The field investigation, conducted during the summer of 1960 and three weeks in the winter of 1961, was supported by grants from the Associates in Tropical Biogeography, University of California, and the Committee on Research of the University of California, Los Angeles. Thanks are due to the following people for important assistance: Dr. Martin Moynihan, Director, Canal Zone Biological Area; Mrs. Adela Gomez, Administrative Assistant, Canal Zone Biological Area; Señor Ing. Tomas Guardia, Jr., Subcomité del Darién, Panamá. In addition, the writer profited from the invaluable help of his wife who efficiently managed most of the details of camp supply and organization in the field.
THE BAYANO CUNA INDIANS, PANAMA: AN ECOLOGICAL STUDY OF LIVELIHOOD AND DIET1
Version of Record online: 23 FEB 2005
Annals of the Association of American Geographers
Volume 52, Issue 1, pages 32–50, March 1962
How to Cite
BENNETT, C. F. (1962), THE BAYANO CUNA INDIANS, PANAMA: AN ECOLOGICAL STUDY OF LIVELIHOOD AND DIET. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 52: 32–50. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1962.tb00394.x
The Cuna Indians are usually considered as being divided into two groups, viz., the San Blas Cuna who inhabit the northeast insular region of Panama and the Mainland Cuna who occupy non-marine locations in eastern Panama. However, the San Blas Cuna divide the mainland people into three groups as follows: the Cuna living in the upper Río Bayano region (which are designated here as the Bayano Cuna Indians), the Cuna living in the upper portion of the Río Chucunaque, and the Cuna living farther east in the vicinity of the Paya, Pucro, and Capetí rivers. The Bayano Cuna occupy their own reservation area, govern themselves, possess a chief for the reservation area (as well as village chiefs), and consider themselves not only largely independent of Panama but also of their Cuna relatives elsewhere in Panama. For a discussion of San Blas Cuna terminology used for the different divisions see D. B. Stout, San Blas Cuna Acculturation: an Introduction. Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, No. 9 (New York, 1947), 124 pp.
For an excellent résumé of these varied contacts see Stout, op. cit., pp. 49–58.
The climate is probably Am in the Köppen system. The vegetation cover closely resembles that of an Am position known to the writer in the Canal Zone, approximately 75 miles to the west.
Prior to 1950, census taking was extremely difficult in the area because the Indians generally refused to cooperate. Even the 1950 census was delayed by a lack of cooperation on the part of the Indians, and the actual count was not completed until the first part of January, 1951. República de Panamá. Contraloria General de la República. Dirección de Estadística y Censo. Censos Nacionales de 1950. Volumen IV, Población Indígena (Panamá, 1954), 83 pp.
Ibid., p. 4
This is a provisional figure obtained from conversation with Senorita Luisa Quesada, Directora de la Dirección de Estadística y Censo, República de Panamá.
República de Panamá, op. cit., Censos Nacionales de 1950. Volumen V, Población Urbana (Panamá, 1956), 227 pp., note on p. 4.
There is a possibility that the Bayano Cuna make use of a local plant species to prevent conception. A medicine man informed the writer that a certain plant is often employed by Cuna women to prevent conception, but he later found excuses to avoid showing the plant—probably because a visiting medicine man from Piriá expressed strong displeasure at out-siders being given information on Cuna medical practices.
The largest scale map of Panama most recently published indicates 8 villages for the Bayano reservation area, but one of them, Boca Playita, does not exist. República de Panamá. Dirección de Cartografia. Mapa Especial de la República de Panamá. Escala 1:500,000. 3 hojas (Dibujado e Impreso en la Planta de Reproducción de la Oficina Del Ingeniero, USARCARIB, Zona del Canal, 1957). Not all of the village names on this and other maps are employed by the Cuna. The usual map names and their Cuna equivalents are as follows: Maje (Majé), Pintupo (Pintupo), Agua Clara (Icandí), Río Diablo (Capandí), Piria (Pirá), Canazas (Nargandí), Sabalo (Cuinudí).
