San Agustin - A Timeless Question

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January 21st 2009
Published: January 22nd 2009
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San Agustin - A timeless question

She looks at me through the light rain and I notice her jaguar eyes and teeth, I am told her name is Diosa de la Lluvia, (Goddess of the Rain). A rainbow sits on her head like a hat and she smiles with a promise. A promise of what? I have no idea. Unfortunately no one has any idea, the culture that made her had no written language and disappeared long before anyone could ask. Experts can only guess, and make assumptions based on other traditions with similar designs and techniques in the area.

If the level of a culture is measured by its metaphorical art and not written language then these statues are proof of a highly intelligent culture. There are over 500 statues ranging from half a metre to 7 metres high, depicting various ‘southpark’ looking people who either guarded tombs, or were buried with the person in the tomb to accompany them to the afterlife. Most date around 900AD, when the culture was at its peak, although some go back to 3300 BC.

San Agustin, where these guys live, is 400km south of Bogotá, in the Hulia department, it is a long drive, and if you get caught in traffic, like we did, and can be a two day journey. The Magdalena River is born in Hulia and it is where the valley between the central and eastern ridges begins. There are also several other spectacular natural features to see like the “El Estrecho” - a point where country’s main river is narrowed by massive rocks and forced through a 2 metre wide corridor, (a bit like Huka Falls) and water falls that take your breath away with their gigantic length.
The town of San Agustin itself is distinguishable by the uniformity of its white with dark green trim houses and bustling roads.

Isabel has a close friend here, Ampere, who invited us to stay with her. Her house is breathtakingly beautiful. From the street you enter a small discreet door, which opens into a vibrant courtyard framed by the two-story house, complete with a huge balcony, and bursting with pot plants, and a feature orange tree. From the balcony you can see three sets of mountains fading into the distance as well as the town church.

Monday is market day so we trot off bright and early to see all the farmers coming into town on Chivas, (which you will remember from the Rio Claro entry that they are iconic Colombian buses) piled with bananas, coffee, live chickens in potatoes bags, and a variety of other home grown produce. It is likely the town has not changed in at least 200 years, and the only additions are those few stalls selling shiny new shoes. Later in the day we saw people walking miles back to their homes with sacks over their shoulders full of the goods they must have bought or exchanged in the market. A simple way of life, that I can’t help but compare to my own, with all its excessive consuming and complexity, now both physically and mentally miles away.

I am glad we opted for a guide to give us explanations at San Agustin’s Archaeological Park, as when we got to the statues and tombs there were no signs offering suggestions about their origin or meaning. Our guide Victor is very knowledgeable and talkative (very talkative!): ideal for us as we ask him a mountain of questions by the end of the day.

There used to be Chivas taking people around the park, but now the only access is by foot. The statues have recently had fences put around them and roofs put over their heads in an effort to help preserve them. They are after all a part of the world heritage family (UNESCO).

The first rock in the park is of two snakes, unlike the bible that portrays the snake as ‘evil’ - tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit; in most cultures they are a symbol of fertility and wisdom. Modern medical associations have two snakes wrapped around a staff that comes from these origins, seen from Egypt to here in South Colombia.

I find it interesting that cultures all around the world interpreted their reality in a similar way despite not having any contact. Perhaps it has something to do with being in contact with the true nature of your environment, not a false one that urban life styles generate?

The park is littered with tombs that come in two main forms. The first is when the body of the deceased is placed in a hole lined with huge rock slabs. The second is the same but later, when all the flesh has rotted, the bones are collected and placed into large vases and re-buried. Most tombs are guarded or accompanied by a ‘Southpark like’ statue representing a god and two guards placed on either side armed with weapons and a fierce face. However this doesn’t really fit with my understandings and my theory is that it is actually a god like image of the person within. A lot of the statues face west towards the setting sun, representing the end of life, which is the same idea as The Valley of Kings in Egypt. Like most ancient sites though, treasure hunters have damaged them and had pieces stolen by other countries: 36 statues moved to Berlin in 1916 when Konrad Preuss took them back with him. Despite this, most stand in the original place they were found and are in good condition given their age.

Due to our lingering and inquisitive pace, we spent a good day in the park, arriving around 10 and not leaving until 5pm, although you can do it in a few hours. As you weave through the park you meet a lot of friends, the highlights and most recognisable are the eagle with a snake in its beak and under its foot: similar to the Mexican images and ideas. And the Sun, who is a very cheerful head: he has no body like the others. It is suggested that he acted as a sundial due to the notches on top of his head, although I was the only one who seemed to notice that he was part of a circle of rocks that resemble a sundial. In conclusion I will support the idea that he is a ‘sun guy’.

