Kogi from various sites

Kogi from various sites


By This image has been created during “DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio” at Polytechnic University of Milan, organized by DensityDesign Research Lab in 2016. Image is released under CC-BY-SA licence. Attribution goes to “Camila Borrero, DensityDesign Research Lab”. – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45104976

4 Indigenous groups:  kogi, kankuamo, arhuaco, wiwa

 Uploaded on Nov 2, 2011

Kogi leader Fernando Daza has a message for the “little brother”. The indigenous groups from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia call all non-Sierra-indigenous “little brothers”, who have to be led by the hand and taught the ways of the (spiritual-) world.


The Role, and the Training, of the Mámas


It is the Mámas who lead and guide Kogi society, and to whom everyone comes for advice and, periodically, confession. ‘Confession takes place at night in the ceremonial house, the mama reclining in his hammock while the confessant sits next to him on a low bench. The other men must observe silence or, at least, converse in subdued voices, while between the priest and the confessant unfolds a slow, halting dialogue in which the máma formulates several searching questions about the confessant’s family life, social relations, food intake, ritual obligations, dreams and many other aspects of his daily life … It is natural then that a máma obtains … much information which allows him to exercise control over many aspects of local sociopolitical development. I know of no case, however, where a máma would have taken this knowledge for his own ends … (they) constitute a truly moralising force and, as such, occupy a highly respected position.’ The key to this integrity may lie in their education.

Ideally, future priests are chosen by divination and undergo their training from birth. Full education lasts 18 years, split into two periods of nine years each, with puberty in between, at which point either the ‘moro’, or his teacher, can decide to discontinue the process. It used to be the case that girls would be educated too, but within the last three or four generations, this seems to have lapsed, only some girls given a basic education ‘in the manner of the ancients’.


During their training, the novices are designated by the term ‘kuívi’, or abstinents, and live in certain secluded places in the Sierra with their teacher and his wardens (hánkua-kúkui). There is an emphasis on avoiding daylight and on eating only white food. The first nine years, after nursing, are spent learning basics. ‘For hours on end, night after night, and illuminated only by torches and low-burning fires, the children are taught the dance steps, the cosmological recitals, and the tales relating to the principal personifications and events of the Creation story.’ It is a gentler time than the post-puberty period, the novice calling his teacher ‘hátei’ (father) and he calling them his ‘children’ or ‘sons’.

The more formal training begins after puberty. Now, the novices can eat, sparingly, the meat of game animals such as peccary, agouti and armadillo which ‘have great knowledge, and by eating their flesh the novices will partake in their wisdom.’ They learn deep meditation (using controlled breathing and muscular relaxation), divinatory practices, ‘listening’ to within and the ancient, ceremonial language and begin to perform for themselves the minor rituals. Slowly, having mastered a particular knowledge, they acquire the power objects or ‘sewá’ (beads of stone and different


minerals) which are the ‘permits’ for that knowledge. The aim of all this training ‘is to discover and awaken those hidden faculties of the mind that…enable the novice to establish contact with the divine sphere…The entire teaching process is aimed at this slow, gradual building up to the sublime moment of the self-disclosure of god to man, of the moment when Sintána or Búnkuasé … reveals himself in a flash of light and says:‘Do this! Go there!” ’ (Búnkuasé – ‘the shining one’ – was the first legendary máma to educate disciples and ‘is the personification of the highest moral principles in Kogi ethics and … the patron and spiritual guardian of the priesthood.’)

From ‘The Sacred Mountain of Colombia’s Kogi Indians’.

‘All training is carried out under conditions of strictly scheduled lighting changes: for years the novice must live in an enclosure where he must rise at sunset and go to sleep at dawn. The apprentice must lead an entirely nocturnal life; during the night they may go for a short walk and bathe in the river but when there is a moon they should cover their heads with a small woven mat. Besides, the whole training period is accompanied by a complete change in diet.

The manifest intention of the priestly teachers is to deflect the child-novices from their accustomed circadian activity rhythms, and to ungear or “declutch” their time perception. It is significant that Kogi priests declare that in children whose training began after the age of five, their circadian rhythms may be very persistent and that, for this reason, they prefer children of two or three years for initial training.’ (R-D 1990: 6-7).

‘Since Kogi priests believe that timing can be manipulated, they also believe that light/darkness stimulation can be manipulated for specific ends, and that this can be done quite independently of time. The idea of ‘throwing time out of gear’ – if I may say so – is found mainly in the early stages of priestly training and, later on, in the preparation for mystical experiences.

In order to suggest some approaches to the study of the personality of the Kogi priest, we must return to the earliest phases of the training period. The knowledge and interpretation of circadian rhythms is used by the mámas in their attempt to deflect young children from biologically-based activity patterns, in order to create in them another, culturally-defined, perception of the relativity of time and space. Time and space are not thought to set inescapable barriers to the human condition, and a true mama must be able to step outside of time. This endeavour, and the practises it involves, constitute, to say the least, an extremely interesting proposition.

The predominantly nocturnal life of the novices is most likely to cause what is known technically as winter depression. In the case of an extraordinarily long period of reclusion this would probably lead to depressive states of a high order. This manipulation of circadian rhythms is combined, in the Kogi case, with a specific, protein-low diet, salt-starvation, severe sexual repression, the absence of female affectivity, unaccustomed iterative learning, the occasional use of hallucinogenic substances, and other practices the nature of which is still little known. In view of these multiple factors in priestly training among the Kogi, even an approximate description of a mama’s personality, would fall outside the limited possibilities of ethnological analysis.’ (R-D 1990: 9-10).

