You’re an artist, a sculptor. You spend hundreds of hours working on a single statue; finally you have it just right. Then what do you do? You bury it in the ground. Sound crazy? Well, that’s what the people of San Agustín in southern Colombia did with their statues.
Who made the statues of San Agustín?
It’s thought that people began inhabiting the San Agustín region sometime around 1000 BCE, and possibly as far back as 3000 BCE.
Who were they?
No one knows. They had no written language, and they didn’t leave all that many clues behind as to who they were and how they lived.
The statue carving didn’t happen until much later in the piece, most of it between the 1st Century CE and the 9th Century CE. But were these the same people that were here in 1000 BCE? It seems reasonable to think that there might be some connection between the two, but we can’t really say for sure.
People continued living in San Agustín until 1350 CE, many centuries after the statue carving had been discontinued.
Why did they stop carving the statues? No one knows.
What were the statues used for? Can’t say for certain.
What were the names of these people? We literally have no idea.
Some have started calling them Augustínians, but this name relates to the Spanish colonial days of Colombia and has nothing to do with the people who lived here over the millennia (the last of which disappeared a half-century or so before the conquistadors arrived).
The statues of San Agustín
It’s generally accepted that statues were incorporated, somehow, in funerary practices.
In all there are 600 known statues in the San Agustín region – possibly corresponding to the graves of 600 noblemen, warriors, and members of the cultural elite – along with 40 burial mounds (20 of which can viewed within the San Agustín Archaeological Park).
The statues and burial mounds are spread out over 116 hectares, making San Agustín the largest known necropolis in the world.
Bosque de las Estatuas, San Agustín
The Bosque de las Estatuas (Forest of Statues) contains an assortment of statues dug up by farmers and archaeologists in the region. It feels a little incoherent, as the statues clearly weren’t intended for a setting such as this, but considering their correct setting is being buried in the ground; it’s see them like this, or don’t see them at all.
The statues include carvings of humans, gods, demi-gods, animal totems, demons, spirits; anything and everything, but they were all created for the same purpose – or so it is thought – and that was to protect the dead.
And that seems a reasonable surmise when you look at some of the more fearsome statues. But I’m not sure how many evil spirits are going to be put off by these cutesy-pie animals and characters with the big goofy grins?
Practical information and how to reach San Agustín:
San Agustín is 520 kilometres from Bogotá, and can be reached via a convenient overnight bus.
It is a bumpy 5 hour trip from San Agustín to Popayán. This route, until recently, passed through rebel-held lands. Although things are continually improving in this regard, it’s best to play it safe and complete this trip during daylight hours. More transport info here.
Read more on San Agustín Archaeological Park in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.