Here in the districts of Saladoblanco, Isnos and San Agustin, the topography is uneven; valleys, hill plateaus and mountainous clusters come together to form its exotic and varied landscape. It is in this geographically contradictory territory to the south of Huila that in 5300BC an advanced culture evolved existed and disappeared in this strategically important natural passage from the foothills of the Colombian Massif to the Amazon.
“Anyone can make an interpretation of what happened here or what these figures represent.
“There are no accounts, no literature or folklore that exist that can help us understand the Agustinian culture any better. Therefore any studies carried out will be vague and all assumptions based upon similar artistic forms from other regions in the Americas.”
One thinks that my guide, Rosiverio Lopes Ibarra, could become increasingly frustrated at guiding people around this site on a daily basis and not having the answers to persistent badgering from the tourists, given that they are arriving in larger quantities month after month as word gets around that it is now safe to visit the region.
But he remains softly spoken, informative and collected in the face of my barrage of questions regarding the demise of these people, the kind of calm and unwavering tolerance that you would expect from a father of 18.
“Was it disease, war or the Spanish that wiped these people out?”
He smiles, his eyes sparkling despite 36 years of guiding here:
“If it was war, then there has to be a victor, here we have no sign of that. The Spanish arrived after the demise of the Agustinians and were largely confined to grave-robbing, but most likely, there was a climactic alteration and this affected the populous greatly. At the time we estimate the culture to have disappeared, the corresponding event in Europe was a mini ice age.”
Grave robbers have strafed the area. First the Spanish who in their search for El Dorado, kidnapped a Xaman’s son and demanded a ransom leading the local people to ransack the burial mounds and later by subsequent mercenaries from the Antioquia region, according to Rosiverio. These grave robbers knew little of the area and suspected that each figurine and statue contained a similar gold likeness within the stone carving. One can view the desecration that took place by man made fault lines that split some of the statues in two as they searched in vain to find the elusive or rather, non-existent gold in the interior of the stone.
It is not only the topography that offers contradictions inherent in this area around San Agustin. The interpretations of the conventional or symbolic art of these zoomorphic and anthropomorphic sculptures are pivotal to our understanding of the Agustinian culture and it is this obstacle that represents perhaps the most daunting task.
Rosiverio points out a carving that indeed does resemble a gorilla. Of course Gorillas are unknown to this continent, could it have been something else? Not in his opinion, to him this proves the migration of people via the Magellan Straits and the exchange and ideas, religious beliefs and traditions. Of course I cannot fault his version, I try and play devil’s advocate and cite pieces of knowledge I have gleaned from Chile’s Easter Island, Guatemala’s Tikal, Bolivia’s Tiwanaku and Peru’s Macchu Pichu.
Put into context through carbon dating, the Agustinian culture is thought to have disappeared around the same time as the decline of the Mayan empire. After the Agustinians came another people, the Yalcones, thought to have been agriculturally minded and nomadic.
My respect for Rosiverio increases as he takes on board my comments. There is a thoughtful understanding in his manner, of course, I am nothing special, and he has heard these before. He motions for me to come and look at another statue. In my mind there is no room to doubt his statements here; this sculpture is reminiscent of many on the continent. The figure’s hands have the coca pot and leaves clasped to its abdomen and its cheeks are bulging as if chewing the sacred crop.
Another important looking statue can only be that of a God of war. He wears a necklace with a skull and is bordered by two sinister looking club-brandishing guards. Obviously he is a male, his phallus is strapped down, his jaguar smile and eagle’s eyes glare out and stare through me. There is a power evident the magic religious ideology of these sculptures. They evoke a time past, one of greater mortality, faith and mystery. As I kneel to take a photograph and take full advantage of the balmy afternoon sunlight, a wind picks up in the branches of the fiery cachingo tree. Rosiverio pauses for a moment as if gauging me for his next tale.
“Some people here believe that when the wind blows this way it represents the proximity of the Turumama. She is a corpulent and ample breasted spirit who looks for men lost alone in the forest here and then after seducing them, sticks a breast into the victim’s mouth to drown him.”
Fortunately, Turumama does not make herself apparent and Rosiverio claims to never have seen her.
Taking into account the quantity and variety of the archaeological relics recovered, sculptures, sarcophagi, monoliths, tombs, artificial mounds, a vast number of ceramics and numerous works of gold it can be agreed and deduced that here was a pueblo that acquired a high grade of cultural development from the point of view of its evident social structure that produced great sculptors, artisans, farmers and above all the cultivation of a complex religious cult built around the enigma of death.
Winding through the jungle environment of the Bosque de las Estatuas allows you to appreciate the statues as they would have looked. While these pieces were recovered from farmhouses and arable land from the surrounding region where they were being used as flooring and door lintels amongst other things, they sit in ample space, carefully protected and set against the backdrop of gnarled root clusters and the dank closeness of the vines that is indicative of the green tangle of nature that abounds here ready to reclaim these volcanic carvings back from whence they came.
I feel comforted as I retreat to San Agustin. There is something reassuring that we still have yet to master and qualify here. The unknown can offer us a certain humility and respect for these forbears. I suspect Rosiverio knows this too, in his quiet and contemplative manner.
(This piece was written as a blog for www.colombia.travel in my role as an Official Blogger, you can see the original here)