Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Archaeology and Indigenous Sovereignty in Darién, Panama

The Darién region of Panama is the only land bridge connecting North, Central and South America. Nowadays home to descendants of African enslaved peoples, Indigenous peoples (Emberá, Wounaan, and Guna), and mestizos, Darién has been and still is fundamental to connectivity, cultural interchange, and conservation.

Natalia Donner

Indigenous peoples in Darién live in autonomous territories, collective lands, and dispersed communities, some of which are situated within national parks and other protected areas. In 2019, the Ministry of Environmental Affairs of Panama signed Resolution DM-0612-2019, which allows Indigenous Peoples to pursue legal claims to their traditional lands today located within national protected areas if they can demonstrate the historicity and continuity of their occupation. In light of the new legislation, the Emberá community of Manené recently requested our support to carry out a collaborative archaeological project to thoroughly document the long history of ecological relations that the group has fostered within these landscapes, including but not limited to traditional gathering, hunting, fishing, and cultivation.

Project description

This project will actively contribute to Indigenous sovereignty (specifically land rights) by providing concrete evidence of continuous land stewardship to be used in legal proceedings.

Our work will build upon the participatory mapping initiative that culminated in the Macua Balsa, a map of Emberá communities along the Balsas River labeled with Emberá toponyms and family histories.

Our contribution will:

  1. Systematize the interview process and incorporate participant-observation;
  2. Build community capacity by training our local partners to systematically collect evidence of historical occupations even when we are not present;
  3. Elaborate a methodology for documenting the historical presence of the Emberá in the region that incorporates Indigenous knowledge and strategies;
  4. Create audiovisual clips in both Emberá and Spanish that summarize this participatory methodology. While we initially will be collaborating with one group, this method could be employed by other Indigenous Peoples in Panama to pursue similar aims and will contribute to indigenous archaeology methods more broadly.
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