Throughout training, emphasis has been on moral education, self-control and purity. ‘Only the pure, the morally untainted, can acquire the divine wisdom to control the course of the sun … the change of the seasons and the times for planting and harvesting.’ Punishment for any lapse may have been sharp and painful – long periods spent kneeling on broken shells or frantically working a loom with the admonition, ‘I shall yet make you respect the cloth you are wearing.’ In society generally, overindulgence, physical aggression, disrespect, theft and cruelty to children and animals are all condemned, and a máma must be above all that.

Finally, at the age of twenty or so, he is returned to society, sometimes taking some years to adapt after so long in a rarified and élitist situation. He will not be skilled in practical matters such as land tenure, seed collection or soil qualities – his role is to ‘turn back the sun or to drown (the world) with rain’. He must be aloof from the potentially polluting practicalities of daily existence, his ‘otherness’ giving him a detachment from emotional entanglement – ‘neither sex, hunger, fear, nor friendship … must bias his judgment’ if he is to be a leader, an ability expected in the common man also. ‘One never marries the woman one loves’, Dolmatoff was once, quite categorically, told.

Because ‘the Kogi…feel responsible for the moral conduct of all men… there is great interest in foreign cultures… The training of novices is, therefore, a necessity not only for Kogi society, but also for the maintenance of the wider moral order…The education of a máma is, essentially, a model for the education of all men (who) should follow a máma’s example of frugality, moderation, and simple goodness.’


  • Reichel-Dolmatoff G.:-      —>
  • The Sacred Mountain of Colombia’s Kogi Indians. E.J. Brill. 1990.


Threats to Kogi society, and their response – the founding of Gonavindua Tairona

The Ika had long been more vulnerable to the effects of western acculturation because the southern areas of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta had been deforested earlier in the century by the United Fruit Company, an American concern, to make way for banana plantations. Although these plantations are no longer viable, roads and Western presence in the South remained effective bringing the Ika to the forefront of contact with Westerners and resulting in their heavier politicisation.

The Kogi, however, lived on the northern and western slopes of the Sierra, a position that afforded them more protection. Their privileged situation was to change.

Factors involved

In the 1970’s a road linking Santa Marta with Venezuela via Riohacha, was built along the northern coast resulting in ribbon development and the establishment of increasingly populated villages along its length. It is now this northern coast which has been developed for banana plantations, thus incidentally escalating land prices here, and up into the foothills of the Kogi part of the Sierra Nevada.

Secondly, towards the end of the seventies, came the discovery of an ancient Tairona city, ‘Ciudad Perdida’, by ‘guacheiros’ or tomb-robbers. This resulted in the dissemination of Tairona gold pieces and other artifacts into the Western market and the ‘Lost City’ became the archaeological site ‘Buritaca 2000’. These factors combined to make the area a more popular tourist attraction.

Also, throughout the twentieth century, indigenous land has been invaded by ‘colonos’ farmers, poor Colombians who try to scratch a living from small farms on the lower slopes. Included in their crops are marijuana and coca bushes for the production of cocaine to fuel the international market. This in turn has led to the use of the mountain by the ‘cocaine’ barons. It’s ruggedness also makes it a haunt of revolutionary forces and other bands of less politically motivated groups (professional kidnappers in the main) which in turn lead to the necessity of the army and para-military groups to enter indigenous territory to control these various forces.

Response of the Mamas

Inevitably, the effects of 20th century globalisation were being felt in ‘The Heart of the World’ and the Mamas had to adapt to this new situation. When faced with new phenomena, says Reichel-Dolmatoff, ’ it is not so much the question of what causes these phenomena which occupies the priests, but the problem of how to integrate them into the established cosmogonic scheme…. What ritual or moral attitudes do they imply for the individual and for society?’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff in Lyon 1974: 300). Writing this article in 1974, Reichel-Dolmatoff described the emergence of a new strata of younger priests ‘who do not conform to the basis established by tradition, but who glimpse new horizons and new dimensions in which human destiny might fulfil itself.’ (ibid: 301).

Gonavindua Tairona

It was this generation of priests which decided that overt political power was preferable to isolation. The founding of Gonavindua Tairona (on 21st January 1987) was the first step towards such a power base. Kogi, Arhuaco and Assario combined to establish a political organisation which ‘… links native communities to the Western world with an obligation to defend the Sierra Nevada down to its deepest foundations, so that all who live there and their environment shall suffer no harm. This organisation was set up with the object of helping to defend indigenous culture and traditions, promoting their independence and autonomy. It is also engaged in the larger work, the quest to protect our culture and beliefs.’

The following year, 1988, they further reversed the policy of complete isolation by agreeing to a request by BBC film director Alan Ereira to make a documentary about them. Whilst a number of films had been made about the Arhuaco (including by Attenborough), the Kogi had previously refused entry even to such prestigious film-makers as Brian Moser, series editor of Granada’s ‘Disappearing World’ programmes. There followed a year’s fieldwork by anthropologist Graham Townsley before the making of the film (From the Heart of the World – the Elder Brothers’ Warning – 90 minutes) which was presented on BBC1 in 1990. This period marked both the end of Kogi isolation and the beginning of Tairona Heritage Trust activities.

