Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Sumu subsistence has changed very little over time. The household is the self-contained economic unit. Farmers use slash-and-burn cultivation to grow root crops (sweet manioc, yams, and Xanthosoma ), plus maize. Plantains and bananas, which are grown in groves along the natural levee, are the staple foods. Eaten fresh, boiled, and baked, these fruits, when ripe, are also mashed, along with maize, palm fruits (especially supa, Bactris gasipaes ), manioc, and sweet potatoes and mixed with water to produce chicha drinks ( wakisá ) that ferment into a "beer" ( mishla or wasak ). Three types of gourds, cacao, avocados, and other native palm and fruit trees are grown in dooryard and outfield orchard gardens, along with medicinal herbs, dyes, spices, cotton, tobacco, and ornamentals. Old World fruit trees—citrus, breadfruit, mango—and rice, beans, and sugarcane are also grown for food and sale, as are tomatoes, green peppers, and cabbage.
Bows and arrows, spears, and blowguns were the primary aboriginal weapons for hunting a diversity of forest game. Hunters now choose .22-caliber rifles and shotguns. The importance of wild game in Sumu diets depends on local ecological and economic conditions. Fishing is done with hooks, spears, nets, and, less commonly, bows and arrows; piscicides are uncommon. Animal husbandry is limited to raising wild forest "pets" in addition to some chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, cows, and horses. Dogs are used for hunting, but cats are rare. Villagers still depend greatly on foods, materials, and medicines collected from forest and regrowth fallow.
Sumu men have worked for foreign enterprises extracting roots, saps, resins, and gums for dyes, medicines, and other uses since the seventeenth century. Native woodsmen collected sarsaparilla and cut mahogany in the eighteenth century, bled latex from rubber trees in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and more recently tapped chewing-gum latex from chicle trees. Individuals have also worked as turtlers, shrimpers, and, most recently, divers for lobsters in the coastal fishing industry. Gold panning is an important cash-earning activity in some areas, and cash cropping increases with improved market access.
The Sumu cash-involved subsistence economy requires broad territories for agriculture, hunting, fishing, and collecting resources. The approximately 650 Tawahka Sumu living along the middle Río Patuca in 1990 used about 770 square kilometers, with only 5 percent under agriculture.
Industrial Arts. Sumu men craft dugouts, a trade and tribute item since colonial times. Men still cut tuno ( Poulsenia armata ) tree bark that women pound into cloth ( tikam ), formerly fashioned into loincloths and skirts, now into blankets and mosquito netting. Twine, used to weave carrying bags and hammocks, comes from the pounded bark of the majao ( Heliocarpus Donell-Smithii ) tree. Silk grass formerly provided a durable fiber for nets, bowstrings, and fishing lines. Tree gourds still serve as bowls, and other kitchen utensils are made of carved wood. Women previously made pottery and dyed, spun, and wove cotton for clothes, hammocks, and bedsheets, but no longer do so.
Trade. No formal marketplaces existed among aboriginal Sumu populations, but evidence of gold ornaments links them to broad Central American trade networks (Newson 1987, 78). They traded dugouts, bark cloth, hammocks, woven bags, and pottery with the Miskito. Europeans exchanged commercial products for hides, dyes, feathers, resins, and timber. Today the Sumu use cash to buy tools, kitchenware, clothes, and many manufactured products, including foods. They fashion majao bags, decorative tree gourds, and cloth tapestries made from tuno bark for an expanding indigenous crafts market.
Division of Labor. Hunting and cutting forest are exclusively male activities. Women do household chores and help in planting, weeding, harvesting, and collecting forest-plant and animal materials. Few men still fish with spears or bows and arrows; using a line and hook, both sexes catch river crustaceans. Villagers have a labor-exchange system ( biribiri ), commonly organized along kin lines, for more physically demanding work. Nowadays payments of meat, grains, bullets, or cash substitute for labor exchange, as wage labor has become embedded in Sumu life. Sumu men now specialize as boatmen, teachers, ministers, nurses, and storeowners.
Land Tenure. Landownership develops as former usufructuary rights and planted fields become the private property of the farmer who prepares them. Villagers share use of hunting, fishing, and collecting territories. Sumu land use exhibits communal attitudes toward resource use, and land has not historically been a commodity exchanged for profit.