The Kuna people live predominantly on the San Blas Islands off the Atlantic coast of Panama with a population of approximately 50,000. The Kuna believe that sickness and disease are caused by poni, malevolent spirits that enter a person’s body and capture his or her soul. Wooden healing dolls, known as nuchus, play an important role in healing the sick and warding off poni.
Nuchus are typically carved out of balsa wood, as this one is. The detail in the doll depends on the skill of the carver, but most are standing upright with the arms along the torso and knees slightly bent. Generally, the dolls’ faces feature a very straight nose and no mouth. Gender can be difficult to distinguish. Some are painted to show brightly colored clothing, while others are plain.
Once carved, the doll is brought to a shaman, who imbues the nuchu with a good spirit to ward off evil and recover the sick person’s captured soul. After the patient has been cured, used nuchus are often kept and handed down through generations. If the doll is cracked or broken, the spirit within the doll becomes unstable and dangerous, requiring the intervention of a shaman to free it. Only nuchus that have been damaged in some way, as this one has, can be given away or sold.