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Tatacoa Desert

Date of Submission: 27/09/2012
Criteria: (iv)(vii)(viii)
Category: Mixed
Submitted by:
Permanent Delagation of Colombia to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Province of Huila, municipalities of Villavieja and Baraya
Ref.: 5766
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


Municipality of Villavieja N3 13 10.57 W75 13 8.39

Municipality of Baraya N3 9 8.58 W75 3 9.88

The Tatacoa is not really a desert, but rather a dry tropical forest ecosystem. It bears the name used for the rattlesnakes in this region of the country and it covers the villages of San Alfonso, Potosí, La Victoria, Polonia and Hato Nuevo. It borders to the north with the mouth of Tatacoa creek that runs into the Magdalena River and with the road that connects the villages of La Victoria, Potosí and San Alfonso and to the northeast up to the Cabrera River, to the east it borders with the Saltarén range and to the south with the municipality of Villavieja.

This territory is inhabited by shepherd families who mainly own goats and cattle. The temperature is high during the day (between 28 and 42 Celsius) and at night between 16 and 24 Celsius).

La Tatacoa is considered one of the largest vertebrate fossil sites of America, thanks to the evolution of its earth layers and to the conditions that have facilitated the accumulation of specimens that represent prolonged periods, allowing for characterization of chronological units with fauna inherent to the geological evolution of the Cenozoic period. It is the most varied paleontological record for the Miocene and Pleistocene in Colombia and in the continent.

The most recognized fossil findings sites due to the wealth and importance of the American fauna found there are located in the Cerro Gordo or El Dinde, the basin of La Venta creek and Los Micos or El Cusca.

The special characteristics of this region´s fossil have led to studies carried out by various research institutions in Colombia, the United States and Japan. The area´s paleontological wealth has been recorded in a publication from the Smithsonian Institution of Washington, totally dedicated to the fossil fauna of La Venta.

The primates is a group of fossils that has been the subject of a large number of studies due to the role they play in explaining the evolutionary process. La Tatacoa is the area with the greatest concentration of these vertebrates in the continent (with the best fossil records on South American monkeys called Platyrrhini or New World Monkeys) and of new species such as the Stirtonia tatacoensis. The high variety of primates indicates the existence in La Venta of at least seven types and more than ten species, a large percentage of which has been cataloged as endemic, which together with other fossils of various animal groups defined the importance of the La Tatacoa in the field of world paleontology.

In addition to the paleontological sites, the Tatacoa holds archaeological areas where recordings of cultural material have taken place dating back to the end of the Pleistocene and beginning of the Holocene. Said material is of great interest for the study of Paleo-Indian and indigenous cultures that occupied the region. This territory equally holds testimonies of different forms of human settlements, as a result of an economic exploitation system of farms (Haciendas), among which there are examples of great importance such as Hacienda Los Aposentos, owned by the Jesuits, which covered land of the municipalities of Villavieja, Tello and Baraya, and that was divided into 16 herds or smaller farms after 1767 when their owners were expelled from the Nuevo Reino de Granada (New Kingdom of Granada). Said smaller farms were called Hato de los Arrieros, Hacienda el Potrero, Hacienda de San Nicolás, Hacienda de Boquerón, Hacienda de Reyes, Hacienda de los Ahorcados, Hacienda de Caballeriza, Hacienda de Hatonuevo, Hacienda de Bateas, Hacienda de San Ignacio, Hacienda de Salsipuedes, Hacienda El Pital, Hacienda de Bogotá, Hacienda de Manadeguásimo, Hacienda de la Manguita y Hacienda de Villavieja, which was later used to develop the municipality of the same name.

La Tatacoa contains tropical dry forests and very dry tropical forests with relict vegetation characteristic of those dry or semiarid zones with certain associations that reflect the extreme drought conditions and the adaptation to the same by the organisms. Although current fauna diversity is very low compared with the former forests, this dry enclave also holds bird species and sub-species endemic to the Upper Magdalena which are well adapted to said arid conditions.