By acting in this way, the Kogi were conforming to a pattern of contemporary South American indigenous resurgence. In Colombia and Ecuador in particular, lowland and highland indigenous groups are uniting through ‘Indianism’ (‘Indianismo’), ‘a philosophy which emphasises that indigenous peoples should lead the struggle for recognition of their own culture, needs and rights.’ (Wearne 1996: 173). ‘Indianism’ manifests in three different schools of thought; the first identifies the struggle with left-wing ideology and the second disassociates itself from both left and right-wing politics arguing instead for a return to cultural purity. Gonavindua Tairona is espouses the third school, namely ‘a centrist position which argues that indigenous people should organise, lobby and campaign in structures of their own but in alliance with other, non-indigenous organisations when and where appropriate. In other words, action and organisation should reflect the multicultural, plural nature of the societies in which indigenous people live.’ (ibid: 174).


  • Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. ‘Funerary Customs and Religious Symbolism Among the Kogi’ in Lyon, Patricia J. (ed). Native South Americans – Ethnology of the Least Known Continent. Little, Brown and Co.. Boston/Toronto. 1974.
  • Wearne, Phillip. Return of the Indian – Conquest and Revival in the Americas. Cassell.1996.


Time, Space and ‘declutching’ time.

The following quotes all come from Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s article ‘The Sacred Mountain of Colombia’s Kogi Indians’ (E.J. Brill. 1990). In his writing, Reichel-Dolmatoff points to cultural differences in the concept of time – by understanding time, he asserts, the Kogi priest can transcend it. Reasons for wanting to do so may be: to escape the consequences of actions; to escape from the material world having achieved ‘perfection’; or to manipulate people (as in the training of the young priests) or events (as in agriculture). For further ramifications of these ideas, please see the documents ‘The Education of the Mamas’ and ‘Agricultural Theory’.

‘The Kogi recognise a close relationship between time and space, an idea that is abundantly illustrated by local historical traditions. For example, long lists of temples or of mythological way-stations, or lists of ancient priests, provide important points of historical reference. And so do traditions of astronomical events in the past, of eclipses or of certain phenomena that are said to have been observed at only one spot or one time. An often mentioned image is that of a creeping squash plant the slow spread of which provides a ready model for the propagation of the Kogi people in mythical times. The bifurcating branches, bearing large womb-shaped fruits here and there, are explained in terms of a huge, all-embracing genealogical tree which, in those times, began to cover the mountains and valleys of Kogi territory. A dendritic structure like this combines the concepts of exact place and relative chronological distance, matters that are of considerable concern to Kogi thinkers.

In our cultural tradition we are inclined to believe that a causally connected sequence of events takes place in a neutral context of time; time simply flows on while we act in it. The Kogi believe that certain moments in time are of a decisive importance in causing and shaping events. This conceptualisation is partly derived from their astronomical knowledge and practice in which, of course, exact time periods or precise moments of observation are all-important. The agricultural cycle, the onset of the rainy season, the coming of the tradewinds and similar events seem to provide ample proof to the Kogi, and their sun- and moon-watching stations are used to predict some of these events.

This emphasis on time-reckoning, on calendric elaborations, and on ways to predict the coming seasons are quite normal in agricultural society. The Kogi have been agriculturalists for several millennia; five hundred years ago they already had extensive irrigation systems in the lowlands near Santa Marta, and built large agricultural terraces on the mountain-flanks. A successful adaptation to a recurrent pattern of seasonal changes had to be based on efficient devices to make possible the precise detection of the beginning of the rains some time before they actually arrived.

But the mámas concern for timing is not limited to the routine of the agricultural cycle; intellectually they try to reach beyond this sphere, and attempt to manipulate a cosmic machinery of surprising dimensions.

Closely linked to Kogi concepts of time and space is their interest in all cyclic phenomena, in rhythms. They believe that rhythmic geophysical changes of the environment affect all life forms and, above all, they believe that human life is subject to a multitude of influences that emanate from the universe.

On a personal level, a Kogi priest might try to step outside of time… Some mámas claim that they and other men of high esoteric knowledge and power of concentration, can reach beyond time through a process of transformation which can be induced either through a narcotic drug or through the coordinated effect of sensory deprivations. The purpose of this may be twofold: a person might want to step outside of time because of his manifest evil intentions, of his determination to act against all cultural norms. Jaguar transformation is an example, or certain rituals that contradict all established rules. Or, on the contrary, a person might step outside of time because he has achieved spiritual enlightenment and moral perfection. These are two extremes which delimit this dimension of behaviour; in the Kogi view, they lie outside of time and, therefore, they lie outside of the cogwheels of biology and environment.

Since Kogi priests believe that timing can be manipulated, they also believe that light/darkness stimulation can be manipulated for specific ends, and that this can be done quite independently of time. The idea of ‘throwing time out of gear’ – if I may say so – is found mainly in the early stages of priestly training and, later on, in the preparation for mystical experiences.

This uncoupling or declutching of time is manifest in the esoteric lore of Kogi priests and, indeed, seems to be rather characteristic of Colombian shamanism in general. Among the Kogi, this relativity of time is expressed in attitudes toward death, towards rebirth, in ghostly apparitions, in ritual (e.g. masked dances), or in the wanderings of the soul in sleep or during trance-like states. This relativity is well expressed in a tale about a famous mythical Kogi priest who predicted the date of his own death and invited a group of other priests to attend his burial. He himself died on time but of the guests he had invited, some arrived a long time before the burial; others arrived a long time after it, and the rest of them never came because they simply forgot about the appointment. This tale makes an important point in Kogi teachings: one must be able to “forget time.” ‘


  • Reichel-Dolmatoff , Gerardo.The Sacred Mountain of Colombia’s Kogi Indians. E.J. Brill. 1990.


