The Chibchan Groups of Colombia

A great deal of the most important ethnoastronomy familiar to us comes from what is now called Colombia. This area linked Mesoamerica, the Amazonian tropical forests, and the Andean civilizations. The area spans a considerable range of types of geography. Colombia had corn agriculture probably earlier than is known in Mesoamerica and certainly earlier than anywhere else in the Americas. The earliest known pottery in the New World also comes from northern Colombia (~4000 b.c., Oyuela-Caycedo 1986). Metallurgy in Colombia was technically well-developed already in the late centuries b.c. and included soldering, smelting, casting, alloying, and the lost-wax technique. The area was rich in gold, and precious jewels, notably emeralds, were numerous. Farming included a wide range of field crops, especially corn and many root crops, notably, manioc, yams, sweet potatoes, and potatoes. Agricultural terraces to control water flow and provide areas of arable land were common, and large irrigation canals and dams were built. Cotton was grown in the lowlands, and large looms were used for weaving. A number of Colombian groups built large public buildings, and there were some notable stone monuments. In some areas, there were paved roads and well-built stone bridges. Elite individuals were carried in litters. Little is known of water transport, but large rafts were sometimes used as were dugout canoes. Warfare was common, and there seem to have been complex hierarchies both in politics and in the religious structure. Many supernatural figures, cosmic concepts, and extensive sacrifices (from flowers to humans) are similar to Mesoamerica. They are also

Figure 14.1. Identifications of the archeological sites, peoples, and areas of South America, which we discuss. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

integrated into a similar calendar system and involve astronomical knowledge that was probably developed as fully as among the Mayans but which still persists to an extent that is unparalleled anywhere in Mesoamerica.

The region known as the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta rises abruptly from the Caribbean coast to more than 18,000 feet (5775 m); within that small area alone, there is tremendous climatic and geographic variation ranging from tropical jungles and semidesert to alpine meadows, windswept tundra, and snow-capped mountains. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Colombia, the Taironas, a Chibchan-speaking tribe, had conquered many of their neighbors and established political control over much of the Sierra Nevada. The Spanish often used the term Tairona for all the people of the area, and archeologists have applied it to the pre-Columbian remains in the Sierra Nevada region. To the modern day Kogi (sometimes spelled Cogui), of this region, the name Tairona may refer either to the ancient people in general or to a specific tribe that they distinguished from themselves in some contexts and regarded as their ancestors in other contexts. Here, we shall use Tairona for the pre-

Columbian people and Kogi for the modern. The Sierra Madre region showing the locations of Kogi villages is shown in Figure 14.2.

Most of the relevant data on this group is derived from the work of Reichel-Dolmatoff, who has written a major monograph on the modern Kogi and done extensive arche-ological field work there and elsewhere in Colombia. In 1965, he published the only general study of Colombian archeology that has yet appeared. In some ways, the Kogi-Tairona seem to be the pivotal culture linking Mesoamerica, the Amazonian rain forest, and the Andean high civilizations. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1965, pp. 114-116, 157-158; 1975b, p. 233) emphasizes the many close parallels to Mesoamerican culture. It now seems likely that people were moving in both directions between Colombia and Mesoamerica. Many more details can be added to the comparisons suggested by Reichel-Dolmatoff, particularly in the areas of calendrics, astronomy, and religion.

The Tairona ceremonial building shown in Figure 14.3 has 18 levels: From a plaza level, two stairways ascend, each in two sets of five steps and a third set of seven, much shallower, steps. The archaeoastronomical significance of the 18 levels will be shown in our subsequent discussion of a modern Kogi temple.

The Kogi lived in the only urban area of pre-Hispanic Colombia; although there were no settlements larger than a

Figure 14.2. The Sierra Nevada region shows the locations of Kogi villages. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.
Figure 14.3. A Tairona ceremonial building has 18 levels of archaeoastronomical significance. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

few thousand people, there were "large public works such as temples, agricultural terraces, irrigation, and paved roads" (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1965, p. 158). This is an area with practically every known sort of archaeoastronomy tied in to a still-living mythology. Moreover, the entire zone is conceptualized as a gigantic sky map. Among the observational practices known among the past or present-day Kogi (most of which are mentioned by Reichel-Dolmatoff 1982, pp. 177-178) are

(1) the use of stone alignments and stone circles;

(2) horizon markers;

(3) direct shadow and alignment observations that make use of a small stick-gnomon (to lay out Kogi temples);

(4) observations of light movements caused by the Sun in the day and Moon at night, on the floor of the temple, regulated by a removable cover over a central ceiling opening;

(5) observation locations (marked by stone seats);

(6) a ceramic tube probably for determining lunar and solar positions; and

(7) solar observations made with an obsidian mirror (the Sun is also regarded as a mirror).

