Artist Unknown: Ancient history in San Agustin, Colombia

Hundreds of detailed, humanlike stone statues have been exhumed in the Colombian provence of Huila over the last 100 years. Some human looking, some more abstract, each with his own unique features or accessories and in varying sizes. With no explanation of what they mean, who or what they symbolise or why they were carved at all, this was a place dripping with mystery. How could we miss an opportunity to explore this area?

Arriving in San Agustin after 27 hours in transit I felt like I was floating in a dream. This was made even more surreal after the decision to go straight to the archeological park, one of the most naturally beautiful and interesting places we have been so far. After checking into our hospedaje we caught the colectivo from the square for 1000p each (or 50 aus cents) and rode 4kms out of town. The park costs $20,000p ($10aud) to get in, but that also covers your entrance into the 2nd archeological park in nearby Isnos.

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The statues found in the San Agustín region vary in size, this one is only around 40cms

The park is set on the site where the largest settlement was found and is made up of different sections that are divided into 4 categories; the museum, the forest sculpture garden, Las Mesitas (or the plateaus) and the Fuentes de Lavapatas (or the fountain). Because very little is known about the culture that lived in this region the museum is more about the archeological history, who discovered the site and where things were found. You can also find information about the geography of the area and a small collection of sculptures with the key characteristics highlighted. It is interesting to ponder on why some of them look angry, some look more childlike, some are depicted with animal-like features or animals sitting over their heads, and all of them have interesting accessories or are holding weapons, instruments or dolls (or perhaps they are small children?).

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This particular statue from the sculpture garden was designed wearing some kind of headwear and wonderful earrings, it has the typical fang-like canines and is holding a small doll or child in its hands. Its eyes are very wide and it appears to be in a happy trance like state.

The sculpture garden is a collection of statues found throughout the region and relocated to this tranquil forested section behind the museum. It’s a lovely walk to observe a wide variety of different effigies, however there is no context to the location in which they were actually found, as many of them were found by locals while digging their farms or gardens and donated to the park.

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Each tomb appears to be guarded by figures at its entrance, these ones armed with clubs.

Las Mesitas A, B and C can be found in close proximity to each other and along with Alto de Lavapatas (which stands alone on the top of a hill) seem to be burial sites for the elite. They are a mixture of tombs, sarcophagi and burial mounds seemingly protected by statues of varying sizes safeguarding passage to the next realm.

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When they have their teeth showing the smiles all look very carnivorous

One thing the statues all have in common is their feline teeth, whether grinning playfully or menacingly, when their teeth are showing the canines are sharp and animalistic. This makes me think that perhaps there is an evolutionary phase depicted in this stone portraiture that we have not yet found organic evidence of. A theory more commonly believed is that the statues represent shamans or shamanic rituals and connection with other dimensions or realms.

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It was hard to get an image to show the entire picture carved into the Fuente de Lavapatas, but you can see the lines and holes that have been carved into the bed. Also, this bridge was a work of art in itself!

The Fuente de Lavapatas section of the park feeds into the more spiritual shamanic theory. It is a stone riverbed which has been carved into complex symbols and lines thought to represent this realm, the realm above and the realm below. The lines look as though they could be maps of some unknown world with serpents and lizards forming an intricate network of smaller falls and fountains, similar to those found in Peru but much more primitive.

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The site on the hill known as Alto de Lavapatas looks as though it could have been the burial site of the most important figures in this culture’s societal structure.

The people behind this civilisation are thought to have existed over 3000 years ago and while nothing is known for sure, the complex layout of the houses, burial tombs and ritualistic sites seem to be evidence of a very advanced social system.

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The following day we organised a tour in a jeep which took us around the 3 other archeological sites and we were also able to appreciate the stunning natural landscape with its waterfalls and rivers. There is the option to take a horse trek however we chose the jeep tour as it covered more ground and took us to the archeological sites we were most interested in.

We also stopped at a trapiche to learn how the Colombian sugarcane is processed into panela! Mmmm..

We booked our tour through Raices Hostel and paid $35,000 pesos ($17.50aus) each for the day tour, lunch is not included but you can request the Colombian “Menu del Dia” or sometimes they call it the “Corrientes” for a great price. Also, make sure you take your ticket from the Archeological Park as it works for the Isnos site as well.

On a side note, there are other tours on offer in this little town. We had a guy stop us in the street, and in one 15 minute conversation offered us a tour of a cocaine manufacturing operation, a magic mushroom picking adventure OR if we were staying for a few more days we could have been involved in an illegal tomb excavation at one of his friends houses. While this was all a little bit tempting we had heard these kind of opportunities existed so had already discussed the impact at length, and decided this wasn’t the kind of tourism we wanted to support. So think about it before you go, and keep in mind the serious effect these activities have had culturally on countries in South America. It’s an individual choice!

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