate a canal route through the Darien Isthmus.

Cloth painting probably appeared by the mid-18th century and may have been introduced by the French Huguenots who settled amongst the San Blas people from 1700 until they were expelled or murdered in 1757. Cloth garments were still being painted in the 1870's and the author (Kit S. Kapp) has collected several prize examples of the Kuna painted underskirt PICHA MAKKALET (old name PANUETI), now extinct in use.

The Indians started a general migration from the mainland habitations to their present island locations within the last 150 years, mostly to alleviate discomfort brought about by disease and hungry insects encountered in the humid jungle. The move brought them closer to the Yankee sailing ships that traded trinkets and cloth for coconuts. There are molas in existence that show these old wind jammers, and old-timers, like Charlie Harris of Ubicantupu Miria village, who once sailed with those tall ships.

The mola blouse, as we know it today, evolved from the Victorian period. It is believed to have originated from a loose dress with a brightly colored and decorated band sewn to the lower hem. The author has obtained several fine examples of this early transition type, called NIMATRA MOLA, from the Colombian villages of Arquia and Rio Caiman.

The mola comes from the San Bias tribes, although it is interesting to note that the molas seen in Colombia were of lesser quality with regards to design, color and workmanship. There were few molas depicting scenes or animate objects - the older SERKAN type being most favored. Perhaps the proximity to the outside world has stimulated competition amongst the San Bias women to produce superior molas, or the answer may be the higher economy which enables the purchase of abundant cloth and more leisure time to pursue favorite pastimes.

In 1904, the Americans started to build the present Panama Canal, which brought a number of visitors to the San Bias coast. The Canal builders came looking for sand, the Hyatt Company opened mines, the giant fruit companies cleared large tracts of Indian lands and the U.S.S. Leonidas had surveyed half of the coastal waters by 1917. This deluge of intruders, culminating in the San Blas war of 1925, no doubt accelerated the acculturation factors in mola designs.

Determining Age of Molas

Few fabrics last long in the tropics and, because of local climatic conditions, molas especially are susceptible to mildew, fungi, insect ravages, dampness, sun rot and fading. MUKAN (Grandmother) molas which date back to the 1920's are scarce and SERKAN molas, dating back to the 1930's are rapidly disappearing from the San Bias islands.

Cloth texture, panel size and stylized motifs are points to be considered when determining the approximate age of molas. Private collectors and several museums have notable early collections for use in making comparisons. Patterns and stitching were cruder in the 1920's and 30's and the spacing between the main cut outs was often 1/2 to 3/4 inch, while today the average width is 1/4 to 3/8 inch. Cloth texture is a minute difference; however, it is significant to note that a heavier weight and more coarsely-woven cloth was used on the older molas.

Sometimes dates are included in the motif. For example, " de 1968" was embroidered on the yoke band of a mola from the village of San Ignacio de Tupile, indicating the mola made its debut for the 1968 Independence Celebrations. Another was lettered "Panama Cincuentenario 10 Diciembre" which indicates a celebration date in 1954. Political slogan molas can also be identified and classified by campaign dates.

Click on image for larger pic
Kuna_woman3.JPG (41006 bytes)

Kuna_woman.JPG (27860 bytes)

Kuna_woman2.JPG (31726 bytes)


April 3, 2001