Colombia is often known by it’s gold museums which are justly part of the ancient culture. In ancient times Colombia was occupied by societies governed by chiefs. Gold, the sacred metal, adorned the political leaders and was used as offerings to the gods. In the southwest of Colombia, the cultures which archaeologists call Tumaco, Calima, Malagana, Cauca, San Agustín, Tierradentro, Nariño, Quimbaya and Tolima, were the first to work the metal they found in the rivers. Around the beginning of the common era these peoples lived in villages surrounded by fields. Trade and exchange routes ensured that ideas and news travelled from one region to another. However, the zenith of the southwestern cultures declined around 1000 CE and the territory was taken over by more populous egalitarian societies. When the European conquistadores arrived in 1500, goldwork was characteristic of the cultures to the north: Sinú, Urabá, Tairona, Muisca. Their styles, while distinct from one another, shared a preference for casting in tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper. We visited the Zenú Gold Museum in Cartagena Colombia as part of our visit to Cartagena.
Colombia, one of Latin Americas riches countries in natural resources is located in the northwest of South America. Washed by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and by the Pacific to the west, like a spinal column, the chain of the Andes Mountains stretches up from the south of the continent forming three fertile branches with countless valleys, plateaus and hillsides inhabited by the majority of the present-day population. The total land area is 1,141,748 sq km (440,831 sq mi). Colombia’s varied topography also includes torrid lowlands; selvas (rain forests); and vast plains, or llanos. The principal river, the Magdalena, flows north across practically the entire country. Wildlife includes the larger South American mammals such as jaguars, pumas, and tapirs and monkeys, red deer, snakes, and birds. Colombia lies almost entirely in the Torrid Zone, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. The climate, however, varies with the elevation, with cooler temperatures at higher altitudes.
Tumaco – La Tolita Culture
Between 700 BCE and 350 CE on the plains and in the mangrove swamps along the Pacific coast in southern Colombia, communities of fishermen, sailors, farmers and goldsmiths from the Tumaco – LaTolita culture made hammered ornaments in gold and platinum. It is from this region that the oldest metal objects found so far in Colombia have come, dating from 600 BCE to 400 CE. The culture is well known for its figurines which were made from light grey clay. The gold from this region is among the most pure in Colombia.
The valleys of the Calima and Dagua rivers in the Western Cordillera were inhabited from around 7500 BCE. It was at this time that the llama period potters expressed their beliefs in pottery. Their ceramics were typically red and black, featuring religious imagery. Later, during the Yotoco period, between 200 BCE and 7200 CE, they produced numerous hammered and embossed ornaments in fine gold which adorned their leaders, even after death. In floodable parts of the River Caucus valley between 400 BCE and 600 CE, the most important leaders also wore gold ornaments as symbols of their power and their mythical and religious beliefs. Calima culture (200 BCE to 400 CE) is a series of pre-Columbian cultures from the Valle del Cauca in Colombia. The four societies that successively occupied the valley and make up Calima culture are the Ilama, Yotoco, Sonso (500 to 1200 CE), and Malagana cultures (300 BCE to 300 CE).
Tolima and Huila Cultures
The hot mid-Magdalena valley and the slopes of the cordilleras in Tolima and northern Huila are regions where rivers with gold-bearing sands abound. 16,000 years ago, groups of hunters, fishermen and gatherers lived in the hot mid-Magdalena valley and on the slopes of the central and eastern ranges in northern Huila and Tolima provinces. In fact, the earliest evidence of a human presence in Colombia that has been detected by archaeologists so far comes from the Pubenza site, near Girardot. This semi-nomadic way of life was successful for thousands of years, and it was barely 5,000 years ago that some groups turned to agriculture and a sedentary life in villages. Between 1200 BCE and the time of the Conquest, the Magdalena valley was inhabited by communities of farmers, goldsmiths and potters. From the earliest years of the Christian era to around 1000 CE, the inhabitants were notable for their use of ornaments shaped like insects and fantastic animals, cast in fine gold, and for their schematic breastplates, which conjure up images of man transformed into a bat and feline figure. In Tolima goldwork, the human figure is schematised to differing extents in symmetrical pendants which combine harmony, beauty and order.
