Genesis Gems / Pre-Colombian History

Pre-Colombian Goldwork
Courtesy of: Museo Del Oro / Bogota, Colombia

Colombia, one of Latin Americas riches countries in natural resources is located in the northwest of South America. Washed by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and by the Pacific to the west, like a spinal column, the chain of the Andes Mountains stretches up from the south of the continent forming three fertile branches with countless valleys, plateaus and hillsides inhabited by the majority of the present-day population. The total land area is 1,141,748 sq km (440,831 sq mi).

Colombia's varied topography also includes torrid lowlands; selvas (rain forests); and vast plains, or llanos. The principal river, the Magdalena, flows north across practically the entire country. Wildlife includes the larger South American mammals such as jaguars, pumas, and tapirs and monkeys, red deer, snakes, and birds. Colombia lies almost entirely in the Torrid Zone, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The climate, however, varies with the elevation, with cooler temperatures at higher altitudes.

In ancient times this land was occupied by societies governed by chiefs. Gold, the sacred metal, adorned the political leaders and was used as offerings to the gods. In the southwest of Colombia, the cultures which archaeologists call Tumaco, Calima, Malagana, Cauca, San Agustín, Tierradentro, Nariño, Quimbaya and Tolima, were the first to work the metal they found in the rivers.

Around the beginning of our era these peoples lived in villages surrounded by fields. Trade and exchange routes ensured that ideas and news travelled from one region to another. However, the zenith of the southwestern cultures declined around A.D. 1000 and the territory was taken over by more populous egalitarian societies. When the European conquistadores arrived in 1500, goldwork was characteristic of the cultures to the north: Sinú, Urabá, Tairona, Muisca. Their styles, while distinct from one another, shared a preference for casting in tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper.

Gold objects accompanied the dead in their tombs, and today bear witness to the spirit of the people who created them.


Tumaco Culture

The Pacific coastal plain, from the mangrove swamps to the tropical forest of the Andean foothills, offers a variety of resources for human subsistence.

Living around the estuaries over a period of more than 2000 years, the people of the Tumaco culture and the neighbouring Ecuadorian region of La Tolita developed an effective economic system based on fishing and maize agriculture. Their ceramics portray resplendent chiefs as well as ordinary people, sometimes normal, sometimes sick or deformed. As if in some mysterious rite, the clay heads seem to have been struck off, adorned with characteristic Tumaco jewellery: little soldered nose and ear ornaments, golden studs and pips inserted into the skin of the cheek.

Calima Culture

During the first millennium BC, in the valley of the rivers Calima and Dagua which flow into the Pacific Ocean, groups of settled farmers and excellent potters began a long process of development known as Ilama.

Later the populations began to expand, adapting the landscape of hills and valleys to make house platforms, raised fields and drainage canals. This Yotoco period (2nd century BC - 9th century AD) in Calima produced splendid gold pieces: beautiful ornaments to enhance the prestige of their wearers, accompanying them eventually to their tombs; representations of a varied fauna and men with animal characteristics, combining the real world with the mythical; dippers and containers, poporos, for the ritual consumption of the sacred coca leaf.

Towards the tenth century AD the area was occupied by the Sonso people, whose warriors, resplendent in coppery gold helmets and pectorals, were to confront the Spanish in 1530.

Malagana Culture

In the flat plain of the middle Cauca valley, one of the most fertile regions of the country, remains have recently been found of a culture contemporary with Yotoco and the great flowering of the southwest. Archaeologists have named it after the area of the first discovery: Malagana.

The grave goods of the lords of Malagana comprise large masks and pectorals, diadems, nose ornaments, bracelets and poporos in fine repoussé gold. A few cast charms and beads with complicated zoomorphic motifs contrast with the simplicity of most of the metalwork.

Cauca Culture

Around AD 1000 the age of the great gold objects had passed in the southwest, and the valley of the river Cauca was occupied by warrior groups with a different tradition. Goldwork was widely used, though alloyed with copper, among the chiefs who confronted the Spanish conquistadores wearing nose ornaments like twisted nails `with gold necklaces upon them and on their chests a breastplate of gold the size of a platter, which they call patens' according to an anonymous chronicler. `The Indians of this land', wrote Cieza de León, `use a great deal of low grade gold, up to seven carats, some more and some less.'

Between Tierradentro, Popayán and Puracé, in the upper Cauca valley, traces have been found of a little-known group which produced complex pendants of gold and tumbaga in the form of birds or frogs, combined with human features.

San Agustín Culture

In San Agustín, enclosed in the Colombian Massif where the Andes divide into two branches and the Cauca and Magdalena rivers have their sources, imposing statues of volcanic stone recall the great days of a culture which vanished some eight centuries before the Spanish arrived.

For more than 2000 years, sedentary farmers were scattered over an area of 500 square kilometres. Their agricultural terraces and canals alternated with artificial mounds covering their monumental tombs, guarded by statues. Important persons were buried with offerings of gold and pottery, representing a rich mythical world inhabited by beings with jaguar mouths and ferocious expressions, guardians with weapons and trophy heads, birds of prey, serpents and other animals. The figure of the jaguar-man was associated with the chamán, the religious leader who could transform himself into a feline in order to balance the contradictory forces of the cosmos.

