Indigenous Chocolatiers: The Kuna People

  • By William Mullan

From a Western perspective, it's both odd and mouthwatering to think of chocolate as a culinary staple. The bitter, stimulating bean primarily manifests itself as a confectionary bar which, in this form alone, demonstrates considerable range and complexity, enjoying harmonious relationships with tea, sea salt, and even bourbon. However, historically speaking, the concept of “chocolate” is relatively new. For much of this loving and fruitful relationship between people and the bean, cacao has been enjoyed as a ceremonial elixir.

Both Mayan and Aztec cultures revered cacao as a gift from the gods, consuming it ritualistically, attributing strength and vigor to its ingestion. Modern science has proven their observations to be correct, revealing cocoa’s stimulating properties and beneficial effects on brain and circulatory health. One of the most touted confirmations of cacao as a health food comes from a group of studies on the Kuna people, an indigenous culture of Central American Indians in Panama. Like the Mayans and the Aztecs, the Kuna have long been sipping on several different variations of a cacao based beverage, which they call Siagwa.

The studies were originally conducted in the mid-90’s by Harvard Medical Researcher Dr. Norman Hollenberg. While observing the dietary habits of the Kuna, he discovered that they don’t suffer from the common rises in blood pressure and body mass that afflict a great proportion of Westernized populations with age. The Hollenberg studies report that the Kuna drink up to 30-40oz of “Siagwa” a day, along with a “whole food” diet rich in fish, wild game, plantains, yucca, corn and coconut.

The Kuna population is spread across three comarcas, autonomous reservations awarded to them by the Panama government after clashes with nearby Spanish and indigenous populations. The majority of Kuna live off the coast of “Kuna Yala”, the largest comarca, on a group of islands called San Balas. They are a self -sustaining mercantilist and agricultural economy, but they also generate some income through fishing and the sale of molas, a colorful traditional textile clothing.

The Kuna’s connection to cacao, or Siagwa, is deeply spiritual. They consume it as a source of nourishment and vitality. The Siagwa beverage is prepared in several different fashions; pure Siagwanis (ground whole cacao, boiled water, and sugar), Siagwa Olligwa (ground cacao, corn, and sugar), and Madun Siagwaba (boiled banana, ground cacao, sugar). In the video below, a Kuna woman demonstrates the preparation of Madun Siagwaba. She grinds the beans raw, boils them with plantain, and finishes by straining the liquid from the solids into a mug for consumption.  



While the Hollenberg studies are the most cited, recent investigations published by Jeffrey Barnes, Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Dawson College in Montreal, have reported a marked decline in whole bean cacao consumption among the Kuna. Barnes notes that this is largely due to fungal plant diseases infecting local trees. Today, the majority of their cocoa consumption comes from industrially-produced cocoa powder. Barnes quotes an elder Kuna representative, who laments this decline in whole bean consumption, “We barely drink Siagwa anymore, and this weakens us. Siagwa was the source of our strength”.

The Kuna people deeply respect the cacao plant. At Raaka, we strive to blend that respect for the plant with our love for the taste and pleasure of experiencing it in bar form. Our unroasted cacao contains no industrially separated powder or butter, only whole beans and blends of cane sugar, spices, teas, and other natural accents. This special food can be celebrated and consumed with mindfulness and joy.

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