Courtesy of: Museo
Del Oro / Bogota, 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).
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
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.
accompanied the dead in their tombs, and today bear witness to the
spirit of the people who created them.
The Pacific coastal
plain, from the mangrove swamps to the tropical forest of the Andean
foothills, offers a variety of resources for human subsistence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 lite 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.
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.
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.