The mountainous mid-Cauca valley region was inhabited by agricultural, mining and goldworking societies. For more than a thousand years, between 500 BCE and 600 CE, Early Period Goldsmiths expressed their technical mastery in the realistic, sculpture-like shapes and smooth, shiny surfaces of objects which they generally made of gold and copper alloys, using the Iost wax method. Quimbaya research carried out in the middle Cauca River Valley revealed occupations postdating the 10th century AD. These are known as Middle Cauca and Caldas. It can be determined that the simplest gold work is associated with these later occupations, while the so-called Quimbaya gold, perhaps the zenith of lost-wax casting, with its anthropomorphic vessels of striking realism, its lime flasks in plant forms and its embossed gold helmets, was shown to be earlier, before AD 1000. Stylistically associated with it is a dark, polished pottery, sometimes decorated with human figures showing the same realistic, serene face see in the gold pieces. Repeated finds with confirmed associations, especially the Treasure ofthe Quimbaya’ (Plazas 1978), allow the placing of several other artifacttypes in the same time range: cast pins with Calima-like motifs, hollowear spools, and stylized anthropomorphic pendants. This category ofpieces shows regional variations: pins from the Cauca tend to be made in several castings with elements of different gold-copper alloys, which give the objects a vivid, multicolored aspect. Ear spools of this region are always small, have closed ends, and are cast, while Calima examples are large, hammered, and open-ended. The emphasis on casting and the use of different alloys of gold and copper in the same piece characterize the metallurgy of the middle Cauca River Valley, where gold was less abundant than on the Pacific slopes, here lost-wax casting was developed with unequalled mastery.
This is an exquisite example of a Poporo, a device used by indigenous cultures in present and pre-Columbian South America for storage of small amounts of lime. It consists of two pieces: the receptacle, and the lid which includes a pin that is used to carry the lime to the mouth while chewing coca leaves. Since the chewing of coca is sacred for the indigenous people, the poporos are also attributed with mystical powers and social status. In Colombia, poporos are found in archeological remains from the Chibcha, Muisca, and Quimbaya cultures among others. The materials used in the early periods are mainly pottery and carved stone. In classic periods gold and tumbaga are the most frequent. These pieces are a combination of gold, tumbaga and pottery.
Muiscas and their Neighbors
The Muisca (or Chibcha) civilization flourished in ancient Colombia between 600 and 1600 CE. Their territory encompassed what is now Bogotá and its environs and they have gained lasting fame as the origin of the El Dorado legend. The Muisca have also left a significant artistic legacy in their superb gold work, much of it unrivalled by any other Americas culture. The high plains, slopes and valleys of the Eastern Cordillera were gradually settled by Chibcha-speaking peoples from 600 CE onwards. The various groups found there in 1536 included Muiscas, Guanes, Laches and Chitareros. Their goldwork is notable for religious offerings made of gold, copper, and copper-gold alloys. Today the Muisca population has almost died out, although in the municipalities and districts Cota, Chía, Tenjo, Suba, Engativá, Tocancipá, Gachancipáand Ubaté Muisca descendants still are present. A census by the Ministry of Interior Affairs in 2005 provided a total of 14,051 Muisca persons in Colombia.
Uraba and Choco Cultures
The peoples living along the coast and rivers and in the foothills surrounding the Gulf of Uraba enjoyed many trading routes and resources. Around 300 CE, these farming and goldworking societies used gold and tumbaga to represent people and wildlife, which were symbols of their thought. Central American groups learned of metallurgy from their neighbours in Uraba. Meanwhile, communities living in Choco, on the Pacific coast, exploited alluvial deposits of gold and worked metals in a similar way to how the goldsmiths of the Panama isthmus did.
Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Nahuange Period
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in northern Colombia, was inhabited by farmers and artisans who worked stone and metal. Between 200 CE and 900 CE, during the Nahuange period, societies who had settled on the coast were notable for their use of hammered ornaments in copper and gold alloys, with highly-polished surfaces and reddish tones. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a mountain range on the Caribbean coast in northern Colombia, separated from the Andes. The coastal bays contain remains of societies that worked gold in the Nahuange Period, from 200 BCE to 900 CE. Remains related to these and dating from around 900 CE have been found on the upper parts of the Sierra, where the climate is cooler and even cold. These are breastplates in the form of birds of prey or shaped like a double spiral, necklace beads and carved stone ornaments, but there is also a complex system of towns and satellite villages there, with stone foundations and linked together by paths. The Tairona chieftainships occupied the northern side.
As always, I have done my best to categorize the artifacts, but there may be errors. I am going to close this post here, I hope you enjoyed, please leave a comment.
Prehistoric Colombian Cultures: http://www.genesisny.net/GGems/PreHistory.html
Tumaco – LaTolita Culture: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23072516
Uraba and Choco: http://www.banrepcultural.org/gold-museum/uraba-and-choco-and-the-gold-museum-exhibition
The Art of Pre-Colombian Gold: http://libmma.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15324coll10/id/119785/rec/1
Gold and Power: http://www.doaks.org/resources/publications/doaks-online-publications/goldandpower/goldandpower00.pdf