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Colombia: San Augustin and the Monsters Among Us

October 30, 2009

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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In southern Colombia along the verdant hills overlooking the Magdalena River, the National Archeological Park at San Augustin was once a major draw for both domestic and foreign tourists before the simmering drug wars of the 1970s turned into full-scale military conflict.

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1) At the site, in person

2) San Augustin town

The park boasts a unique feature; its main attraction is a series of stone monsters.  Not of the Jurassic Park saurian variety, but rather ancient monuments erected by a culture whose origins are still obscure, yet who exerted an influence far beyond their Colombian homeland.  Archeologists refer to their belief system as “the cult of the feline” and have found related artifacts as far away as Peru,  products of the ancient Chavin culture.

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3) Waterfall overlooking the Magdalena: the beauty of the region belies the evil that once lurked there

But these folks were not worshiping images of kitty cats. No.  They carved nasty flesh-eating creatures that are the stuff of nightmares, evil beings that sneak into bedrooms at night and greedily devour any flesh they encounter.

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4)Teeth were a matter of great significance

A question arises, one basic to our understanding of human nature.  Why do otherwise ordinary citizens, in times past or present, elect to prostrate themselves before monstrous entities, whether images of the imagination or those of concrete political ideologies.   Recent examples of the latter include Maoism, Stalinism, the National Socialists of Hitler, and Pol Pot’s blend of communism and urban terror (listed in order of magnitude concerning the number of their victims).  Yet the masses worshiped these manipulative demagogues as fervently as our ancestors prayed to the befanged creatures of San Augustin.

Is this tendency to idolize the worst of the human spirit hard-wired into our brains?

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5) One more fang-filled scowl

6) The statue in the background seems happy enough. What did he eat for breakfast?

7) A lonely-looking capybara far from home

8) A face in the rocks

Are we obligated to repeat the same twentieth century mistakes until we extinguish our species altogether?  Or might we overcome these base desires and render them obsolete?

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9) My friend Karin, hoping this creature is looking elsewhere

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10) Stone statue with nose ring and breast plate – a real aristocrat

The statues at San Augustin aren’t talking.  As the Russian poet Yevtushenko wrote of the Katyn Wood massacre at Babi Yar: “Here all things scream silently.”  And encourage humans to keep alive an ageless cult of inhumanity.

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11) The Peruvian version: Chavin-attributed statue at the remote site of Kuntar Wasi, west of Cajamarca

NOTE: Some of these pictures have been published previously in Archeology Today Magazine.  All photos by me, except where noted

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