Just off the coast of the Central American country of Panama is an idyllic archipelago of islands and cays called the San Blas Islands. Here is a postcard picture perfect island paradise of sunny skies, pristine wilderness, crystal clear waters, and white sand beaches, which has become a haven for ecotourism. The islands also have their own native inhabitants with a unique culture all their own, the Cuna, who are still rather isolated and have long had a rather curious mystery amongst them. Here, among the largely brown skinned natives, is a phenomenally high rate of albinos, and to this day it is unclear as to why this should be.
The Cuna themselves were once seen as savage primitives relegated to the mountains of Panama, only spreading and branching out to the islands in around the days since Christopher Columbus set foot here. They long remained an enigma even into modern times, seen as mystic savages who routinely chased off all outsiders, practiced black magic, and wanted nothing to do with the world at large. It has only been in relatively recent years that they have somewhat warmed up to visitors, and it has become increasingly obvious that among their ranks are a fair number of tribe members who stick out due to their sriking albinism. Speaking in purely statistical terms, the number of albinos in the San Blas Islands is quite staggering. The most official number is around 2 albino residents per 100 normal colored citizens, compared to one albino in every 10,000 in the United States.
Considering the deep superstitions of the Cuna people, these anomalies have been called the “Moon Children,” said to be cursed with their affliction due to their parents staring at the moon too long. This has lead to great fear among pregnant women that their children too will become like this, often consulting medicine men as to whether they will have a Moon Child, and it seems to be somewhat of a stigma within the tribe. The albinos themselves face many hardships in their environment, not the least of which is the relentless tropical sun, which forces most of them to remain indoors during the day, only coming out in the late afternoon or evening hours. The many biting or stinging insects that buzz about also cause more damage to their sensitive skin than others, and it is not uncommon to see albino tribe members with scratched, infected, or severely blotched skin riddled with lesions. They also tend to be less muscular and physically fit than their brethren, have myopic eyes, and are relegated to more sedentary lives and light jobs within the tribe.
This stigma has carried over into modern times. Albinos are typically unable to find mates or marriage partners, and indeed there was a time not too long ago when they were forbidden from marrying altogether. This has led many of these afflicted or pregnant women who fear it to seek the help of medicine men, who tend to prescribe large doses of charcoal to ward off the Moon Child effect, with pregnant women drinking large quantities of charcoal in the hopes of staving off the “curse.” Mothers who are sure that they are going to have a Moon Child have been known to terminate their pregnancies, or otherwise dispose of their newborn if they turn out to be albino. It was not until there was a decree by the tribal chief to keep the Moon Children that this practice stopped, and one wonders just how many babies and unborn fetuses met their doom by infanticide because of these superstitions.
Despite this rather unique place within the tribe and the stigma, the Moon Children do have some benefits in their beliefs. For instance, it is believed that the albinos are more attuned to the spirit world, and they are also seen as purer, less violent, and less likely to be sinful. They are viewed as being more in tune with the gods, and so are often sought out for religious rituals and ceremonies. Throughout all of this, medical professionals have struggled to understand why the rate of albinism should be so high in this one region of the world. Is it something to do with their diet? Is it something in the land or the water itself? Or is it something more? No one knows, and the still very reclusive nature of the tribe makes getting any answers difficult, but some day we may know. In the mean time the Moon Children of the San Blas Islands go about their strange lives away from the modern world, waiting for answers.