di are fine baskets by the Wounaan Indians of the
Darien Rainforest of Panama. Silk-fine strands of the black
palm Astrocaryum standleyanum, called chunga, colored with
vegetal and organic dyes, are sewn over coils of Carludovica
palmate, called naguala.
The Wounaan and Embera Indians, who "weave" fine
baskets and call the Darien home, were once called Choco,
since they originally migrated in the late 1700's from
the Colombian province of Choco. Some 3,000 years ago,
they spoke the same language. Today they hardly understand
more than a few words in each other's languages and communicate
The Wounaan name for the original, fine traditional coil-construction
baskets made of chunga is hosig di. More tightly woven
and finer than their traditional woven utilitarian baskets
and made from several rainforest materials, the hosig
di art form was passed since earliest times from mother to
daughter. Baskets prior to 1982 were sparsely decorated,
if at all, but a professor studying
Choco language groups changed all that. Encouraged by Ron
Binder of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the Wounaan
began to impose onto the new baskets rainforest bird, flower,
and animal designs as well as geometries borrowed from
pre-Colombian pottery and textiles. By 1990, extraordinary
baskets exported from the Darien began to appear in collections
across the American Southwest, then throughout the world.
While the original functions of early hosig
di are still
a mystery, it was speculated that their ability to hold
water made them potential carrying or storage vessels.
However, that theory seems to collapse under the evidence
that pottery for water vessels has existed as early as
2000 B.C. in the Amazon Basin and similar regions. In the
early 16th century, when Spaniards debarked onto the coast
of Panama, they discovered pottery shards by the thousands.
Wounaan elders and legends support the pottery-for-water-storage
According to Milda de Membora, wife of Tonny Membora, the
current Wounaan President of the Wounaan General Congress
and head of the Wounaan Cooperative, hosig
di were originally
created to carry matches, called fosforos. But other tribal
leaders disagree and contend that the earlier fine baskets
most likely had lids and secreted small treasures and precious
objects. Bone needles to sew the baskets most likely preceded
the steel needles used today in recent times.
An estimated 10,000 Wounaan and 12,000 Embera inhabit the
Darien tropical rainforest lowland, where mdre than 160
inches of rain falls annually. In parts of the neighboring
Choco of Colombia, another 12,000 Wounaan live with up
to 400 inches of rain annually.
It has been said that the Wounaan are the originators of
fme art while the Embeni are imitators, and many gallery
owners in North America and Europe concur that the Wounaan
excel in this art form. However, individual Embeni weavers
compete for fine workmanship. Our collection is almost
The most dangerous tree for any brave foot traveler through
the roadless, nearly impenetrable Darien is the Astrocaryum
standleyanum. Chunga to the Wounaan, this black palm protects
itself with vicious spines up to six inches long.
The hard black wood from the chunga is prized for house
posts, and the leaves are used in curandero ceremonies.
According to elders, their ancient ancestors used strong
rope braided from chunga to tie demons that chased them
to the exposed roots of trees along the river. When the
water level rose, the demons would drown.
Only the young, tender emerging leaves at the top of the
spiny-trunked chunga is used to create hosig
the entire tree had to be felled, and its trunk either
used or left to become more organic material on the floor
of the rainforest. Increasingly, more sustainable practices,
such as the use of tall ladders and replanting are being
Chunga is so closely linked to Wounaan tradition and daily
life that each basket begins its creation with an inherent
spiritual quality. In fact, in an article by written by
Stuart G.R. Warner W. and published in the summer 1996
issue of Native Peoples magazine, the Wounaan are referred
to as "spirit weavers."
Warner W. states that the Wounaan Indian women have clearly
emerged as the most masterful basket weavers in Panama.
He also quotes anthropologist Andrew Hunter Whiteford,
then curator at the Wheelwright Museum and respected expert
in Native American baskets, as proclaiming "The Wounaan
coiled baskets are not only creative in design, but are
technically among the finest I have seen." And, indeed,
collectors are finding Wounaan baskets rival the finest
in the world.
Thank you for helping to support the cultural preservation
of these Darien Rainforest peoples.