The topographic conditions, the presence of winds that encourage the expansion and cracking of clays and their subsequent dragging by the rain and the absence of vegetation in extensive areas have formed a high visual value landscape, with contrasts of shapes and colors of singular beauty where biologic and geomorphologic elements are integrated and among which several forms of erosion, channels, valleys, forested areas , mounds, gullies, labyrinthine drains, rocky outcrops stand out all with a diverse level of weathering, as well as clays of varied shapes and cracks whose surfaces show “crackle”, all this in addition to the higher tops around the Cabrera River and the Saltarén Range, which serve as a vantage point to observe nearly the entire area of La Tatacoa.

Finally, given the environmental conditions, La Tatacoa desert area is highly appreciated and used as the a privileged site for astronomical observations at night and due to the existence of an observatory currently in operation.

Cultural resources associated to the Desert are:

- Paleontological Deposit of La Venta Creek

The environmental conditions of La Venta tropical forest were similar to those seen today in the border of the Eastern Plains and the Amazon, with higher temperatures as the planet was going through a warm period known as the “Middle Miocene Climatic Optimum”.

Remains of a large number of animals were buried in the deposits of La Venta. Said remains are fossilized today in the rocks of the region known as “Honda Group”. Until today, 154 different types are known to have inhabited the area; among which we find 89 species of mammals, 5 bird species, 32 reptile species, 2 species of amphibians, 25 species of bony fish and 1 species of cartilaginous fish.

The fossils presents in La Venta belong to animals that lived in three different environments:

  • Freshwater aquatic environment: fish, turtles, manatees and crocodiles.
  • Tropical forest environment: monkeys, bats and birds.
  • Mosaic areas between tropical forest and grassland, as well as open grassland areas inhabited by different types of mammals.

Several species of Astrapoterios are found among the fossils typical from La Venta deposit, namely the Granastrapotheriun snorki which could weigh up to 3500 kilogram, the Xenastrapotherium Kraglievichi which used  to live in the rivers in a similar fashion as the hippos today, the Pericotoxodon platygnathus which would weight some 800 kilogram, and the Miocochilius anomopodus much smaller, whose bones abound in the sediments of the Honda group.

The xenartros were well represented from small armadillos and anteaters, up to large glyptodonts and ground sloths such as the seudoprepotherium. Mammals with hooves similar to camels (Theosodon) also existed in the area as well as different types of carnivorous marsupials.

The primate fauna was very diverse, 9 different species related with the squirrel monkeys, capuchins and marmosets monkeys were known in this area. Small marsupials, rodents and bats were also among the notorious mammals of the area. Birds typical of tropical forests and rivers have also been found in the region in addition to three species of turtles and fish fossils, whose characteristics are similar to those of the groups found today in the Orinoco, Amazonas and Magdalena Rivers.

- Evidence of human presence and rock art

Pre-ceramic archaeological sites are found in La Tatacoa specifically in Hacienda San José, Hacienda la Argentina, and the Pachingo sector, a jurisdiction of the municipality of Villavieja. These sites contain terraced housing, pictograms, petroglyphs, lytic instruments such as scrapers, flakes, laminar blades and other elements associated to groups of hunters, fishermen, and harvesters, forming an important archaeological area for the study of Paleo-Indian cultures.

Based on the analyses performed on these archaeological findings, it has been suggested that La Tatacoa constituted an important site for the region´s Paleo-Indian cultures and for their connection with other archaeologically important human groups and regions in this part of the continent.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

With an extension of approximately 340 km2, the so called La Tatacoa desert is made up by particular geological structures, which are the result of the evolution of earth layers and environmental conditions that led to the accumulation of fossils, becoming an area of great geological and paleontological interest.

The uniqueness of this ecosystem, its bio-climatic characteristics, the fossil deposits, the existence Pre-Hispanic cultures remains, buildings and infrastructures of the colonial times, make of this territory an important area for scientific, cultural and environmental activities.

Criterion (iv): Pre-hispanic archaeological remains have been found in La Tatacoa, which correspond to a very old occupation of this western area, with a potential yet to be developed.

