Exhibition Kuna Indians & Cocoa
From 15th March to 16th September 2012
Whilst reading some scientific surveys, the gourmet Chocolate Museum discovered that the Kuna Indians living on an archipelago in Panama, have very low blood pressure and this is due to the fact that they consume cocoa on a regular basis. This prompted our desire to go and visit the local people and once there, we learned all about their traditions and their way of life in which cocoa holds an extremely important place. The photos that were taken during our trip have now been made into a book which is at the heart of this exhibition.
Who are the Kuna Indians ?
The population of Kuna Indians comprises around 35,000 individuals the majority of whom live in Panama. We know very little about them, but it is thought that they fled from their country of origin (what is now Colombia) towards Panama when the Spanish conquistadors landed there at the end of the 16th century.
Later they were chased away by other Indian tribes and pushed back to the north-east coast of Panama, the San Blas archipelago and the forests of an area known as the Isthmus of Darien. They still live there today, more or less isolated from the rest of the Panamanian population. Some historians believe the Kuna Indians are the direct descendants of the Mayas. At all events, they continue to respect certain customs and traditions of the Mayas, especially those related to cocoa.
Why hold an exhibition on the Kuna Indians ?
Several scientific studies have shown that the Kuna Indians suffer very little from heart disease and that they also have low blood pressure. This is most probably due to the fact that each day they consume 4 to 5 cups of cocoa, which is rich in flavanols, in the form of a drink.
Indeed cocoa contains molecules, called flavanols, that help to dilate the blood vessels, thus limiting obstruction of the arteries, increasing blood flow and diminishing the risks of high blood pressure.
These conclusions show the important role that cocoa plays in the life of the Kuna Indians and this prompted the gourmet Chocolate Museum to organise an expedition to Panama.
We discover the various cocoa drinks consumed by the Kuna Indians
The expedition took us to two places: Playon Chico in the San Blas archipelago, where more than 1000 Kuna Indians live, and the village of Wala in the mountainous region of Darien where the local inhabitants live in total isolation.
In these lands, the populations mainly drink Madun, which is a drink made from mixing water with bananas and cocoa. They also drink O-Likwa a mixture of sugar-cane syrup, corn and cocoa.
Cocoa is omnipresent during the whole life span of the Kunas, from birth to death.
Cocoa is omnipresent during the life-time of the Kuna Indians, just as it was for the Mayas. In addition to feeding them, they also believe it holds special protective, curative and sacred powers and this from birth to death. The new-born child is welcomed into the world by the chant of the Nele and is censed with the smoke of burning cocoa as a form of protection. The Nele is a kind of witch doctor who takes the leading role in medical and sacred rituals. During each ritual he sings in order to earn the favours of the gods. Cocoa is used throughout the ritual. Eight cocoa beans are burnt and the smoke is believed to carry the chants up to the gods.
Cocoa is also used in different ceremonies; as a protective force during puberty rituals to protect young maidens, to reinforce mental faculties, as a supernatural force used by soothsayers to diagnose illness, to cure the sick but also to accompany the dead on their way to the after-life.
Cocoa is also used in everyday life for food but the Kuna women use also cocoa butter mixed with other plants to make beauty creams. By mixing Guayaba (guava) juice with charcoal and burnt cocoa beans, they paint a vertical line down their nose as a body decoration.