The Kogi ( KOH-gee) or Cogui or Kágaba, meaning “jaguar” in the Kogi language, are an indigenous ethnic group that lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. Their civilization has continued since the Pre-Columbian era.


The Kogi language belongs to the Chibchan family.


The Kogi are descendants of the Tairona culture, which flourished before the times of the Spanish conquest. The Tairona were an advanced civilization which built many stone structures and pathways in the jungles. They made many gold objects which they would hang from trees and around their necks. They lived not much differently from modern day Kogi. Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the Tairona were forced to move into the highlands when the Caribs invaded around 1000 CE. The decision to flee to the mountains proved beneficial and strategic by the time the Spanish entered modern-day Colombia in the 15th century. In 1498, the Spanish arrived in Northern Colombia where they began to enslave indigenous groups. Threatened by dogs and soldiers alike, the Tairona remained in isolation. Regardless, many priests were hanged, women were stolen and raped, and children were forced to accept Spanish education. Later, missionaries came and also began to influence their way of life, building chapels and churches amidst their villages to train and convert the locals. In the years since, the Kogi have remained in their home in the mountains, which allows them to escape the worst effects of colonization and aids them in preserving their traditional way of life

Spiritual beliefs

The Kogi base their lifestyles on their belief in “Aluna” or “The Great Mother,” their creator figure, whom they believe is the force behind nature. The Kogi understand the Earth to be a living being, and see humanity as its “children.” They say that our actions of exploitation, devastation, and plundering for resources is weakening “The Great Mother” and leading to our destruction.

Like many other indigenous tribes, the Kogi people honor a holy mountain which they call “Gonawindua,” otherwise known as Pico Cristóbal Colón. They believe that this mountain is “The Heart of the World” and they are the “Elder Brothers” who care for it. They also say that the outside civilization is the “Younger Brothers” who were sent away from The Heart of the World long ago.

From birth the Kogi attune their priests, called Mamas (which means sun in Kogi), for guidance, healing, and leadership. The Mamas are not to be confused with shamans or curers but to be regarded as tribal priests who hold highly respected roles in Kogi society. Mamas undergo strict training to assume this role. Selected male children are taken from birth and put in a dark cave for the first nine years of their lives to begin this training. In the cave, elder Mamas and the child’s mother care for, feed, train, and teach the child to attune to “Aluna” before the boy enters the outside world. Through deep concentration, symbolic offerings, and divination, the Mamas believe they support the balance of harmony and creativity in the world. It is also in this realm that the essence of agriculture is nurtured: seeds are blessed in Aluna before being planted, to ensure they grow successfully; marriage is blessed to ensure fertility; and ceremonies are offered to the different spirits of the natural world before performing tasks such as harvest and building of new huts.

The Kogi Mamas have remained isolated from the rest of the world since the Spanish Conquistadors came to plunder South America for gold. In order to preserve their traditional way of life, they rarely interact with the modern world or with outside civilization. Outsiders are not allowed inside their ancestral lands. The Kogi Mamas say that the balance of the earth’s ecology has been suffering due to the modern-day devastation of resources by Younger Brother. The Kogi Mamas in turn believe that their work as Elder Brother is instrumental in helping to prolong and protect life on earth. In a desperate attempt to prevent further ecological catastrophe and destruction, the Kogi Mamas broke their silence and allowed a small BBC film crew into their isolated mountaintop civilization to hear their message and warning to Younger Brother. The subsequent messages and warnings were voiced in the documentary The Heart of The World: Elder Brother’s Warning. After the documentary was filmed, the Kogi Mamas returned to their work in isolation and asked outsiders to not come to their land.

The Kogi soon realized that their message and warning had not been heeded by Younger Brother, and instead, as they had predicted, many catastrophes occurred and the natural world continued to be devastated at an even more rapid pace. In turn they contacted the same filmmaker twenty years later to give one final message. This became Aluna, a documentary made by the Kogi Mamas themselves in which they give a second warning and say that they have chosen to share their secret sciences with Younger Brother so that Younger Brother can help change the world for the better.

Cosmology and socio-religious concepts

Traditional Kogi religion is closely related to the structure of the cosmic universe that exists in dualistic expressions. On a cosmic level, the sun separates the universe into two hemispheres: the east/west and consequently a right/left. The Kogi use this dualistic notion to elaborate on a number of earthly divides: man/woman, male/female, heat/cold, light/dark, and right/left. They believe each these groupings are complementary opposites. Within each pair, one cannot survive without the other. In the case of good(right)/evil(left), the Kogi believe committing a sin once in a while serves as a justification for the existence of good. These natural opposites are a way to keep the society balanced or “in agreement” (yuluka).

The two hemispheres are then divided into four segments: North/South/East/West. Within these four points of reference, the Kogi have associated the orientation of their religious framework into South/East as good/light and North/West as evil/dark. This cosmic structure has influenced four entrances to each village, four principal clans, and has divided the Sierra Nevada into four sections. Following this concept, the Kogi have structured the ceremonial houses and sacred offering sites into four quadrants. In the ceremonial house, a line is drawn down the middle of a circle, which divides the men into a left side where men “know more”, and a complementary right side of men who “know less.”

