Yarre Mongara, the mysterious “Monkey Stone”, lay hidden to outsiders in the impenetrable terrain of Panama’s Darien Jungle for an estimated 3-5000 years. Then in 1995, guided by an Embera elder named Daniel Castaneda, the highly acclaimed world explorer, Robert Hyman, reached and documented the Monkey Stone. Hyman not only relied on Castenada to guide him through the Darien Jungle, known to the Embera as El Bosque, or in English “The Forest”, but also as an interpreter to negotiate permission for crossing these sacred tribal lands.
XplorMor Team has their own story to tell of exploring the Darien and Yarre Mongara. However, Hyman’s paper titled Panama’s Darien Gap: Home to the Secrets of Sambu (March 2006) relays firsthand the incredible moments leading to and during the first documentation of the petroglyphs. And, without his documentation we may not have had the privilege.
In Robert Hyman’s own words…
One evening (in 1993), when I expressed an interest in returning to the jungle of Panama for another expedition, I received quite a surprise.
Daniel (Castenada) confided in me that he had a secret known only to a few in his Embera tribe. He described a place deep in their jungle territory, in a different watershed than our first expedition, which outsiders much less foreigners had never visited. It was a massive sacred rock decorated with intricate petroglyphs, pre-historic rock carvings etched by Daniel’s ancestors hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. He said we would find the ground littered with broken pottery from his ancient culture.
I could not believe what I was hearing… Was Daniel’s story truth – or just folklore? We immediately formed the Sambu Archaeological Research Expedition, which had the distinction of carrying with it Explorers Club flag No.145.”
The Sambu Archaeological Research Expedition commenced in September 1994. After hours in planes and hours trekking the rugged jungle terrain, Hyman continues…
Daniel told me nonchalantly that we had arrived at our destination.
I looked around incredulously and saw nothing different from what we had seen over the past five hours of hiking. But the Embera insisted that we were at the rock with the petroglyphs. Again I closely surveyed my surroundings; Daniel sensed my confusion, so he pointed to the large boulder that was beside me in the river. He took my hand and placed it upon the side of the boulder, gently passing it over the surface covered by moss and ferns. I could barely feel the manmade grooves on the rock the Embera call “Yarre Mongara,” or monkey stone.
“Tomorrow you will see,” Daniel promised, “but now we must set up camp.”
At 5:30 in the morning I awoke feeling as excited as a kid at Christmas. After breakfast we constructed scaffolding from materials provide by the rain forest, which supported us while we cleaned off the years of undisturbed growth. After hours carefully cleaning the petroglyph using the river water, I photographed the entire rock face from every angle and then each individual, deeply-etched carving, which resembled human faces and animals.
I wondered if I was really the first outsider to see these amazing and beautiful works of art. But the Embera – and archaeologists in the intervening years since – assured me that I was. We took precise measurements of the carvings and the surrounding area as the day faded to evening. (Estimates by noted archaeologist Prof. Carlos Fitzgerald, date the carvings to 3-5,000 B.C.)
In 2004, the Bahia Pinas Expedition lead by Jules Chenoweth ventured to the Yarre Mongara in order to document the site and petroglyphs in a more exacting nature. The outcome of their study is documented in The Rediscovery & Survey of the Rio Sambu Petroglyph. Included in the report are line drawings of the stone carvings along with measurements and photos.
With these enthralling accounts in mind, the Darien Archaeological & Terrain Research Expedition set out in March 2013 to re-document the Yarre Mongara, search for other petroglyph sites and mark a new route through the Darien territory from Puerto Quimba off the Pan-American Highway to Playa de Muerto on the Pacific Coast. The expedition crew navigated rivers and streams in motorboats and piraguas (dugout canoes), and hiked miles across pristine forested lands in what is nicknamed, the “Darien Gap”, along with sections of Darien National Park. This was the experience of a lifetime: wading fully clothed through streams and rivers, looking up trunks of giant trees hiding the sky, watching fluttering enormous blue butterflies, sleeping in hammocks hung between trees, listening to howling monkeys, hearing the sounds of a wild, untouched forest all around us, and locating petroglyphs of a now lost ancient culture.
XplorMor Team members Julia and Bryan share their journeys on the Darien Archaeological and Terrain Research Expedition in Xplorer Journals.
Further research notes from Julia, dated 8/2/2014: Yarre Mongara, translates from the Embera language into English as “Monkey Stone”. In researching the Darien, I came across the Cariban word Yarrekaru or Iarreka-ru, meaning “the monkey”. The word also appears in the related Akawaio language as Iwarreka. Furthering the study, revealed origins of the Embera language as descending from Chocoan which evolved from Cariban of the Carib People. In 1943 Paul Rivet, a French anthropologist, premised that Cariban and Chocoan languages are related. Over the past decades this hypothesis has been argued. However, the similarity of the Embera Yarre to the Carib Yarrekaru would suggest accuracy in Rivet’s argument.
Carib, is a European corruption of “Galibi”, the original, true name of the People. However, they became known by the western explorers as Caribs, the term they took to mean “Island People”. Hence, the naming of the Caribbean Sea, or Sea of Islands.