Following Colombia, we head to the famous indigeous artisans and livestock markets at Otavalo in the Ecuadorian Andes, listen to some indigenous bands, and finish the podcast off in Quito, the old colonial capital of Ecuador.
I hadn’t really paid much attention to San Augustin’s existence until I arrived in Cali, where I read in my guidebook about some mysterious stone statues a day or two’s travel south in an area known as the Valley of the Statues. What struck me as most interesting was the fact that no one has the faintest idea about the culture that made them.
As no writing has ever been found, archaeologists have been left to draw their conclusions about the culture from the styles of the statues themselves.
What they do know is this:
Some of the statues date back to 3,300BC making these statues some of the oldest examples of human civilization on the planet
There are various Asian and African influences in some of the sculptures – for example statues of Gorillas (don’t exist in S. America), statues showing African Elephants (don’t exist in S. America), statues wearing Indian head-pieces (turbans etc), statues with clearly Asian eyes – which has led the academic community to believe that this culture was so advanced it had extensive contact with Africa and Asia thousands of years before it was originally thought such contact arose
Only 10%-20% of the extensive area has been excavated, and buried underground there are almost certainly extensive dwelling areas, and possibly even an entire city
Somewhere underground there will be examples of writing which will finally shed light on a mysterious civilization talked about by archaeologists as being expert craftsmen and mathematicians
There are about 20 well-kept sites in the area, with most of the statues found in situ (where they were originally discovered). To give you an idea of the size of the area, it can take you almost a day to do a round trip drive in a jeep from San Augustin to get to the more remote sites, although the closest statues are found in the Parque Arqueologico, about 3km walk (or bus) from San Augustin.
Almost all the statues were originally found lying down covered up in underground graves, and it is thought that the civilization that created them may have come under attack from the Incas, therefore burying the statues to avoid their destruction.
I spent the first day wandering around the Parque Arqueologico, which has about 130 statues and graves in 3 or 4 main clusters. I decided to hire a guide, which was definitely the right decision as it seemed he had a story for every statue in the park. He would excitedly point out the various influences that it is thought shaped the statues (African, Asian, Indian etc), as well as describe in gory detail the human sacrifices performed by this civilization by burning alive, burying alive and cutting the throats of victims. They particularly liked to dispatch young virgin boys & girls as gifts for dead leaders to take with them into the afterlife (virgin boys for the women leaders, and vice versa showing a remarkable degree of gender equality for a civilization so old).
Perhaps most intriguing are the statues clearly showing caesarian sections being performed, as well as the statue showing in detail the biological layout of the heart, which (along with evidence from a few of the preserved skulls found) has lead academics to the conclusion that this civilization were expert surgeons and were even performing brain surgery operations thousands of years ago.
San Augustin is a truly wonderful and mysterious place, and unbelievably almost devoid of tourists – we saw about six tourists in two days which, for an area boasting some of the earliest and most creative examples of human civilization, seems laughable. Sadly, this can only be attributed to the vastly incorrect Colombian travel warnings given out by our ‘concerned’ governments.
Most remarkable of all is the certainty that under the rolling hills lies a vast civilization waiting to be discovered. One day, when UNESCO has raised the vast funding required to excavate the area properly, we are sure to be able to not only name but learn from the civilization that built the Valley of the Statues.