On arrival at the park Jorge explained that the tombs are dotted in three clearings: Mesita A, B and C, which are surrounded by dense primary forest of bamboo, rubber and heliconia trees with their bird of paradise flowers.
As I walked to the first clearing, I thought to myself it must have taken masses of machetés to find and clear this place.
Mesita A is the biggest of the clearings with some of the most impressive tombs. They appear as massive stone gateways, with three statues supporting a stone lintel. Made of local volcanic rock from the extinct volcanoes that surround San AugustÍn, the softish stone was carved with harder basalt.
The central figure is thought to represent the inhabitant of the tomb, with guardians on either side. The bodies were buried with tools, food, ceramics and precious objects from gold or tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper, which has a lower melting point and supports more fine detail. These objects suggest a belief in some sort of an afterlife.
The tomb that struck me as most impressive is thought to depict a shaman. Jorge had spent time with indigenous tribes in the Amazon and said the shamans there wear a headdress with 33 feathers just as this statue does. In his hands, he holds the tools of his trade as a coquero: a stick in his right hand and a long vessel (poporo) in his left.
Shamans used sacred plants such as ayahuasca and coca to get into hallucinogenic states. Coca leaves on their own have little effect, so they were mixed with lime powder, made from crushed shells, kept in the poporo and extracted with the dipping pin. The shaman has sharp pointed jaguar’s teeth and is flanked by protective deities bearing weapons.
Above their heads are animal figures which curve down the back of the statues. They are thought to represent the visions or altered states from which the shamans get their power.
While these figures are fantastical with their jaguar teeth and hovering alter-egos, just beside this tomb I discovered a much more simple human figure with his arms across his chest, wearing what looked like the sort of felt cap still worn by the Arhuaco, Kogui and other indigenous people in the mountains.