Tierradentro Culture

The eastern foothills of the Central Cordillera were named Tierradentro (‘land within’) by the Spanish after the rugged topography gashed by the canyons of the river Paez and its tributaries. 1000 years ago the inhabitants of these magical regions excavated monumental tombs on the summits of the hills, with subterranean chambers entered by spiral staircases. Painted with geometric figures in red and black, they reproduced the interiors of dwelling houses; here exhumed bones from earlier burials were placed in funerary urns.

A thousand years earlier, groups distantly connected with San Agustín had buried their dead with grave goods in rather shallow tombs. Tierradentro goldwork is of amazing technical quality: masks, ear ornaments, pectorals, sometimes adorned with repoussé jaguars whose prominent fangs are similar to those on the San Agustín statues.

Today this area is occupied by the Paez Indians.

Nariño Culture

The cold high plain of the Andes on the border between Colombia and Ecuador was inhabited around the seventh century AD by a group called Capulí by archaeologists. This culture, which buried its chiefs in tombs up to 30 or 40 metres deep, had commercial dealings with the inhabitants of the Amazonian slopes and the Pacific coast and worked fine gold by hammering, using similar techniques to those of the southwest of Colombia.

At the same time the region was occupied by another group, Piartál, whose pottery, woodwork, textiles and gold are remarkable for their refinement of design. Their goldworking technique is unique in the metallurgical panorama of the country. Their descendants, known as Tuza, were influenced by the last Incas of Perú, and were still living in the area at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Quimbaya Culture

The goldsmiths of the Early Quimbaya period (1st - 10th centuries AD) created a naturalistic art form on the temperate slopes bordering the river Cauca. Their poporos were inspired by plant forms; others are portraits with calm faces and stately postures, inside which fragments of calcined bones have been found. These masters of lost wax casting modelled their pieces in beeswax and covered them with clay, so that when the mould was heated the wax left its form on the inside. The gold-copper alloy tumbaga, poured into the mould, took on the same shape as the wax model.

Towards the 10th century AD the middle Cauca valley was occupied by other communities who survived until the Spanish conquest. Living in villages of circular houses, they buried their dead in large cemeteries. The ornaments of the Late Quimbaya period are of gold and copper in simple forms, very widely used.

Tolima Culture

The valley of the river Magdalena, the principal fluvial artery of Colombia, was an important interface zone in population movement and commercial exchange, reflected in the influence among the southern, central and northern cultures.

Goldwork in an abstract style, symmetrical and schematic, is typical of the art produced here from the beginning of the Christian era. A profound dualistic cosmology is expressed through a love of contrast and balance between the full and empty spaces decorating strange mythical beings with wings and jaguar teeth, or fabulous insects with the powers of bird, fish or feline.

When the Spanish arrived the area was populated by numerous groups of Carib speakers with a tribal organisation of dispersed, independent villages.

Sinú Culture

The tropical plains of the Caribbean in the north of Colombia are areas of lakes, estuaries and savannahs, with a varied fauna. The Zenús had been expanding since the 8th century BC in the basins of the rivers Sinú, San Jorge, Cauca and Nechi. At their peak their territory was divided into three provinces with complementary economic functions: production of edible tubers, various manufactures and the exploitation of native gold. Their chiefs, all members of a single lineage, controlled the large-scale distribution of products.

In the swampy regions of the lower San Jorge they practised hydraulic engineering through a system of artificial canals covering 500,000 hectares. A large population settled along the rivers in isolated dwellings or villages constructed on artificial platforms. Towards AD 1000 the population decreased markedly. Certain groups surviving on the river Sinú until the conquest told the Europeans about the days of the Great Zenú.

Urabá Culture

The archaeological sites of northern Colombia, located on the coastal plains and in the mountainous regions, shared metallurgical traditions with the goldworking areas of Panama and Costa Rica. From the beginning of our era until AD 1000, techniques, ideas and forms - such as double-headed birds and animals with raised tails - were transmitted from one region to another. Casting with tumbaga alloys was the favoured technique.

In San Pedro de Urabá, close to the Central American isthmus, traces of another related culture have started to appear as the forest is colonised.

Tairona Culture

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the north of the country, was inhabited by the Taironas. At the height of their splendour, after AD 1000, they built many villages and cities with stone foundations, covered today with thick vegetation. Their engineering and architectural works are remarkable: terraces, sewers, bridges, roads and stairs. Their urbanism indicates a hierarchy of political management, with great cities controlling smaller settlements through an Žlite composed of chiefs and a powerful priestly class.

Objects of gold, stone and pottery combine men with animals in figures whose deep symbolic content lives on among the Ijkas and Koguis, the indigenous communities who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to this day.

Muisca Culture

Towards the 7th century AD the high plains of the Eastern Cordillera of Colombia were populated by the Muiscas, a group linguistically related to the Taironas. At the time of the Spanish conquest they had expanded over an area of 25,000 square kilometres and comprised more than a million inhabitants. Farmers cultivating maize, potatoes and other Andean tubers, they lived scattered over the slopes and valleys, subject to chiefs who governed from villages.

Two principal chiefs, the Zipa and the Zaque, ruled over the south and north of the territory respectively.

The people gathered together from time to time for rituals in which gold played a fundamental part. Idols or tunjos, small rough figurines made by specialists who depicted human beings, animals and scenes of political and social life, were deposited in temples, caves and sacred lakes as offerings.