Imagine the Spanish conquistadors surprise after days of following the Magdalena River to its headquarters in search of more gold, when they trudged through the thick tropical rain forest and came into a high valley where mounds of earth promised untold riches.
Imagine also their disappointment when they dug into the mounds and found stone dolmens, carytids and sculptures. Some of the mounds contained tombs, guarded by statues with fierce expressions, but only a few contained any of the fabulous riches found elsewhere in Colombia and displayed now in Bogotas Museo de Oro.
Imagine now the delight and fascination of archaeologists who uncovered more mounds and discovered the relics of a civilization that flourished and died between the 6th century B.C and 12th A.D.. Thought to be a cultural center and used by a succession of varied indigenous groups that disappeared before the Incas arrived on the scene, this region has several sites with the same type of statues and carvings, but the most important is the site at San Agustín, now the Parque Arqueológico de San Agustín, and listed in 1995 on the World Heritage List of UNESCO.
The park sprawls over an area of 500 square kilometers and is considered the largest of the pre-Columbian sites in South America, and brings together cultural influences from peoples of the Andes, Amazonia and the Caribbean groups. Though not much is known of the cultures who created the statues, dolmens and carvings, these relics tell a tale of their own. The lush landscape serves as a foil for statues representing mythical and real creatures, perhaps gods and actual men, as well as the Goddess of Motherhood. There are about 500 statues and tombs are scattered in groups over an area on both sides of the Rio Magdalena Gorge, and there may be more undiscovered to date.
The rich volcanic soil supports farmers who have tilled the soil for centuries. At lower altitudes, rice is prevalent, but at this height, coffee, corn, beans and other vegetables are grown. Early farmers built canals and terraces on hillsides around the mounds, seemingly paying little or no attention to the monumental tombs where important personages were buried with statues guarding their offerings to the gods of gold and pottery. Some of these statues guarding burial chambers have jaguar-type mouths and fierce expressions. Others look like birds of prey, snakes or other animals, such as monkeys, frogs or eagles. The jaguar figure is thought to be associated with a religious leader called a chamán or shaman, who could transform himself into a jaguar to keep balance in the world. It is thought that the concept of reincarnation is a large part of the rationale behind these monoliths.
Archaeological excavation began in the 1930's and unearthed figures where the paint or dyes, mainly red, blue and yellow were still visible. They began to fade as soon as the air reached them, but traces of these colors linger. Adorned with various styles of clothing, hairstyles and accesories, the statues share a common feature of blank eyes. The San Agustin statues are known as Chinas and are sculpted from big chunks of volcanic rock. They are mostly rectangular or oval in shape and are of various sizes. The largest weigh several tons and are over seven meters high.
Unfortunately, some of them are small enough to be carried off, or located far enough away to be attractive to looters who cut the pieces into small enough sections to be easily transported. They are now listed on the Red List of Latin-American Cultural Objects at Risk . This list contains 25 examples of specific pre-Columbian and Colonial heritage categories which are systematically looted throughout Latin America and are in great demand on the illegal antiquities market. See the specifics at San Agustín.
Take your time to explore the site. it is large and well maintained, with the tomb sites linked by pathways, great vistas into the mountains and valley. Apparently along with their fascination with death and burial, the developers of these sites had a keen eye for beauty and chose scenic sites to bury their dead. Some people were interred in a carved stone sarcophagus like this one. Please browse through the wonderful photographs of the San Agustín figures: