A Colombian Archeological Paradise Securely Shrouded in Mystery
For years the ruins at San Agustin were inaccessible due to FARC guerrilla activity in Huila province. Now easily accessible and affordable, San Agustin is a destination.
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,” says Rosiverio Lopes Ibarra, a long time guide in the park.
“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.”
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 that was formerly a leftist FARC guerrilla stronghold.
But he remains softly spoken, informative and collected in the face of the 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.”
Graverobbing and Gold lust
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.
Gorillas in Colombia?
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 in ideas, religious beliefs and traditions. Of course one cannot fault his version or try and play devil’s advocate and cite pieces of knowledge 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.
Rosiverio puffs out his chest as if to take on board all comments. There is a thoughtful understanding in his manner, of course, he has heard these before. He motions for us to come and look at another statue. 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.
A Truly Advanced Society
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.
After visiting the relics and retreating to the town of San Agustin on feels comforted and relieved. 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. One suspects Rosiverio knows this too, in his quiet and contemplative manner.