Historic information suggests that in the sixteenth century the Cuna lived at the low course of the Río Atrato. In colonial times they fought for land with the Emberá-Catío, who were their southern neighbors. As a consequence of this warfare, the Cuna moved north to the Atlantic coast. It is now known that the Cuna were not the people of the chiefdoms of Darién, as Julian Steward suggested. The Cuna, apparently, have never been organized above the segmentary tribal level. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Cuna faced French and Scottish colonizers who traded for cacao and other products such as quina (Peruvian cinchona bark) and gave them clothes, guns, powder, and metal tools. The Indians allied temporarily either with the French or the Scottish and fought against the other or against the Spaniards. The alliances depended upon economic advantages. Nevertheless, in general terms, the Cuna-French alliance was more successful, and ethnic mixture between the two is quite evident.
The Cuna supported a large trade activity during the nineteenth century with Colombians, North Americans, and people from yet other countries. The Indians moved to the islands beginning in 1850, in search of new lands. In 1915 the Republic of Panama created the intendencia (administrative area) at San Blas and stationed Black and mixed-blood guards there, both of whom exploited the Indians continuously. This led to the Cuna Revolution of 1925, the claimed independence from Panama, and the possibility of annexation to Colombian territory. The revolt was cruelly repressed.
Today, the Indians of San Blas have a high degree of representation in the political bodies of Panama, and the cultural changes are evident in education and material technology. There are a considerable number of Cuna professionals. The Colombian Indians, in contrast, are more traditional and preserve many of the ancient ways of life in technology, political organization, and so forth.