It is uncertain whether Emberá and Wounaan speakers lived in Central America during pre-Hispanic times. The Darién region of eastern Panama was Kuna territory between the late sixteenth century and eighteenth century. It was there that the Spaniards established El Real in 1600 to protect the upriver route from the Cana gold mines, once reportedly the richest in the Americas. Another fort was built near the mouth of the Río Sabanas and small placer-mining settlements developed elsewhere. In 1638 the missionary Fray Adrián de Santo Tomás helped agglomerate dispersed Kuna families into villages at Pinogana, Capetí, and Yaviza. The Kuna resisted Spanish demands that they work in mining operations and fought, sometimes alongside pirates, to destroy mission settlements during the 1700s. The Spaniards enlisted "Chocó" (with their feared blowguns) and Black mercenaries in the counteroffensive; the Kuna were pushed into Darién backlands and began their historic migration across the continental divide to the San Blas coast. As a result, the colonization effort failed, and the Spaniards dismantled their forts and left the region in the late eighteenth century.
Emberá began settling Darién during the late eighteenth century, and by the early 1900s had occupied most of the river basins. Some Europeans eventually resettled there, forming new towns, which are now dominated by Spanish-speaking Blacks. The Emberá settled away from these towns and the two remnant Kuna areas. Emberá were found as far west as the canal drainage by the 1950s. Wounaan families had entered Panama during the 1940s.
Emberá and Wounaan life changed dramatically in Panama during the mid-twentieth century. Desire for Western products brought them into cash economies. They traded with Black, Spanish-speaking businessmen, exchanging crops and forest products for cash. Among the hundreds of manufactured goods now important are machetes, ax heads, pots and pans, rifles, bullets, and cloth. Village organization sprang from the need to speak Spanish with these outsiders. Emberá elders petitioned the national government to provide teachers for their riverine sectors, and schools were established at Pulida, Río Tupisa, in 1953 and at Naranjal, Río Chico, in 1956. Initially, "villages" were simply a few households clustered around thatch-roofed schoolhouses. Sustained missionary activity began about the same time. Mennonites, sponsored by Panama's Ministry of Education, began a literacy program designed to record the Emberá and Wounaan languages so as to produce translations of religious materials with which to teach the Indians. Indian families grouped around missionary homes at Lucas in 1954 and El Mamey on the Río Jaqué in 1956. Three "school villages" and three "mission villages" existed in 1960.
A philanthropic adventurer, Harold Baker Fernandez (nicknamed "Peru"), who began living with the Emberá in 1963, adopted Emberá and Wounaan ways, learned their culture from an insider's perspective, and taught them about securing land rights. He advised them that, by forming villages, they could petition the government for teachers, schools, and medical supplies. Through more effective territorial control, he told them, they might obtain a comarca, or semiautonomous political district, like the Kuna had, guaranteeing indigenous rights to land and resources. A "village model," with a schoolhouse, teacher's dorm, meeting hall, and village store amid thatch-roofed houses, diffused across Darién; by 1968, there were twelve Emberá villages. The government of General Omar Torrijos supported these initiatives, which encouraged the Indians to define their own political structure. An appointed Kuna chief ( cacique ) introduced the Kuna political model ( caciquismo ) as the first chiefs were selected. An additional eighteen villages were formed over the next two years, and in 1970 the Darién Emberá and Wounaan formally adopted a new political organization that featured chiefs, congresses, and village leaders, patterned after the Kuna system. By 1980, fifty villages had been formed in Darién and others developed in the direction of central Panama.
The Emberá and Wounaan received comarca status in 1983. The Comarca Emberá—locally called "Emberá Drua"—consists of two separate districts in Darién, Sambú, and Cemaco that cover 4,180 square kilometers of the Sambú and Chucunaque-Tuira basins. Some Spanish-speaking Blacks remain, but only one small non-Indian town is within the district. Today Emberá Drua has forty villages and over 8,000 indigenous inhabitants (83 percent Emberá, 16 percent Wounaan, and 1 percent other).