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In cases flanking the entryway are these two remarkable sculptures, called 'soul boats." They come from the Kuna people, one of Panama's three major indigenous groups. To our eyes they may look like toys, but they're important religious artifacts meant to carry a soul to the afterworld.

Matthew Robb is the curator of the Art of the Americas at San Francisco's de Young Museum.

If you look at both of these boats, you'll see an enormous number of figures on the deck, on the prow, on the back of the boat. And these figures represent different aspects of the afterlife in Kuna culture. These figures represent benevolent forces and evil forces.

Some may protect food; others spread darkness as camouflage. Still others—such as the alligators, may repel malevolent spirits.

Soul boats were placed with the deceased's possessions, along with food, for the journey to the afterlife.

In the Kuna tradition, the soul does not instantly leave the body at the time of death. We have to understand death as a process, not simply a singular event. And these boats with their figures and different kinds of representations of natural forces, are thought to help the soul on its journey back to the rising sun, in the east.

Collected in 1923, less than a decade after the Panama Canal opened, these sculptures are incredibly rare because of their size and age. They provide an insight into a culture that, even today, maintains its traditional beliefs and ways.

Step3-Soul Boats, Cuna Culture, Panama

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