Colombia’s western mountain range – or ‘Western Cordillera’ – is visually stunning, with peaks rising to over 1,500m. This is coffee country, and much of the highlands are given over to coffee growing and cattle rearing.

Yet beneath the fecund volcanic soil is a particularly rich archaeological legacy, dated from around 1000 BC – AD 700. This early archaeological landscape has been exceptionally well preserved: a century after the arrival of the first Spaniards, the indigenous population declined dramatically, and forest returned to cover the abandoned fields and settlements. It was only in the early years of the 20th century that groups of settlers from more northerly areas of the Cordillera, began to arrive in the region.

Surrounded by evidence of the past, the newcomers soon began to do what their families had done in other areas of Colombia: they began to practise ‘guaqueria’: the search for gold in pre-Colombian tombs. The settlers were successful at this and found many thousands of tombs, some rich with gold. This gold helped them to eke out their meagre incomes. It also made the Calima region famous in the world of collectors.

Typically, the settlers would sell the gold to the National Bank of Colombia, where it was melted down as bullion. This all changed in 1939 when an exquisite piece crafted in the shape of a gourd, came to the Bank. The golden gourd was so impressive and so beautiful, that officials at the Bank felt that it should not be melted down. Thus began a new strategy at the National Bank which, from then on, felt obliged to buy and protect the more outstanding objects coming into their hands, housing them in the specially-built Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogot√° whose collections today number well over 30,000 gold items. It is a truly superb museum and has some of the finest pieces from Calima.

However, such non-scientific excavation (read looting) represents a massive loss to our knowledge of the history of the country. The destruction of archaeological data was further hastened in the second half of the 20th century when large-scale farming caused the landscape in Calima to change dramatically. For example, in the early 1960s, the Calima reservoir was constructed, flooding the whole of the flatter part of the Calima valley and permanently covering the remains of the extensive field systems, pre-Columbian roads, settlements and graves. Since the mid 1980s, this destruction has accelerated. With all the advantages of increased economic development of the region has come the annihilation of many pre-Colombian sites, often before archaeologists have even had the chance to map them.

Thankfully, a number of Colombian and international archaeologists are busy at work preserving and documenting the archaeology of Calima. Among them is Warwick Bray, who, along with a group of fellow students from Cambridge, first went to Calima in 1962, prompted by the imminent construction of the Calima reservoir, and at a time when Calima was virtually unknown to researchers. In 1979, the Pro-Calima Foundation was created by a group of Swiss enthusiasts, eager to foster archaeological research in the area before more information was destroyed. Financed by this Foundation, Bray – who went on to become Professor of Latin American Archaeology at University College, London – returned to the area and was joined by co-directors Leonor Herrera and Marianne Cardale Schrimpff. In a series of annual campaigns, the team has investigated the swiftly disappearing archaeology of Calima, and its neighbouring Cauca valley, using a raft of specialists including geologists, historians, palaeobotanists, soil scientists and anthropologists. A small Colombian archaeological team is resident in the area.

The ancient Ilama people

Despite their high level of cultural complexity, none of the pre-conquest ancients left any written records. Nonetheless, for a prehistoric society, we have quite a few clues as to how the Ilama people lived, looked, and possibly even how they thought. Regrettably, the ground-plans of their settlements have not been forthcoming: the ridge-top sites, seemingly the first choice for Ilama habitation, have generally undergone radical modification in later pre-Hispanic times. Virtually all occupation evidence has been destroyed. However, a beautiful pottery vessel, now in the Gold Museum, upon which is modelled an Ilama village, might provide some clues to the look and layout of Ilama settlements.

Facing the past

To begin with, Ilaman faces tend to be rather broad with regular features, with no one aspect of the face dominating. This is in contrast to the later periods when the nose becomes increasingly important. Their eyes are elongated ovals and their cheekbones usually high. Their hair is generally straight, and on male figures, it is sometimes elaborately dressed.

Women tend to be portrayed in more naturalistic ways and they usually wear a necklace of one or two strands of small beads. Both men and women often seem to have tight bands around their upper arms and ankles. These ligatures would have caused the limbs to swell. It is a custom still found among some indigenous communities today, where the people use strings of seeds, or beads made of bone or glass, and is a custom tied to local mythological beliefs.

Women tend to be portrayed in more naturalistic ways and they usually wear a necklace of one or two strands of small beads. Both men and women often seem to have tight bands around their upper arms and ankles. These ligatures would have caused the limbs to swell. It is a custom still found among some indigenous communities today, where the people use strings of seeds, or beads made of bone or glass, and is a custom tied to local mythological beliefs.

But perhaps the most intimate contact with the faces of the Ilama is provided by the life-sized Agamemnon type masks of beaten gold. Although the masks come from tombs, the archaeologists believe that they might also have been worn in life in certain ceremonies.

The Ilama tombs containing elaborate grave goods, such as these gold masks, have all been uncovered by locals. One such tomb, discovered in 1958, had a chamber that measured 3m by 3m. In contrast, in those Ilama tombs excavated by the archaeologists, the burial chamber rarely measures more than 2m in length. These tombs are normally of the shaft and chamber type with offerings of a few pottery vessels or the occasional stone tool. It is in the succeeding Yotoco and Malagana periods that the difference between rich and poor graves is accentuated, with some tombs containing very valuable contents.