In a system of four quadrants, the four lines inevitably meet in the center creating a fifth dimension to the cosmic universe. The central point holds great significance to the Kogi people. It represents the center of the universe, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria. During the ceremony, this is the point where the mama buries the four sacred offerings and “speaks with god.” In the center of the circle, he places a tiny stool upon the spot where he receives and answers questions of the cosmic universe.

In Kogi cosmology, they have added three dimensions to the standard N/S/E/W: Zenith, Nadir and the Center. This fixed system of points resembles an egg and is formulated into nine stages/layers of development. Mother Goddess, the creator of the universe and mankind, created the cosmic egg. The horizontal layers of the egg are divided into two sections of 4 four worlds with mankind (the 5th layer) residing in the center. The cosmic egg also represents the uterus of Mother Goddess and the Sierra Nevada. Because of this, the Kogi have built the structure of the ceremonial house as a replica of the cosmos.

Funerary customs

The mamas participate in various rituals to celebrate the individual’s life cycle from birth to death. These ceremonies include offerings, dances, and other ritual affairs. Although every life cycle is celebrated, emphasis on burial customs has been of much importance to the Kogi people. In this tribe, death is not viewed as a tragic event but as a “fulfillment of life.” The burial process usually lasts approximately two hours and is performed without prayers and chants. To an outside viewer, the ritual might seem simple without depth for such a spiritual tribe. What the viewer does not realize is that the funerary customs have philosophic concepts and deeper underlying meanings beyond the dimension of the western world.

Burial rites are an act of “cosmification.” When a person dies, the mamas return him/her back to the uterus of Mother Goddess.

The list below dictates 8 components of the burial ritual analyzed by anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff.

1. Verbalization of the cemetery as the “village of Death” and as the “ceremonial house of Death”; verbalization of the burial pit as a “house” and as a “uterus.”

2. Flexed position of the corpse, placed in a carrying net, with a rope tied to the hair.

  • The net represents the placenta of the uterus, which is connected by an umbilical cord (rope) that is cut after nine days. This allows the person to be rebirthed into another world.

3. Corpse resting on the left side and with the head orientated toward the east.

  • The east is the direction of the sun and light of the universe.

4. Marked emphasis on right and left: position of hands; position of the corpse; left turns and right turns.

  • As the person is turned, it creates the movement of the cosmic axis.

5. Placing of offerings at the sides, the center and the top of the burial pit.

  • This placement relates to the sacred points: North/South/East/West/Zenith/Nadir/Center

6.Verbalization of the offerings as “food for the dead.”

  • The dead not only consist of ancestors, but also mythical beings of the masters of plants and animals. Eating this offering has a close relationship with sexual intercourse. The food symbolizes male semen and also the fertilization of the supernatural being and thus serves a way to multiply the offering. For example, if an offering is made to the Mother of Maize, the found constitutes as nourishment and an incentive to procreate more maize.

7. Attitude of “opening” and “closing the home.”

8. Purification by turning.

  • By rapidly turning the corpse, one becomes invisible and invulnerable to Death. For nine days and nights, the soul wanders on a journey that ends in the rebirth of that soul.

The Kogi have many characteristics that define their culture. For example, all Kogi men receive a “poporo” when they come of age. The “poporo” is a small, hollow gourd that is filled with “lima,” a type of powder that is made by heating and crushing shells to produce lime. The men also continuously chew coca leaves, a tradition followed by many indigenous tribes to connect them to the natural world. As they chew the coca leaves, they suck on the lime powder in their poporos, which they extract with a stick, and rub the mixture on the gourd with the stick to form a hardened layer or crust. The size of this layer depends on the maturity and the age of the Kogi man.

Kogi men and women all carry traditional bags across their shoulders. Only women are allowed to weave the bags. Many of the things carried inside a bag are secret and known only to the owner. Bags carried by Mamas contain sacred traditional objects. When two Kogi men meet, they use the customary greeting, which is to exchange handfuls of coca.


Kogi men and women alike have simple modes of dress. The women pick, card, and spin wool and cotton while men do the weaving of the cloth. Clothing for men consists of a tunic and simple pants tied with a string at the waist. Clothing for women consists of a single length of cloth wrapped around their bodies as a dress. The Kogi all wear only pure white clothing. They say that white represents the Great Mother and therefore the purity of nature.

The Kogi live in a series of villages containing circular huts made of stone, mud, and palm leaves. Men live in a separate hut from the women and children. Each village contains a large hut called a “nuhue” or temple where only men are allowed. In the “nuhue” many things are discussed and decisions are made. Divination and concentration also occur in these temples. Women are not allowed because the Kogi believe that women are more connected to the Great Mother and have no need of entering the temple. There are also women priests in the villages.

All consultations are done with Mamas, and many of the decisions are based on their wisdom and knowledge. Many Kogi marriages are arranged by Mamas to ensure the most fruitful communities. Marriages are not forced, and the buying or selling of women is not permitted, although women as young as 14 can be married and have children. The Kogi do not allow the mistreatment of women, and it is not uncommon to find marriages that were not arranged, but the Kogi also disapprove of breaking arranged marriages.

Common crops of trade are sugar and coffee. Much of the sugar is turned into “panela,” a type of Colombian hardened brown sugar. The women do most of the planting of the vegetables, but farming is a responsibility of the whole family.

Contemporary Kogi

The Kogi people live largely in peace with their environment. They use slash-and-burn farming methods; each family tends farms at varying altitudes of the Sierra, producing different crops to satisfy the range of their needs. They also raise cattle on the highlands.

