The largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America stands in a wild, spectacular landscape. Gods and mythical animals are skilfully represented in styles ranging from abstract to realist. These works of art display the creativity and imagination of a northern Andean culture that flourished from the 1st to the 8th century.
Archaeological park of San Augustin
© Sacred Sites / Martin Gray
The wealth of megalithic statuary from the archaeological site in San Agustín Archeological Park bears vivid witness to the artistic creativity and imagination of the pre-Hispanic culture that flowered in the hostile tropical environment of the northern Andes.
San Agustín, where the most important monuments are to be found, lies 2 km from the town of the same name. The archaeological site extends over a territory of 2,000 km2 , at an altitude of only 1,800 m, with snow covering the top. In the pre-agricultural period, from 3300 BC to 600 BC, San Agustín was occupied by a society with a rudimentary stone technology using basalt chips. Nothing is known of their political or social structure, but it is assumed that they were kinship-based.
The Alto de Los Idolos is on the right bank of the Magdalena River and the smaller Alto de las Piedras lies further north: both are in the municipality of San José de Isnos, like the main San Agustín area, they are rich in monuments of all kinds. Much of the area is a rich archaeological landscape, with evidence of ancient tracks, field boundaries, drainage ditches and artificial platforms, as well as funerary monuments. This was a sacred land, a place of pilgrimage and ancestors worship. These hieratic guards, some more than 4 m high weighing several tonnes, are carved in blocks of tuff and volcanic rock. They protected the funeral rooms, the monolithic sarcophagus and the burial sites.
The main archaeological monuments are Las Mesitas, containing artificial mounds, terraces, funerary structures and stone statuary; the Fuente de Lavapatas, a religious monument carved in the stone bed of a stream; and the Bosque de Las Estatuas, where there are examples of stone statues from the whole region.
A new society appeared in the region in the 7th century BC: the people cultivated maize on the flat land or gentle slopes and lived in dispersed houses near the main rivers, possibly in simple groups headed by chiefs. The extended burials were in vertical shaft tombs, with simple grave-goods. The period probably lasted until the 3rd or even the 2nd century BC.
Around the 1st century AD there were profound cultural changes in the area: this was a time of a great flowering of monumental lithic art and the so-called Agustinian Culture. Links with other region of south-west grew, population density increased markedly, and earlier settlements were reoccupied. New house sites on the hilltops were also settled and occupied over long periods. There was considerable social consolidation and the concentration of substantial power in the hands of the chiefs made possible the production of gigantic works: hundreds of elaborate stone statues were carved, some in complex relief and large in size. The huge monumental platforms, terraces and mounds and the temple-like architecture reflect a complex system of religious and magical belief. Some 300 enormous sculptures (divinities with threatening faces, warriors armed with clubs, round eyes and jaguars' teeth of mythical heroes) stand in the region of San Agustín, in the heart of the Andes, El Huila Province.
This intermediate period came to an end in the 8th century AD, as shown by the abandonment of monumental construction and the carving of stone statues. New peoples, possibly from the Upper Caqueta river basin of the Amazon region, seem to have settled in the area around AD 1000, bringing with them new agricultural practices. This late period, which lasted until the Spanish conquest, is characterized by a considerably less complex craft tradition, suggesting a measure of cultural retrogression, despite the improved agriculture, which allowed an increased population to be supported. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
ln the pre-agricultural period, from c 3300 to c 600 BC, san Agustin was occupied by a society with a rudimentary stone technology using unretouched basalt chips; their principal food was wild fruits, but hunting cannot be ruled out. Nothing is known of their political or social structures, but it is assumed that they were kinship-based:
A new society that was agricultural and pottery-using, appeared in the region in the 7th century BC, at the start of what is known as the Early Period. The people cultivated maize on flat land or gentle slopes: no terraces or drainage are associated with this period. They lived in dispersed no uses near the main rivers, possibly in simple groups headed by chiefs. There appears to have been a tradition of carving in wood, but not stone. The extended burials were in vertical shaft tombs, with simple grave-goods. This period probably lasted until the 3rd or even 2nd century BC. The culture is linked with that of the Colombian south-west, a link which lasted well into the Christian era.
Gold working is attested by radiocarbon dating from at least the 1st century BC, and increased substantially in the following period. Around the 1st centurv AD there were profound cultural changes in the san Agustin area. This was the period of the great flowering of monumental lithic art, the so-called Augustinian Culture. Links with other regions of the south-west increased, with the consequent evolution over the whole region of societies known as Regional Classic. Population density increased markedly, and earlier settlements were reoccupied. New house sites on hilltops were also settled and occupied over long periods. The economy was still based on maize cultivation, and population pressures led to the opening up of new agricultural lands.
There was considerable social consolidation, and the concentration of substantial power in the hands of the chiefs made possible the production of gigantic work5 by the use of large bodies of men to carry out massive earth movements. Hundreds of elaborate stone statues were carved, some in complex relief and large in size. The huge monumental platforms, terraces, and mounds and the temple-like architecture reflect a complex system of religious and magical belief.
This lntermediate Period came to an end in the 8th century AD, as shown by the abandonment of monumental construction and the carving of stone statues. A similar phenomenon of decline is perceptible in other parts of the Colombian south-west at the same time, when the cultural unity of the region disintegrated. New peoples, possibly from the Upper Caquetá river basin of the Amazon region, seem to have settled in the San Agustin area around AD 1000, bringing with them new agricultural practices, such as the cultivation of manioc, a new house type, and new pottery styles. This Late Period, which lasted until the Spanish conquest, is characterized by a considerably less complex craft tradition, suggesting a measure of cultural retrogression, despite the improved agriculture, which allowed an increased population to be supported. Both settlement and agriculture moved to the hillsides, with the introduction of terracing for both housing and cultivation and low-gradient drainage. The social structure seems to have been less complex and hierarchical than that in the preceding period: small communities were linked by kinship and temporary larger units were only created in times of war, to be disbanded afterwards.
The last settlers in the area, identified by the Spaniards as Andakis (of Amazonian origin) and Yalcones, survived into the 17th century, but many eventually returned to the rain forest. The social and agricultural structures of the region were unable to resist Spanish religious and commercial pressure, giving way to the colonial encomienda system. The colonial settlement of san Agustin began in 1608-12 with the foundation of a centre for religious in doctrination of the indigenous peoples. lt was eventually occupied by Spanish homesteaders and mixed-race peoples, becoming a crossing point for routes to Popayan and the jungles of Putumayo. Source: Advisory Body Evaluation