The Ancient Statues of San Agustín, Colombia. The world’s largest necropolis, filled with gods, mythical animals, and heroes, rests in the southwestern Andes of Colombia. The largest collection of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America can be found at the San Agustín Archaeological Park. This park is located in the municipalities of San Agustín and Isnos, in the department of Huila, Colombia. This UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of San Agustín, Alto de los Ídolos (The High Idols) and Alto de Las Piedras (the High Stones). The site is perhaps best known for its impressive stone statues, numbering 600 at present.
San Agustín is located about 400 kilometers (249 miles) to the south-west of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. This site, which covers an area of 2000 square kilometers (772 square miles), is situated in the Colombian Massif at an altitude of 1800 meters (5906 feet) above sea level. It has been suggested that between 3300 BC and 600 BC, agriculture had not been introduced in the area of San Agustín. Yet, the society that inhabited this area possessed rudimentary stone technology consisting of basalt chips. Therefore, it is possible that some of the earliest stone statues at San Agustín were made during this period of the site’s occupation by humans.
At the end of San Agustín’s pre-agricultural period, a new society settled in the area. These people cultivated maize, and were thought to have lived in simple groups headed by chiefs. The presence of this society in San Agustín is evident in the vertical shaft tombs that are filled with simple grave goods. It has been suggested that this society only lasted until the third or second century BC.
The so-called ‘Agustínian culture’ emerged during the first century AD, and lasted until the eighth century AD. There was a flowering of monumental lithic art during this period, and many of San Agustín’s stone statues were carved by the people of the Agustínian culture.
One of the factors contributing to this flourishing of stone art was the social consolidation and the concentration of power in the hands of chiefs. This meant that human labor could be effectively organized to produce a huge number of stone statues. Conversely, the ability to organize human labor for the production of these statues could also have allowed some chiefs to concentrate power in their hands.
The statues carved by the Agustínian culture included human figures, animals, deities and monsters, and the largest of these stone statues is said to be 7 meters (23 feet) high. Some of the most famous statues include a warrior with two bodies and one head (called the ‘Double Self’), and a figure delivering a child known as El Partero (‘the male midwife’)
By the eighth century AD, the Agustínian culture came to an end, as evidenced by the abandonment of monumental works and the cessation of statue carving. A new culture settled in the area during the 11th century AD, and it was abandoned once again around 1350.
The site of San Agustín was only rediscovered during the 18th and 19th centuries. The first description of San Agustín can be found in an 18th century work known as “Maravillas de la Naturaleza” (meaning “Wonders of Nature”). This was written in 1771 by a Spanish monk by the name of Juan de Santa Gertrudis, who was sent as a missionary to South America. In his work, the missionary stated his conviction that the statues were carved by the Devil to warn the natives about the coming of the Spanish missionaries. Given the obscurity of the culture that made these statues, various theories have also been forwarded, including one that suggests that they are evidence of extra-terrestrial visitors. For archaeologists, however, it is generally agreed that the statues were used in a funerary context, and functioned as guardians of the dead.
In 1913, the first European excavation of San Agustín was conducted by German anthropologist Konrad Preusse. At the end of the excavation, 35 statues were shipped to Berlin, where they still remain today. In 2012, about 1800 residents of the San Agustín region signed a petition urging the Colombian government to make a formal request for the repatriation of these statues.
The awareness of the local population for their cultural heritage was seen again in 2013. To mark the 100th anniversary of Preusse’s excavation at San Agustín, the national museum planned a temporary exhibition of the stone statues. Twenty stone statues were due to be taken to Bogotá for three months. This was stopped by the local residents, however, and the museum had to change their exhibit to one called ‘The Silence of the Idols’, displaying 3D images of the statues instead of the real thing. Visitors to this exhibit are also urged to spare a moment to consider “the emptiness and silence that emerge when a few people claim exclusive right over our heritage, trampling the cultural liberties of all Colombians.”