See also
External links



Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Why of Woo

As any weary parent can attest, two-year-olds are famously annoying for various perverse habits, not least their repetitive persistence in asking Why?  It could be argued that such interminable questioning never really ceases, but rather continues and becomes more complex and nuanced as we age.  Wondering why may be one of the defining characteristics of humans, a common trait of our species that drives much of our laudable creativity – and possibly our ultimate downfall.
For the very tiny (but increasing) percentage of humanity that is becoming aware of several self-induced catastrophes which are rapidly converging and threatening our increasingly precarious existence – certainly, civilization’s collapse, if not extinction of the entire biosphere – the question of why we are willfully committing ecocide often looms large.  The prospect of extinction seems to concentrate the mind marvelously, and generates a powerful urge to understand why and how we have managed to blunder into overshoot with our eyes wide open.  Once this is acknowledged, other questions tend to follow in a feverish rush – could this have been averted?  Is there something inherent in our genetic tendencies that leads inexorably to heedless growth?  If so, could we learn – or somehow evolve – to behave sustainably instead?

Among those disenchanted with the “progress” of modern industrial civilization fueled by capitalism (pollution, habitat destruction, social and economic inequality, and so forth), there has long existed a tendency to romanticize the “Noble Savage” as exemplifying a primitive and peaceful version of human social organization, more in harmony with the natural world and respectful of diversity.  Added to that fantasy now is a desperation that derives from the recent crescendo of dire warnings from climate scientists and ecologists.  Since this desire is faith-based and stubbornly rejects a wealth of evidence persuasively indicating that tribal life (whether agricultural or nomadic hunter-gatherer) was so often defined by violent conflict and conquest as to be considered universal, the adherence to those beliefs has become a secular religion.  Faith that “consciousness” can be deliberately altered by wishful thinking betrays a truly pathetic and sophomoric understanding of the tenets of biological evolution.  Such a quasi-religion can be designated Woo, and its proponents the Woo Woo.  That’s how I think of it, anyway.

There are innumerable examples of indigenous cultures that the Woo Woo claim to be peaceful and sustainable, but simply weren’t – although no amount of dissenting facts amassed from research can dissuade them otherwise.  It helps that they usually refuse to read any history, anthropology, archaeology, or primary sources and instead, stick to Woo Woo fiction writers who pitch myths as self-evident truths, merrily distorting the historical record to suit their hopeful readership.

Probably most people who have bothered to notice that we are destroying the biosphere detest this so much (a sentiment with which I heartily concur) that they are looking for salvation in some non-existent cultural prototype.  The problem with that is, when you carefully examine any culture without the rose-colored glasses, they look suspiciously JUST LIKE US.  Their herd instinct to belong (and to dehumanize the foreigner), impulse to amass material goods, and desire for status, is identical in intent if not scale.  It’s amazing how often the WooWoo forget that Europeans didn’t invent slavery, it existed, it was the norm for millennia, including all over Asia and among the indigenous Americas – and that’s just enslavement of other ethnic groups.  Enslavement of women and children is more frequent, and it was industrial civilization that abolished slavery and child labor, and established civil rights, enshrined in law.

Why does this matter?  There’s nothing wrong with harboring hope when it is based on a rational interpretation of what can reasonably be expected.  But to continue to hope when every trend, past and present, gives no basis for it is delusional.  Hope when it is accompanied by this peculiar delirium becomes what is derogatively referred to as hopium.  And despite the accusation that hopelessness leads to paralysis, it can be argued that the opposite is the case.  Hopium leads people to think that something will save us, and thus to do nothing substantive other than write on the internet and sign petitions.  Hopium leads to faith that no radical change or sacrifice needs to be made, because something external will rescue us – technology or outerspace aliens or Jesus or just as ridiculously, evolution itself.  Closely allied in dubious scholarship is  the conviction that the permanently elusive “change of consciousness” will transform the world.  The unsubstantiated belief that humans are capable of better, purer selves than those that now dominate the board rooms, executive political offices and military is another form of hopium…a ubiquitous tenet of the insidious, surreptitious religion called Woo.

Yesterday for the first time, I came across a Colombian tribe that is wildly popular with the Woo Woo, the Kogi.  Occasionally the concession is made that the Australian aboriginals, the Olmec and the Anasazi, did collapse due to overshoot – however the argument is that they learned from the experience and thus are proof that humans are not inherently doomed.  (There’s Hope!)  The Kogi are different in that it was an outside force – the Spanish – who decimated their earlier society, the Tairona.  My purpose in presenting research about the Kogi, past and present, is not to disparage them in any way, rather it is to highlight the difference between the reality of their culture – which has elements that would clearly be considered less-than-desirable by most objective standards – and the Woo Woo depiction of it.  The fairytale goes that the Kogi deliberately reject the evils of modern society in an arrangement that those corrupted, privileged heirs to white patriarchy could and should aspire to emulate.

Nobody would want to exonerate pillaging invaders and murderous conquerors, or diminish the severity of the suffering of displaced peoples.  The point I am trying to make is that the urge to expand, grow, dominate, and prevail is a human behavior evident in every tribe, group, society, economic system or culture.  It’s possible that, had the Spaniards not arrived and vanquished the populations in present-day Colombia in the most brutal massacres, sooner or later the Tairona and other indigenous nations would have gone the way of the Aztecs and Incas on their own.  The level of stratification in wealth and power rivaled the present-day, and the land was densely populated.  The degree to which materialism (disguised as spirituality) dominated the zeitgeist, was no different than today.