The village of Icandí was used as the base for the field investigation, and therefore many of the data were derived from observations in that village, but these data are generally applicable to the entire Bayano Cuna area.
The relatively high incidence of albinos among the Cuna has been noted many times before. See Stout, op. cit., pp. 15, 32.
Spanish language phonetic equivalents are employed in this article for all Cuna words.
Dr. Mildred Mathias, Department of Botany, UCLA, very kindly identified the plant specimens, which are now a part of the UCLA Herbarium.
This arrangement was not present in the latter part of the 17th century. At that time the Bayano Cuna lived in a more dispersed pattern than at present and the villages that existed were not laid out according to any particular plan. See Lionel Wafer, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, edited by L. E. Elliott Joyce, and published by the Hakluyt Society as Vol. 73, Ser. 2 (London, 1934), 221 pp. ref to p. 89. Wafer was surgeon to a group of pirates that was engaged in raiding the Isthmus of Panama, and a gun powder accident made it necessary for him to remain with the Bayano Cuna for three months in 1681. The village in which Wafer passed his time is not known with certainty, but a San Blas Cuna Indian who studied the problem concluded that Wafer must have stayed in the village of Piriá. See Erland Nordenskiöld and Henry Wassen (ed.), An Historical and Ethnological Survey of the Cuna Indians. Comparative Ethnographical Studies (Göteborg), Vol. 10 (1938), 686 pp., ref. to pp. 121–124. The present orderly village plan probably has been borrowed recently from the San Blas Cuna who adopted the trait about 40 years ago. Stout, op. cit., pp. 63–64.
The scientific names given in this table are tentative because no material was collected. Spanish vernacular names employed in the general area were checked against the vernacular names appearing in the following works: Paul H. Allen, The Rain Forests of Golfo Dulce (Gainesville, The University of Florida Press, 1956), 417 pp.; H. C. Kluge, “Trees of the Bayano River Watershed, Panama”Tropical Woods, No. 5 (1926), pp. 4–13 (Kluge apparently restricted his collecting to the lower Bayano and did not enter the Cuna area); and Paul C. Standley, Flora of the Panama Canal Zone, Contributions of the U.S. National Herbarium, Vol. 27 (Washington, D.C., 1928), 416 pp.
One male informant indicated that during the year previous to the author's visit he had sold approximately 250 stems of bananas and plantains and three 100-pound sacks of maize in Panama City. He received 75° to $1.00 per stem for bananas and $1.00 to $1.50 per stem for plantains. For the maize he received $2.50 per sack. He transported his produce to La Capitana in a dugout canoe carrying a maximum of 25 stems per trip. From La Capitana his produce was carried by truck or bus into Panama City. Although the charges he paid for transport varied from time to time the usual fee was 20° for each stem of bananas or plantains and $1.75 for passenger fare. This man also sold small quantities of coffee and avocados but couldn't recall the prices received for them.
Animal husbandry is used here in the broadest sense, and includes all animals kept for any purpose by the Cuna.
The term “domesticated” is employed here in the more or less conventional sense, i.e., the term is applied to animals which differ genetically from their wild ancestors as a result of manipulation by man either intentionally or accidentally. This genetic criterion is not completely adequate to describe domesticated animals, but it is sufficient for the purposes of this paper.
There were only 2 pigs in Icandí, 2 in Pintupo, and none in Majé. No information was obtained on the villages upstream.
It is not possible to state exactly when the Bayano Cuna first acquired chickens after the Spanish conquest, but it apparently was very early in the 16th century. Andagoya probably refers to them in the following passage: “Hay algunas sabandijas menores que zorras que entran en las casas á comer las gallinas….” Pascual de Andagoya, Relación de los Sucesos de Pedrarias Davila en la Tierra Firme y de los Desubrimientos en el Mar del Sur (Años 1514–1541), p. 86. This important document has been published in several collections and the one referred to here is the Colección de Documentos Inéditos Sobre la Geografía y la Historia de Colombia, 4 vols. (Bogotá, 1892), ref. to vol. 2, pp. 77–125. By Wafer's time chickens were abundant, since he refers to them several times.
