National Geographic : 1940 May
STONE IDOLS OF THE ANDES REVEAL A VANISHED PEOPLE Remarkable Relics of One of the Oldest Aboriginal (ultures of America are Unearthed in Colombia's San Agustin Region BY HERMANN VON WALDE-WALDEGG With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author HIGH in the Andes of Colombia the archeologist's spade is bringing to light strange long-toothed statues and other relics of one of the oldest and most mysterious of early American cultures. Of these vanished people almost nothing has been known. Hidden away on a lofty plateau guarded by the rugged ridges of the Andes, their relics have escaped the atten tion given such cultures as those of the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas (map, page 629). On two expeditions in recent years I have found the hills around the town of San Agustin to be rich in buried temples, tombs, and ferocious-appearing figures carved in stone. Carefully studied, they shed valu able light on the life of these aboriginal Americans who probably lived and carved their gods from about 250 B. c. to A. D. 1000 and whose culture had risen, flourished, and faded before the rise of the Inca civilization on the Pacific side of the Andes. The region is such a mine of archeological treasures that in two short seasons I was able to excavate 142 statues, several temples in the form of dolmens, many tombs-in one of which some of the bones had for tunately been preserved-and quantities of pottery and other objects, some apparently used in human sacrifice (page 643). GODS HAVE HUGE EYETEETH One of the most striking characteristics of this San Agustin culture is the enormous set of teeth, and especially the gigantic eyeteeth, of the majority of the monu ments. They give the figures the malevo lent aspect of beings from another world. These remarkable teeth appear to be pri marily a badge of deity, and statues repre senting warriors or other human figures are generally toothless. Some of the monu ments seem strangely ultramodern and one statue of a war-god or a tribal chief is strongly suggestive of modern cubist art (page 647). Many figures are of extraor dinary size. Some weigh more than 15 tons and one has a height of nearly 21 / feet. Present-day inhabitants of the region look upon the massive stone idols with awe and believe that catastrophe would befall them if the gods were ever borne away to the outside world. The first scientifically conducted excava tions in the area were begun just before the World War of 1914 by the German ar cheologist Konrad Theodor Preuss. His work in two volumes, published in 1929 and translated into Spanish by the writer in 1931, became the steppingstone for suc ceeding investigations. While serving as an archeologist for the Colombian Government and as a teacher of archeology at the University of Bogota, I made a trip of reconnaissance to the region in 1932 and was immediately struck by the possibilities of this virtually untouched field. Two successful expeditions have followed. GOD AND GODDESS IN A PASTURE On my first visit to San Agustin, my eager interest was aroused even before we reached the town. With a native guide I was riding a rough trail through the dense vegetation of the Colombian highlands on the last lap of the long journey by rail and horse back from Bogota, when suddenly my eyes lighted upon something that almost made me fall off my horse. Flat on their backs in the dirt and grass of a meadow lay two heavy figures of carved stone representing a god and goddess. Each was about as tall as a man. With their long jaguar eyeteeth and broad noses, they looked like something out of a nightmare, but to me as an archeologist they were infinitely beautiful.