To summarize, what I found is that present-day Kogi derived from a society obsessed with material goods, personal adornment and status.  Individuals remain in thrall of the supernatural powers wielded by a few elite priests, who control them with threats of disease and death.  They Kogi continue with the rigidly misogynist traditions they inherited from their ancestors, with the sexes living strictly separate lives.  The training of children from infancy to be priests would be considered extreme ritual child abuse in most parts of the world…and PETA would not have approved of the bird abuse by the Tairona.  Today’s survivors eek out a fragile, anxious existence in an area that was deforested by their ancestors 2,000 years ago, where little wildlife remains.  Across South and Central American, many pre-Colombian societies shared a worship of the sun, moon, rivers, mountains and other aspects of Nature, to which they routinely offered ritual sacrifice of prisoners of war, slaves, children and young girls.

Below are some photos of the hauntingly beautiful Lost City.

“This remote site, founded around 800 AD, was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1970s after gold idols and other objects began to show up for sale in Colombian markets. It was the largest center of a culture called the Tairona that emerged around 200 AD and endured until the Spanish conquest. Local Indians call the site Teyuna. In its prime the town had perhaps 2,000 inhabitants. Ciudad Perdida is now the focus of a major preservation effort of the Global Heritage Fund.” ~ Source
“The site is in mountainous terrain and is centered around 169 stone terraces.”
“The site can be reached only along this ancient road, with more than a thousand stone steps.”

“Like so much else about Colombia, it was caught up in and damaged by the civil war between the government and the alliance of leftist rebels and drug traffickers. In 2003, eight tourists visiting the site were kidnapped by rebels and held hostage for three months.”  The golden pendant is in the Louvre.

Below I have copied excerpts with links from some of the most interesting research I have found about both the ancient Tairona and the Kogi, for those who would like to read that sort of thing. If not, you can skip to a documentary embedded at the bottom of the post, America Before Columbus.  Seems like a great film for Thanksgiving weekend!  Photos are from a 2008 edition of Smithsonian Magazine. I absolutely do not begrudge the Tairona access to watches, cell phones, the electricity evident in the light switch and wires bisecting the landscape, or the new government-subsidized health clinic pictured below.  But it does undercut the idea that they are or want to reject the products derived from industrial civilization.

The Tairona were prolific artisans, whose skill in sculpting gold is unrivaled. It turns out that they were already fierce warriors long before contact with Europeans, which enabled them to rebel against the Spanish invasion for almost a century until they were finally defeated. Far from walking away from civilization voluntarily, the ancestors of the Kogi fled into mountainous jungles too dense and steep for the Spaniards to pursue. In the last decades to their “younger brothers” – us – to preserve the earth, much admired by the Woo Woo, has its roots in the profound trauma they suffered at the hands of the Spanish, which they remember as if it were yesterday. Their current condition is more like a five-century long case of post-traumatic stress syndrome than spiritual enlightenment – and I say this with great respect for one of the major basis for their warnings to the world – their trees are dying.

The following description of the Kogi is taken from a blogpost which is representative of a typical Woo Woo snapshot of tribal life:

“The Kogi know secrets about nature that would make our scientists rethink their ideas on the environment and the universe. They have a presence about them that commands respect. The power of their mind is beyond comprehension.”

“Why do they call themselves the Elder Brothers and how can we learn to live in the spiritual world that this lost tribe lives in? Eight years ago I saw an amazing video called ‘From the Heart of the World, The Elder Brothers Warning.’ It was about a unique indigenous community that lived in Northern Colombia who say they are keeping the world in balance. I was so impressed with these people because they are still living with the same spiritual values and traditions of their ancestors. But the ecological warning the Kogi shared touched a nerve and made me realize they may be right.”

There is nothing in these passages that is exactly false, although it is unsubstantiated whether the Kogi “know secrets about nature that would make our scientists rethink…”.  I cannot fathom what “…the power of their mind is beyond comprehension…” could possibly mean, but what is true is also the part that torpedoes the adulation (or would, if the Woo Woo bothered to look beyond their preconceived notions) – the Kogi are “…still living with the same spiritual values and traditions”. The thing is, those traditional values and traditions are not exactly what the Woo Woo value.

The Kogi, like the Tairona they descend from, live in a rigidly hierarchical society – amid the desolation of a thousand years of slash-and-burn agriculture, which began long before the Spanish conquest, that has denuded the mountains of forest.  But the Blogger blithely continuess:

“The Kogi believe they are the Elder Brothers’, the guardians of life on Earth. …Through their mind power and meditation they keep the world in balance. They live in Aluna,’ an inner world of thought and potential. They are now concerned because their Mountain is dying.”

“Everything about their history and religion is passed down through oral instructions and their lives are run by the spiritual leaders or Shamans named ‘Mamas.’ The Kogi Mamas are chosen from birth and spend the first nine years of childhood in a cave in total darkness learning the ancient secrets of the spiritual world or Aluna. They are the priests and judges who control Kogi society. All major decisions and shamanic work are done by Divination. All is the world of Aluna, so the Mamas see a reflection of the physical world first in the spiritual world. If Aluna is the Mother, then the Kogi listen to the Mother by divining. This lost technique of divination is what keeps the Kogi world in balance and order. The Mamas are worried that the Younger Brother’ has not heeded the first warning. If the Sierra Nevada or the Mother dies, the world will also die.”