A story told by Wafer suggests that cats were not introduced into the Cuna area until late in the 17th century. Wafer, op. cit., p. 66.
The lack of pets in this culture is striking since pet keeping by other Amerinds in the American tropics was a very widespread and common trait. The reasons to account for the almost complete absence in the Bayano area probably must be sought in the social aspects of Bayano Cuna culture. Stout, op. cit., p. 22, indicates that cats, birds, and monkeys are kept as pets by some of the San Blas people.
A large Neotropical rodent which attains a weight of approximately six pounds.
A gregarious, pig-like hooved mammal ranging from southern Texas to Patagonia. Adults attain a weight of 65 to 70 pounds.
A bird which is confined to the New World and almost entirely to the Neotropical region. It attains a length of approximately 25 inches and a weight of 2 pounds.
A large handsome bird species which inhabits the Neotropical forests. Adults attain a weight of 10 to 12 pounds.
It has been suggested that in pre-Columbian time the Cuna (?) inhabitants of the Perlas Islands in the Bay of Panama may have kept tame peccaries beneath houses. S. Linne, Darien in the Past, Göteborgs Kungl. Vetenskaps och Vitterhets Samhalles Handlingar, Ser. A, Band 1, No. 3 (1929), 318 pp. Other references to peccary keeping are numerous and some may be found in Julian H. Steward, ed. Handbook of South American Indians, 7 vols., Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 143 (Washington, D.C., 1946–1959). The trait seems to have been distributed from Paraguay northward to western Panama (Guaymí Indians), and perhaps beyond.
Very young birds and some young mammals will accept as parent any moving object and will follow this with great persistence. The term “imprinting” has been given to this phenomenon. Pioneer work on this aspect of animal behavior was done by Karl Lorenz.
This seems to be a relatively recent cultural innovation developed in response to the market in Panama City. As noted earlier, the Bayano Cuna do not keep native wild animals for pets.
The writer is indebted to Dr. Charles D. Michener, Department of Entomology, University of Kansas, for identifying this bee.
The honey of wild stingless bees is not now utilized by the Bayano Cuna. However, in Wafer's time such honey was gathered—“They have been also and consequently hony [sic] and wax. The bees are of two sorts; the one short and thick and its color inclining to red [Melipona sp. ?] the other blackish, long and slender [Trigona sp. ?]. They nest on the tops and in the holes of trees; which the Indians climb, and thrust their arms into their nest, to get the combs. Their arms will be covered with bees, upon their drawing them back; yet I never perceived they were stung by them… The Indians sometimes burn down the tree to get at the combs, especially if they be high and difficult to climb. The hony they mix with water, and drink it, but they make no use of the wax…” Wafer, op. cit., p. 73.
Bird names are taken from Eugene Eisenmann, Annotated List of Birds of Barro Colorado Island, Panama Canal Zone, Smithsonian Institution Miscellaneous Collections, Vol. 117, No. 5 (Washington, D.C., 1952), 62 pp. Mammal names are taken from Gerrit S. Miller and Remington Kellogg, List of North American Recent Mammals, U.S. National Museum, Bulletin 205 (Washington, D.C., 1955), 954 pp.
Wafer, op. cit., p. 65, indicated that the Bayano Cuna never killed deer nor ate deer flesh, and gave evidence of displeasure when some of Wafer's party killed and ate a deer. He noted that deer horns found in the forest were taken back to the village and displayed in the houses—a practice noticed during this field study. The deer-meat taboo was still in effect as recently as the mid 1930s. See The Forbidden Land: Reconnaissance of Upper Bayano River, R. P. in 1936,” Etnologiska Studier (Göteborg), Vol. 15 (1947), pp. 115–186, note on p. 160. It appears that the San Blas Cuna were the first to ignore the taboo since Stout records deer hunting in that area. Stout, op. cit., p. 22. The taboo may not have been in effect in the early part of the 16th century because deer hunting was described as an activity by Cuna (?) Chiefs. See Pascual de Andagoya, op. cit., p. 86, “
This seasonal pattern is typical among tropical agricultural peoples and is valuable ecologically, since a continuous high pressure is not maintained on the animal resource.
