The enigmatic statuary of San Agustín, Colombia 3


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.

San Agustín, Colombia

One of the 600 statues found buried in the ground in San Agustín, Colombia. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

San Agustín, Colombia

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

San Agustín, Colombia

La Chaquira. Photo credit: Benjamin White

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

San Agustín, Colombia

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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).

San Agustín, Colombia

San Agustín Archaeological Park. Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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, Colombia

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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.

San Agustín, Colombia

Photo credit: Amrita Ronnachit

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:

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 on southern Colombia:

Popayán – the White City


More on central Colombia:

Take a peek inside the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

Bogotá – worth a visit?

La Candelaria Street Art, Bogotá

Barichara – the place to eat fat-bottomed ants

Villa de Leyva – colonial town with colossal public square


Posts on northern Colombia:

La Ciudad Perdida – impressions from the four day hike to the Lost City

Santa Marta – unpretentious colonial town

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3 thoughts on “The enigmatic statuary of San Agustín, Colombia

  • Karen White

    What an amazing array of statues. I suppose we don’t always need to know why past people did things but I suppose our human curiosity always wants to know. Some of those stautues are very cutesy pie. It must have been quite nice wandering around amongst the statues, it looks like a very pretty spot
    Kazzieandkitty