Criterion (vii): La Tatacoa Desert is the result of different phenomena, such as the tectonic activity and the action of multiple weathering agents that have resulted in fracturing and the formation of slope deposits. The topographic conditions, the presence of winds and erosive processes with expansion and cracking of clays and their subsequent dragging by the rain, have shaped the carved relief due to the action of removed and transported material deposits, which in addition to the absence of vegetation in extensive areas have formed a landscape of high visual value, with contrasts of shapes and colors during the day and an area of astronomical events observation at night.

Criterion (viii): La Tatacoa and specifically La Venta are one of the largest deposits of vertebrate fossils in America that have served to study the evolution of the neo-tropical fauna, enabling the characterization of chronological units that represent the geology in the Cenozoic period.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

La Tatacoa desert has hardly seen any intervention of human hands and holds in its fossils and ecosystems, an invaluable reserve of plants and animal genetic information, as well as geological data, which has not yet been studied completely; the area provides the opportunity to conduct research enabling the gathering of more knowledge on the species we know today and determine new ones, in addition to understanding the evolutionary phenomena of the different moments of the planet´s life. Both the paleontological remains as well as the archaeological remains are protected by the Colombian legislation as cultural heritage of Colombia, their commercialization being prohibited. Some fossils from this area are currently exhibited in the National Museum of Geology and Mining (Ingeominas).

Comparison with other similar properties

Mammal Fossil Sites in Australia (Riversleigh - Naracoorte)

The sites are inscribed on the world Heritage List under criteria viii and ix, these sites located in North and South Australia are part of ten of the most important fossil deposits in the world and they perfectly illustrate the most important phases of the evolution of Australia´s native fauna, unique in its kind.

Willandra Lakes Region (Australia)

The lakes are inscribed on the World Heritage List under criteria iii and viii. This region holds fossilized remains of lakes and dunes of the Pleistocene, as well as archaeological remains provide evidence of the human presence from about 60.000 to 45.000 years. Hence, this is an exceptional site to study human evolution in the Australian continent. Several fossils of gigantic marsupials have also been found in good condition of conservation.

Parks of the Canadian Rockies  (Canada)

The parks are inscribed on the World Heritage List under criteria vii and viii, and the contiguous parks of Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho, in conjunction with the provincial parks of Monte Robson, Monte Assiniboine and Hamber, form an extensive area of peaks, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, canyons and limestone caves that are part of a spectacular mountainous landscape. The fossil deposit of Burgess Shale is found here, which is famous due to the existence of remains of soft-bodied marine animals.

Miguasha National Park (Canada)

The park is inscribed on the World Heritage List under criterion viii. It is situated in the region of Southern Quebec, on the southwest coast of the Gaspé Peninsula, and it is an important paleontological site as it is considered the best example of the Devonian Period or the "Age of Fish". The Escuminac Formation, which dates from the Upper Devonic (370 millions of years), contains five of the six groups of fish fossils from this period. The importance of this site lies in its high concentration of fish fossils with fleshy fins in an excellent condition of conservation. These fish are the predecessors of the first terrestrial vertebrates: the tetrapods

Joggins Fossil Cliffs (Canada)

The cliffs are inscribed on the World Heritage List under criterion viii. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs, (Canada), a 689 ha palaeontological site along the coast of Nova Scotia (eastern Canada), have been described as the "coal age Galápagos" due to their wealth of fossils from the Carboniferous period (354 to 290 million years ago) The rocks of this site are considered archetypes of that era and are the thickest and most complete remain of a Pennsylvanian period layer (318 to 303 millions of years BC) holding the richest accumulation of terrestrial life form fossils of that time. These include the remains and tracks of very early animals and the rainforest in which they lived, left in situ, intact and undisturbed.  It covers the remains of three different ecosystems: an estuarine bay, floodplain rainforest and fire prone forested alluvial plain with freshwater pools. It offers the richest assemblage known of the fossil life in these three ecosystems with 96 genera and 148 species of fossils and 20 footprint groups.