The most revered animal is the jaguar, (which is also so of later groups like the Muisca, who’s jaguar designs dominate Museo de Oro in Bogotá). In his honour the human like statues where given jaguar features: elongated eyes, some of which are friendly others that are large and aggressive, pointed k9 teeth that protrude from mouths, again some welcoming and others threatening. The noses are also cat like in that they are wider and flatter than humans.

Each statue has different accessories to distinguish them from the others. Some have a skull around their neck, symbolising that they are warrior - it is believed that warriors would keep the skulls of his enemy as a sign of prowess. Others have necklaces that would have been made from black and red fruit stones, generally the more necklaces the higher their status. A few had hats again a sign of rank and several are women, one in particular is very apparent, as she has a pregnant belly, is smaller than the others and has a different pattern covering her ‘privates’.

Once we had the basic ideas outlined it was fun bouncing to each statue and making our own assessments and theories, from the Siamese twins to the symmetric man and the Sharman.

Another curiosity is the riverbed that has been carved with multiple figures. The Ceremonial Fountain of Lavapata's. It is possible that this part of the water flow was used as a kind of hospital where the Sharman would cleanse himself in a rectangular bath further down stream then give all sorts of medical help further up stream. Some sections suggested that women would give birth in the water while another had a bowl near a chair with feet suggesting the administration of herbal remedies.

At the top of Lavapata's hill there are a few more friends including one of the two famous Doble Yo’s, (Double Me’s). As we loop back towards the entrance we diverge and head into the forest. Here there are no tombs but statues placed along a circular track. Most of them are Sharmans and have round eyes to indicate they are in an alternative state of consciousness. A state that is bought about by drinking Yage, which is a herbal beverage that cleanses your body allowing you to travel to the spirit world.
It is an interesting walk that includes the rain goddess and the genesis statue - human kind was born when a jaguar mated with a monkey. The trail winds up in the museum where there are other smaller statues and vases along with additional research notes.

My overall impression is that like most cultures they are interested in the beginning and end of life. There are tombs near statues of women giving birth that suggest there is a path from start to finish being portrayed and taught. There is a local story about an Army Generals wife who on a private tour of the park asks if she can touch a statue of a pregnant woman, she does so, and is inconsolable with tears for at least half an hour. When asked what happened, she said she saw a woman with a child, and as she herself was unable to conceive, it grieved her greatly. A few years later she returned to the park for a visit with her son!

The next day, to make life easy, we went on a guided tour around the local area - I felt pretty dusty after a whole day bumping around in the back of a pickup, but loved every minute! We started our day at El Estrecho that I mentioned earlier, then a visit to meet more friends at Alto de los Idolos (Idols Hill) and Alto de las Piedras (Stones Hill). One suggestion by Luis Duque Gomez, a Colombian researcher, is that the area was a Mecca for people from all over the place, coming here to bury their dead and worship their gods. This is quite interesting and gives the area even more kudos - but why is its significance lost to time? Was it a leadership change? Or did the exhaustion of resources force them to move on and abandon this place? I guess these answers can never be given with full explanation and like a lot of history the mystery remains. In a way, perhaps it is better, having a little mystery in a world of scientific certainty.

After visiting two water falls - Salto de Bordones and Salto de Mortiño and pushing the stuck vehicle out of the mud, Amparo treats us to a night of bread baking in her brick made, dome shaped oven, the size of a mini cooper in the backyard. As yet another example of Colombian hospitality, Amparo has decided to do this so I, a stranger, can see how this kind of oven is used! The making of sweet bread is already underway, but there are still the orange biscuits, yucca bread and normal bread to make. All are bite size in a variety of shapes. I am quite over whelmed by the amount of people showing up, again, families here are big and having a family dinner can easily mean 20 people. Moka cracks the eggs and we all get a chance to try out our sculpting skills. Hernando creates his own moon shaped bread that is a hit! The oven is prepared by building a fire inside, it will be ready when all the wood is white hot, at which stage it is all pushed out the back through a small opening. The bottom of the oven is brushed with a broom made from a bundle of herbs and the trays of lovingly made rolls are placed inside. They brown of really quick and that first piping hot piece of bread we stole: just mouth-watering.

Pollo along with arroz, papas and ensalada has also been prepared and all 25 of us load up our plates and sit down to a delightful evening meal, accompanied by Amparo‘s secret recipe papaya juice. Not only have we spent the last couple of days exploring ancient magic, but we have also been experiencing modern magic, in the form of generosity and friendship. (Muchas gracias por todo Amparo.)

I have a few more pieces of my Colombian jigsaw now, which is still only a fraction complete, but it is more than I started with. Even though we no longer know who made the statues of San Agustin, it is the regions heritage, depicting an understanding of how life begins and ends. For me I perceived the importance of what we do with the bit in between. How we treat those around us, how we behave and how we act.

How will I fare in the afterlife?

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