An Expedition to San Agustin and the Indian Reservation of Tierradentro in Southern Colombia

By: Hermann Von Walde-Waldegg

Originally Published in 1937

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FROM June until November 1936, I had the privilege of leading an expedition in Southern Colombia under the auspices of Boston College and the University Museum; the region investigated was the Andean plateau of San Agustin and the Colombian Massive, where a unique culture many centuries ago, left hundreds of monuments carved in stone.

Only three topics of the expedition will be treated briefly in this article: l. The culture of San Agustin and the archaeological discoveries made in the territory between the Valle de las Papas, west of the Colombian Massive, and the Indian reservation of Tierradentro to the east; 2. The geographical work on the Colombian Massive; 3. The archaeology of Tierradentro. Work in the Sabana of Bogota and the head-waters of the river Suaza will not be treated in this article.

As stratigraphy and differentiation of styles and material proved, three periods can be clearly distinguished in the culture which today is commonly called that of Son Agustin, from the village of that name on the eastern portion of the plateau.

Drawn map showing the western portion of Colombia

To the first period belong stone monuments and carvings representing religious subjects. The art of this period is crude at the beginning and highly advanced towards the close of the epoch. The period is characterized by a pottery of coarse grain, made up of red clay mixed with sand; a small olla with curved bottom is the typical product. Pottery of colossal dimensions is, however, also found in tombs and temples of this period. The ware is thick and not painted.

The second is a period of absolute decay as far as statuary is concerned. We find here a crude realism with representations of animals and figures taken from common life. The majority of these are not carved as monoliths, but rather on rocks. The pottery of this period is characterized by its finer grain, the nearly complete absence of sand and its light orange color. Generally the temper is mixed with mica. Handles and carvings with geometrical designs and dots appear in this period. The vessels are generally larger than in the first period but the finish less elaborate.

In the third period, which I would call the Renaissance, we find monumental art flourishing again, and an enormous increase in the religious sentiment as expressed in statuary. The most important feature of this period is the invention of an artificial material like stone. The artists of this epoch invented or learned of a substance, largely composed of coarse sand and clay, which, while wet, could be moulded with facility, metal tools being then unknown. Stone always formed the nucleus of these monuments; around this nucleus the whole mass was built and the outer layer modeled to form the features of the monument. The evidence of fire is apparent in nearly all monuments belonging to this cultural phase. The artificial material is not the same in all cases; in some regions clay is predominant in the mixture, in others sand. This fact contradicts the hypothesis that the monuments in question may have been carved of volcanic rock; stone of the same or even similar composition is not found anywhere in the region.

Three images, showing a bride and a marriage party, and a statue being raised using an apparatus built of branches
Plate X — The bride; A marriage ceremony among the Cucho Indians; Raising a statue long buried in the earth;

The pottery accompanying this period is of various shapes and dimensions and its composition is generally standard for a given region. For the first time we find painted ware and ware with negative painting. The latter, however, seems to have been limited exclusively to the plateau of El Salado Blanco, east northeast of San Agustin. Ware with added relief figures, generally representing snakes, is frequent.

The upper stratum contains ware of another culture which, if we understand correctly the XVIth century historian Cieza de Leon, may have been that of the Andaqui nation. The pottery of this civilization is quite different from that of the stone-carvers and shows a strong influence from the Cauca valley and the late Incaic period of Narino.

The most important find of the expedition was the discovery of a carved stone which I believe to be a calendar. The divisions carved on the surface of the stone slab, 1.65 m. high, 2.10 m. wide and 11 cm. in maximum thickness, point to a luni-solar time division of twelve lunations and 354 days, to which periodical intercalations may have been added, judging from other lines appearing near the center of the stone.

As far as we can deduce from the many monuments scattered about the region, the religion of the stone-carvers was henotheisticototemistic, a new expression which I should like to adopt because I think that it completely renders the idea of the religious beliefs of that people. Their pantheon consisted of gods incorporating natural forces; we find gods of the elements, deities incorporating other elements necessary to their life, like the God of Coca, and apparently also deifications of deceased political and religious chieftains.

The worship of a Supreme Being can be deduced from the entire religious appearance of the civilization. Clan divisions may have been the cause for the adoption of apparent totems, of which some of the most conspicuous are the bat, which is also a symbol of death, the snake, the monkey and the puma. A phallic cult existed on the northern slopes of the river Naranjos and the female sex was worshipped in the region of Isnos, north of the Magdalena river. Smaller objects, mainly stone and clay talismans with these representations, were discovered in excavations at both sites.

Three images showing a man working, a view looking down onto a village, and a river scene
Plate X — Modern pottery making in San Agustin; The village of San Agustin; The River Magdalena breaking away from the Lake of Santiago
Image Numbers: 241181, 241180

At the west side of the Colombian Massive, in the “Valle de las Papas,” two statues belonging to the first period of the culture were discovered together with a very large bowl, now in the Boston College Anthropological Museum.

On the Colombian Massive the location of the origins of the four great Colombian rivers, the Magdalena, the Caqueta, the Patia and the Cauca, were determined and the coordinates of these locations calculated. Nearly one thousand altitudes were taken, and maps giving the geographical location of sites, mountain ranges and river courses were drawn of an area of approximately 1800 sq. km.

In excavations undertaken between the middle course of the river Bordones and the Indian reservation of Tierradentro, a great many statues belonging to the second and third periods of the culture of San Agustin were discovered. During the entire expedition one hundred and twenty-seven monuments were discovered or observed.

In Tierradentro a general survey was made of the underground tombs in the neighborhood of San Andres. These tombs are real edifices cut in the shape of polygons in the undersoil of hills. The ceiling is always sustained by two or four columns which, like the walls, are covered with a layer of an artificial, even and well polished mortar. Curving stairs ascend to these tombs, the last three stairs always in the shape of a half ellipse. The walls and columns of the interior are painted with the most beautiful symmetrical designs in black, blue and red and sometimes we find relief figures in Atlantean attitudes on the columns. The even and very hard floor became a resting place for human bones. These are painted and were heaped together in a small and shallow square hole, showing no signs of fire. Thus I presume that no cremation must have taken place, but that the dead was actually buried for the second time in these tombs. The culture to which they belonged may be that of the Pijao Indians who probably inhabited this region at the time of the Conquest.

Cite This Article

Walde-Waldegg, Hermann Von. "An Expedition to San Agustin and the Indian Reservation of Tierradentro in Southern Colombia." Museum Bulletin VI, no. 6 (May, 1937): 25-30. Accessed July 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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