The last observational practice appears to confirm what has long been suspected to have been done in Mesoamerica. There, a major Aztec deity was Tezcatlipoca, Smoking Mirror, and concave obsidian mirrors were in use (§12.15).

A major ceremonial center of the Kogi is Hukkumeiji, which is also the name of a principal Kogi lineage. The name comes from uxan, "palm tree," but the totem animal of the lineage is the jaguar. It is said that the Sun "lives in Hukkumeiji," and it is only there that equinox ceremonies are held. The Sun is called Mama, the usual Kogi term for "priest," and Preuss (1919/1993, Vol. I, p. 56) recorded a list of 55 priests of the jaguar family (some of whom are also called maku, ruler) who succeeded each other from father to son, from Seidjankua, who is a prominent figure in Kogi mythology, to Usaginmaku (Jacinto Garavito), who was living in 1914. A photograph of a Mama, Domingo Zalavata, taken in 1984 shows him seated on a stone seat of the sort used by priests throughout the Kogi territory for astronom ical observations and for doing divination. Nearby cairns mark the graves of three earlier priests, and the main temple of Hukkumeiji is visible in the background. Although the genealogy of these jaguar priests makes it clear that inheritance was a major factor in the Kogi priesthood, it was entirely possible for individuals who had no priestly background to become priests if they were selected by a Mama. The training of a Kogi priest was long and arduous. At about three or four years of age, a child was removed from his family and went to live with a priest in a remote area. For the next nine years, he was not allowed to see any women, nor, indeed, many people of any sort. He awoke at dusk each day and spent nearly the entire night studying but was abed before sunrise as he was not allowed to see the Sun. He had a very restricted diet, the principal treat being occasional land snails. The novice was supposed to memorize myths, to study astronomy and local geography, to get a thorough knowledge of local traditions, and, in general, to become a very learned person, as the Kogi understood this attainment. After nine years, he was allowed to return briefly to his "home," at which time, he had to decide whether to stay for another nine years of study under similar conditions. The effectiveness of this training is demonstrated by a report1 that when a portion of a myth recorded by Preuss in 1914 was read to a Mama in the 1980s, he recited the continuation of the myth, word for word, just as Preuss had recorded it. There has been acculturation during the nearly five centuries of domination by Spanish-speakers, but the isolated area and the tradition of special training has meant that modern Kogi knowledge of the astronomy of their pre-Columbian ancestors may be a good approximation to the ancient system, which seems to have been a sophisticated one and interwoven with all facets of their life and social organization. The preservation of Kogi knowledge was, no doubt, helped by their conviction (as reported) that Catholicism was simply a corrupted version of their own religion.

A Kogi Mama makes frequent use in ceremonies of objects made in Tairona times, claimed as heirlooms. They include such things as monolithic stone axes, gold plaques and figurines, a wide range of beads, and obsidian mirrors.

Although Reichel-Dolmatoff has described the social organization relating humans to animals and animals to stars, the involvement of all of these with mythology, and with the construction of the temple as a model for the universe, he makes little use of that knowledge to expand his description of the Kogi calendar and astronomy. The Kogi temple consists of a rectangular framework, covered by a conical roof; temples are models of Earth, sky, and cosmos. It is said that the Earth is the spindle whorl of the Mother Goddess and that her spindle (which passes through e Orionis) is the "central post" of the land of her children, which she marked off by a circle of thread from her spindle. The spindle thus corresponds to the gnomon and knotted cord used by the Kogi priests in laying out temples. The cord (subuli) serves to maintain a strict canon of building. The priest directs the laying out of the temple, starting with the placement of a stake used as a gnomon. The cord is used to

1 Oyuela-Caycedo (1986).

Table 14.1. Kogi gods and associations."



Animal form Male lineage (Tuxe) Totem animal Goddesses

Female lineage (dâke) Totem animal Domain


Other associations


SS directionc FE direction' WS direction' SE directionc Basic direction associations

Seokukuib Black deer Hukukui Owl




Black Night


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