Thursday, June 28, 2012

2012, 20th - 25th June: San Agustín & Tierradentro, Colombia

The south west of Colombia is rich in archaeological burial sites, which give an insight into the philosophies of the peoples that lived in Colombia long before the arrival of the Spanish with their very different (European Christian) take on spirituality and life after death.

For the full complement of photos that accompany this blog entry, use the following link to the corresponding set in my Flickr account:

The Countryside

The area of the Colombian state of Cauca I explored lies within the Central cordillera (mountain range). With the elevation keeping things at a pleasant temperature and stunning countryside, it is a very pleasant place to be. The sheer length and breadth of the mountain range provides a seemingly never ending succession of ridges and valleys, all green and lush with vegetation. Most of the mountain sides are dotted with small farms / homesteads growing sugar cane, coffee and bananas.

Lush Vegetation in the Valley of Rio Magdalena near to San Agustín

Rio Magdalena near to San Agustín

San Agustín

Around the town of San Agustín are many archaeological burial sites with many statues. Much of the statuary is in the region of one thousand years old. The statues ´stand guard´ over tombs which were covered with slabs and buried.

Generally, the figures depicted by the statues wear masks and other adornments indicative of a Shamanistic type culture. The zoomorphic figures show the reverence attributed to the power of animals in Shamanistic beliefs, with the spiritual power of animals aiding the Shaman´s journeying to other planes.  Human forms are adorned with jewellery worn to symbolize animals and some figures show combined human-animal (zoomorphic) forms.  Jaguars feature regularly, as do eagles and snakes. Other symbolisms included in the statues are, childbirth, fertility and virility.

On a jeep tour I saw the sites at Alto de los Idoles and Alto de las Piedras as well as some wonderful views of the beautiful valleys in the area north of San Agustín, with rivers and waterfalls adding to the natural spectacle.

Statue at Alto de los Idolos near to San Agustín

Statue at Parque Arqueológico San Agustín

I saw many statues walking around Parque Arqueológico San Agustín. After this I walked on tracks through valleys to the north west of San Agustín past many small homesteads and plantations of coffee and various fruits. This allowed me to see the more remote archaeological sites at El Prutal, La Chaquira and El Tablon. The two tombs and statues at El Prutal were particularly striking as they still have the original paint and the symbolic adornments to the forms were clear. One statue was a male Shaman figure with a weapon in one hand and an infant in the other – it is not known whether the injured infant was being healed (by a medicinal Shaman) or whether a sacrifice was being represented. The other statue of a female represented childbirth, with the nine months of pregnancy being represented by nine eagles claws across the brow of the woman.

Statue of Shaman at El Prutal near to San Agustín

Statue of Woman Giving Birth at El Prutal near to San Agustín

Tierradento & San Andrés de Pisimbalá

 The journey from San Agustín to San Andrés de Pisimbalá was challenging as I had to take four separate collectivos. The last leg of the journey (from La Plata to San Andrés de Pisimbalá) was two hours along an unpaved mountain road (which was unsurprisingly being repaired in many sections where rivers were doing their best to erode the ground beneath the route). Fortunately I was early enough for the collectivo to get a seat inside, others rode on the roof while two guys had to stand on the rear footplate holding on for two hours along winding and bumpy dirt roads.

Around small pueblos of Tierradentro and San Andrés de Pisimbalá are a number of ancient burial tombs. The peoples of the area (like those near to San Agustín) also believed in the spiritual power of animals and their decoration of some tombs as well as the burial urns included jaguars (strength and life-giving power of the sun), snakes (the cycle of life, the process (progression) of life and death, a sexual symbol and transformation of the universe), salamander (male sexual symbol, fertilization, transformation and new life), centipedes (female sexual symbol and procreation). All animal symbols represent new life, resurrection (as opposed to other religion´s concept of death).

The ancient peoples buried their dead in a primary burial site. After fifteen to twenty years, the bones of the dead were removed and placed inside burial urns. These urns were placed inside underground tombs where the urns of many generations of the same family were kept.

Collapsed Burial Tombs at Alto del Aguacate near to Tierradentro

Burial Urns in a Tomb at Alto de Segovia near to Tierradentro

Some of the tombs in the area were painted and regularly included a human face carved into the rock with the simple shape of an inverted triangle. The most interesting tombs were at the Alto de Segovia (painted tombs) and Alto del Aguacate sites. Reaching the latter involved a long and humid climb to its impressive position on a ridge at 2000 metres. Many of the tombs at Alto del Aguacate were collapsed, but one of the intact ones contains some original painted symbols of salamanders (male sexual symbol, fertilization, transformation and new life).

Painting of a Salamander in Tomb at Alto del Aguacate near to Tierradentro

Tomb at Alto de Segovia near to Tierradentro

Tomb at Alto de Segovia near to Tierradentro

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