ETHNONYMS: For the Catio: Embena, Epera, Eyabida, Katio. For the Northern Emberá: Atrato, Bedea, Cholo, Darién, Dariena, Ebera, Eberá, Emberá, Emberak, Empera, Panama Emberá. For the Waunana: Chanco, Chocama, Noanama, Noenama, Nonama, Wounaan, Woun Meu

The term "Chocó" refers to several different regional groups living on the northern Pacific coast of Colombia and the eastern part of Darién Province in Panama. All Chocó people refer to themselves as "Embena" (people) and speak languages belonging to the Paezan Family. At the time of the Conquest there were two major groups in the Pacific lowlands of Colombia: the Embirá living along the upper San Juan and Atrato rivers, and the Waunana on the lower San Juan. Both groups, who speak related languages, became known as "Chocó" to the colonizers. Owing to both post-Conquest and more recent migrations the Chocó peoples are now geographically dispersed and live in many different environments. Some are highly acculturated, but the most isolated hold to many of their traditional customs. Since World War II, some Colombian Chocó have intermarried with the local Black population, whereas others have moved further into the forests to avoid Blacks. Still others have moved to Chocó areas in Panama.

One Chocó group, the Catío, numbers between 15,000 and 20,000, nearly all of whom live on the San Jorge, San Pedro, Murri, and upper Sinú rivers in Colombia. Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 Northern Emberá live in Panama, and another 2,000 live in Colombia in the Río Atrato area. Three thousand of a total of 6,000 Waunana live in Panama, and the rest live in Colombia in the Río San Juan Basin in Chocó Province. The Caramanta are several thousand highly acculturated Indians dwelling in the Cauca Valley of Colombia; in the mid-1990s they live much as the nearby mestizos do, and very few speak the Caramanta language.

The Chocó had their first contact with Whites in 1511 when they met Balboa, whose intrusion they resisted. Later, in 1654, Spanish missions were established to concentrate Chocó populations and convert them to Christianity; many Chocó fled from the missions into upriver areas.

Chocó people traditionally were subsistence swidden horticulturists living in the extremely rainy tropical forests of the Pacific lowlands. Because felled vegetation seldom dried out enough to burn, the Chocó practiced a type of agriculture known as "slash and mulch" unique to the wet American tropics. Those who have migrated to dryer regions practice the more usual slash-and-burn agriculture. They raise plantains, bananas, sweet manioc, maize, and sugarcane, but no tobacco or cotton. Only one crop of maize is grown after a field is cleared; in the second season it is planted with bananas, which bear for three years, after which the field is fallowed. In some areas rice, beans, and tree crops such as cacao have been added to the traditional repertoire. The Chocó also keep dogs, pigs, chickens, and ducks as domestic animals.

In most areas, hunting and fishing are important activities that confer male prestige in addition to providing food. Hunting is solitary, usually with a shotgun and a dog. In mountain regions the blowgun is still commonly used. Two types of poisons are used to tip blowgun darts: one is a vegetable poison that affects the heart, and the other is derived from a species of frog. The most common game species are deer, peccaries, armadillos, agoutis, monkeys, and several kinds of birds.

The Chocó use many different techniques in fishing: hook and line, harpoons, casting nets, barbasco poison, and, most recently, diving with a mask.

The Chocó do not have clans or lineages; relatives on both the maternal and paternal sides are recognized equally. Local communities are formed of households linked by family ties. Houses are dispersed, usually strung along a river or a path. The Chocó live in round wall-less houses built on pilings. Inside, they have bark-cloth mats for sleeping and hammocks for children, as well as wooden seats and mosquito nets.

Postmarital residence changes from patrilocal (the ideal) to matrilocal and back because both women and men own gardening land; some time is spent in the husband family's household working his lands before going to the wife's household to tend to her crops. The household's oldest male is its leader.

Community members have obligations of mutual aid and celebrate festivals together. Work groups of about ten men cooperate in the tasks of felling trees and clearing fields; the householder for whom the party works provides food and drink for all. Men, women, and children work as a group to harvest maize from one another's fields, but most other farm work is done by the members of each individual household. There is no collective ownership of land, but local groups discourage people without recognized kin ties from settling in the community. Kin terminology varies: some Emberá use the same term for siblings and cousins, fathers and uncles, aunts and mothers—the so-called Hawaiian system—whereas other Emberá use the Eskimo system, which distinguishes each type of relative with a different term.

The survival of the Chocó is related to the flexibility of their social system, which permits the joint migration of small family-related groups that reconstitute themselves in a new territory. The Chocó are accustomed to traveling considerable distances in dugout canoes to appraise possible sites for new fields and villages and to perform obligations incurred through intervillage marriages. Shamans travel the greatest distances, even going so far as to visit Kayapa Indians in Ecuador.

At the time of the Conquest and under the early colonial administration, Chocó groups were led by warrior chiefs who opportunistically formed alliances with other chiefs to combat a common enemy, often the Spanish; but the dispersion of the population undermined the authority of the chiefs and eventually destroyed political cohesion.

Chocó shamans are primarily healers and ritual leaders without political authority. They seek to contact and control spirits related to aspects of human welfare, such as health and abundance of game. Anyone can acquire shamanic powers through apprenticeship to a shaman who transmits these powers, represented by a wooden baton carved with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figures, in an all-night initiation ceremony. A shaman may add to his powers by apprenticing to different shamans, so the number of batons he owns indicates his experience.

Traditionally, children were painted black shortly after birth. When they reached approximately 1 year of age, children took part in a ritual in which a shaman gave them a guardian spirit and a doll for it to live in. Only girls had puberty rituals—they were secluded and had to observe food taboos. Women gave birth in the forest, and men were forbidden to attend. The dead were interred in a chamber dug in the earth.

Besides shamanic rituals, the Chocó celebrate many other festivals such as a child's baptism, the raising of a new house, or the maize harvest. Men and women attend wearing face paint and elaborately adorned with beadwork and necklaces. They pass the day and evening in singing, dancing, and drinking homemade maize beer and fermented cane juice. The traditional Chocó musical instrument was the panpipe made in various sizes; later they adopted the flute and drums, and music with a Spanish influence is often played.

Chocó crafts are highly developed. Pottery making is dying out, but Chocó women make baskets for many different uses, and nowadays they are often sold at craft fairs. Men are expert wood carvers but usually for domestic or ritual purposes. Both sexes make beadwork. When river or road transport permits, the Chocó often participate in the local economy, bringing agricultural products like maize and bananas to market.

In the 1990s many Chocó traditional lands are under pressure from settlers, and some Chocó have lost their land and become laborers. In reaction, the Chocó have formed regional organizations to cooperate in the defense of their land and cultural values.

See also Emberá ; Noanamá


Castillón, Héctor C. (1982). Chocó indio. Medellín: Ediciones del Centro Claretiano de Pastoral Indigenista.

Pardo, Mauricio (1987). "Indígenas del Chocó." In Introducción a la Colombia amerindia, edited by François Correa and Ximena Pachón. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología (ICAN).

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1960). "Notas etnográficas sobre los indios chocó." Revista Colombiana de Antropología 9:75-158.

Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo (1963). "Contribuciones a la etnografía de los indios del Chocó." Revista Colombiana de Antropología 11:169-188.

Wassén, Henry (1935). "Notes on Southern Groups of Chocó Indians in Colombia." Etnologiska Studier 1:35-182.


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