Informants stated that fishing is a strictly male occupation in the San Blas Islands, and on one occasion visiting San Blas mem expressed amusement at seeing women fishing.
Thanks are offered to Dr. Robert R. Miller, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, for identifying my collection of Bayano freshwater fish. These specimens are now part of the University of Michigan museum collection.
Wafer, op. cit., p. 77.
The author is indebted to Dr. John Dwyer, St. Louis University, for identifying this plant. According to Dr. Dwyer, this is a new recording for Panama. The plant seems to have been introduced into Panama by Amerinds and it probably does not occur outside cultivated areas. The same species is recorded as being used as a piscicide in the Guianas and Venezuela. See Fish Poisons,” in Steward, op. cit., vol. 5 (1949), pp. 277–281.
McKim, op. cit., pp. 145–146, reported seeing men diving for fish and catching them by hand but this practice was not observed during the present survey.
Thanks are offered to Dr. Fenner A. Chace, Jr., Division of Marine Invertebrates, U.S. Nation Museum, for identifying the crustacean material. Specific names are not given because sufficient comparative material is not yet available.
The quantitative data were derived as follows: animal species, numbers, and weights were obtained by a census of 15 of the village houses for a period of 14 days. Each evening, in the company of a Cuna interpreter, the writer visited the houses and inquired about the animals that had been obtained in the Course of the day. Whenever possible the animals were weighed, but usually they had already been prepared for food or were so cut-up that weighing was not desirable. In such cases estimates were made of the weights of the various animals. Vegetable quantities were obtained by weighing vegetable materials as they were being prepared. Most of these data came from observing the culinary activities of four adult women who lived in the head chief's house. The nutritional values were derived from Alice V. Bradley, Tables in Food Values (Peoria, Ill.: Chas. A. Bennett Co. 1956), 232 pp.
By Wafer's time, plantains were an important Cuna food item. Wafer, op. cit., p. 90. The earliest accounts of the Cuna include no mention of either bananas or plantains, and it appears that these plants were acquired by the Cuna after the beginning of the 16th century, in spite of any merit that may be assigned to the suggestion that plantains were present in the New World prior to the first European contacts. For a brief résumé of Musaceae in the New World, see Carl O. Sauer, “Cultivated Plants of South and Central America,” in op. cit., vol. 6, pp. 487–543.,
Sugar cane undoubtedly was introduced into the Cuna area in post-Columbian time. Wafer reports that the Cuna had sugar cane but made no use of it other than to chew it and “suck out the juice.” Wafer, op. cit., p. 56. Today, most Bayano Cuna houses have a permanently installed cane press (calleguredi), in which cane is pressed several times each week.
The animals used for comparison are: wild rabbit, deer, reindeer, guinea hen, and wild duck. Bradley, op. cit.
The average of one-fourth pound per day may seem to be a rich diet, but it must be remembered that it is not supplemented by eggs or dairy products.
The tree species most favored for fuel is guásimo (soksorrhuar, Luehea seemannii). The wood is very dense and burns slowly with very hot coals. Hot baked bananas or plantains are removed from the fire with wooden forceps (masqué).
An egg hunt suggestive of Easter egg hunts of the United States was observed on one occasion. After cleaning several gravid female iguanas, a woman (the head Chief's wife) buried all of the eggs nearby in the river bank. Later during the samc day the woman's two young sons and husband engaged in a hunt for the eggs. The children exhibited all the excitement of U.s. children in similar circumstances. The father supervised the hunt and made certain that all of the buried eggs were found—his wife had informed him of the burial location and the number of eggs prior to the hunt. This was apparently a game, but the father said its purpose was to instruct the children that iguanas lay eggs. The writer cannot explain the presene of this trait. It may have been observed by a Cuna man in the Canal Zone and then introduced to the Cuna area.
- Issue online: 23 FEB 2005
- Version of Record online: 23 FEB 2005