After the Ilama

As the years rolled by, the people in this corner of Colombia became increasingly culturally sophisticated and diverse. At the start of the 1st millennium AD, the parent Ilama culture developed into two contemporary, and closely related descendant cultures: the Yotoco with a territory concentrated mainly in the mountains of the Western Cordillera, and the Malagana in the adjacent Cauca valley.

Since these two societies came to an end many centuries before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, there are no eyewitness descriptions to tell us how they were organised. Again, there are no written records. But by the time of the Spanish, the local groups had organised themselves into a hierarchic chiefdom society, in which power, status and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a ruling élite. There are hints Рparticularly in the disparate burial evidence Рthat the Yotoco and Malagana people organised themselves in a similar, hierarchical, fashion.

Hacienda Malagana: The Lords of the marshes and their gold

The present-day farm, the Hacienda Malagana, after which the new archaeological culture was named, has proved to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Southwestern Colombia. In contrast to the hilly territory of the Yotoco people, the sites of the Malagana people lie on the level, tropical floodplain of the Cauca valley, between the western and central ranges of the Andean cordillera, and at an altitude of approximately 1000m. Today this area is given over to dense stands of sugar cane. The archaeological site at Malagana was discovered accidentally in 1991 and became instantly renowned for the huge quantities of pre-Colombian gold found in its cemeteries.

Two main concentrations of spectacularly rich graves were located in the southern part of the site. “This was clearly the Westminster Abbey style cemetery of the region. It seems to have been reserved for the important people, and was probably in use for several centuries, starting back in the Ilama period”, explained Warwick Bray.

Sacred metal

Interviews with those who took part in the looting indicate that the very rich tombs differed from the cemetery’s simpler graves not only in terms of quantities of goods, but also in how they were constructed. Thus the rich ones were dug considerably deeper, usually going down 3m or more. In many cases they were partially lined with rectangular, slab-shaped querns made of a light-coloured stone that must have been brought from a considerable distance.

Though this disparity certainly points to hierarchical differences, it is interesting to suggest that the ancients regarded gold differently from us. Among contemporary indigenous groups, gold is charged with symbolic and religious values but is not regarded primarily as a source of ‘wealth’. There are hints that at the time of contact, gold was not particularly prized for its own sake. We have no direct evidence from Colombia, but the Incas are said to have “despised” treasure, and a Panamanian chief, perplexed by the Spanish habit of melting artistic pieces into ingots, explained that raw gold had no more value than a lump of clay until it was transformed into something useful or pleasing.

Not a single rich tomb in the Hacienda survived looting, though one was only partially plundered. Owing to the extensive disturbance in the area of the main cemetery, the archaeologists decided to search for intact strata elsewhere in the Hacienda. They chose an area some 400m away from the very rich tombs, but still within the site boundary. In 1994, the archaeologists struck lucky with the location of 18 undisturbed Malagana-period tombs; as well as settlement strata replete with pits and ritual deposits. Thus began an heroic endeavour to explore the site, that used almost every archaeologist who had ever worked in south-western Colombia.

Since then, several teams have been working at five different Malagana sites. To date, over 150 graves have been excavated. In contrast to the shaft and chamber tombs of the Yotoco culture, most Malagana tombs are simple pits long enough to take a single burial. Usually, each grave contained a single skeleton with a simple pot or two.

Crab-men, coca, and communication

Both Malagana pottery and goldwork include representations of supernatural beings, such as the weird crocodile man and the even weirder crab man. Both are thought to be part of a shamanistic ideology. Once again, we find evidence for the controlled use of hallucinogenic substances, including pipes like the Ilama ones but now found in sets for use with a large, four-legged, communal bowl which would have held the liquid tobacco. There are also little flasks to hold the powdered lime that was chewed with coca leaves. The lime aids the absorption of the alkaloids through the membranes of the mouth and, taken in this form, coca (unlike the derivative, cocaine) is a non-addictive stimulant used to combat fatigue and to keep people alert during long ceremonies and rituals.

Until the final years, after around AD 500-700, these roads are generally very wide, often a spatial signifier of wealth and well-being. Indeed, again, there is no real evidence for war wounds in the dead, nor – until the late period (post AD 700) – of weapons. So if these roads were not built for the passage of armies and since wheeled vehicles were unknown, why were they so wide? One possibility might be that their width allowed chiefs or other important personages to be transported in litters.

Although a few pre-ceramic sites have been excavated, and pollen evidence suggests the presence of maize farmers not long after the 6th millennium BC, there are still large gaps in the sequence between then and 1000 BC. That, the two archaeologists explain, is their next endeavour and their next step in piecing together the intriguing history of the rich prehistoric world of Calima and the Cauca valley – a world that is as anonymous as the British Neolithic, yet one that became as golden as the greatest Egyptian dynasty.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 14. Click here to subscribe

Leave a Reply