Much is made of the worship of the “Mother” as though that implies the Kogi aren’t patriarchal. The author doesn’t mention that men completely dominate women, there are all sorts of restrictions for them that do not apply to men, and further, it presents the “spirituality” as something rather wonderful when it was, and remains, the mechanism by which the people are subjugated by the elite.  She also glosses over a truly horrendous forced isolation of selected children from birth.

Even The National Geographic evades what amounts to kidnapping and child abuse by calling it “arduous initiation”.

“In an arduous process of initiation that can take up to 18 years, young acolytes are taught the values of their society, among them the notion that their spiritual work alone maintains the cosmic (or as we might say, ecological) balance.”

A 2010 essay about the Kogi documentary states:

“Concealed in the harsh mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of northern Colombia, live the indigenous Kogi Indians. It is these mountains the Kogi have occupied since the first century. Surviving through foreign invasions, missionary incursions, and environmental changes, the culture of the Kogi remains fully intact. Over 1,000 years later, the Kogi continue to sustain their traditional culture by keeping the traditions of their ancestors. Although there are no extensive records or details of the Kogi way of life, the art and ancient ruins that have been unearthed aid in telling the story of this reclusive people. However, scholars’ primary focus is on the way the Kogi view nature and the environment. As a people who rely on the mountains, the role of the environment is invaluable for surviving and preserving the Kogi’s cultural identity.”

“…The Kogi, for the most part have remained unchanged for nearly 1000 years. Despite struggles with Spanish invasions, the Colombian government, and modern day guerillas, the Kogi culture has resisted and remained intact. Their devotion to their land and the well-being of Mother Earth is unwavering which is what makes them so unique and so capable of resisting incursions. Their wisdom and spirituality, perhaps never heard of before is insightful and yes, prophetic. What is most impressive is that the Kogi are able to tell the state of Mother Earth just from the changes they are experiencing on their land. They know that it is the greed and disregard for Mother Earth’s well-being that will eventually destroy the world if the nations of the world do not do something about it.”

A very recent article (October 29) What Colombia’s Kogi People can teach us about the environment in the Guardian gives some background:

“Deep in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, surrounded by jungle (and guerrillas, tomb raiders and drug traffickers), live 20,000 indigenous Kogi people. A culturally intact pre-Colombian society, they’ve lived in seclusion since the Spanish conquest 500 years ago. Highly attuned to nature, the Kogi believe they exist to care for the world – a world they fear we are destroying.”

“In 1990, in a celebrated BBC documentary, the Kogi made contact with the outside world to warn industrialised societies of the potentially catastrophic future facing the planet if we don’t change our ways.”

“They watched, waited and listened to nature. They witnessed landslides, floods, deforestation, the drying up of lakes and rivers, the stripping bare of mountain tops, the dying of trees. The Sierra Nevada, because of its unique ecological structure, mirrors the rest of the planet – bad news for us.”

“The Kogi don’t understand why their words went unheeded, why people did not understand that the earth is a living body and if we damage part of it, we damage the whole body.”

“Twenty-three years later they summoned filmmaker Alan Ereira back to their home to renew the message: this time the leaders, the Kogi Mama (the name means enlightened ones), set out to show in a visceral way the delicate and critical interconnections that exist between the natural world.”

“The resulting film, Aluna, takes us into the world of the Kogi. At the heart of the tribe’s belief system is ‘Aluna’ – a kind of cosmic consciousness that is the source of all life and intelligence and the mind inside nature too. ‘Aluna is something that is thinking and has self-knowledge. It’s self-aware and alive.’ says Ereira. ‘All indigenous people believe this, historically. It’s absolutely universal.’”

“Many Kogi Mama are raised in darkness for their formative years to learn to connect with this cosmic consciousness and, vitally, to respond to its needs in order to keep the world in balance. ‘Aluna needs the human mind to participate in the world – because the thing about a human mind is that it’s in a body,’ explains Ereira. ‘Communicating with the cosmic mind is what a human being’s job is as far as the Kogi are concerned.’”

“The Kogi people believe that when time began the planet’s ‘mother’ laid an invisible black thread linking special sites along the coast, which are, in turn, connected to locations in the mountains. What happens in one specific site is, they say, echoed in another miles away. Keen to illustrate this they devised a plan to lay a gold thread showing the connections that exist between special sites.

They want to show urgently that the damage caused by logging, mining, the building of power stations, roads and the construction of ports along the coast and at the mouths of rivers – in short expressions of global capitalism that result in the destruction of natural resources – affects what happens at the top of the mountain. Once white-capped peaks are now brown and bare, lakes are parched and the trees and vegetation vital to them are withering.”

“‘The big thing in coastal development in this area is the ‘mega-projects’, especially the vast expansion of port facilities and associated extensive infrastructure to link new ports to large-scale coal and metals extraction and industrial plant such as aluminium smelters,’ says Ereira.”

“In a poignant scene in the film, CNN footage from September 2006 shows the Kogi walking for miles to protest against the draining of lagoons to make way for the construction of Puerta Brisa, a port to support Colombia’s mining industry.”

“What happens at the river estuary affects what happens at the source, they say, over and over again. ‘The Kogi believe that the estuary provides evaporation that becomes deposited at the river source. So if you dry up the estuary you dry up the whole of the river source,’ says Ereira.”

“In the film, the views of the Kogi are backed up by a specialist in ecosystem restoration, a professor of zoology and a world leader in marine biology. ‘Along this stretch of coastline, you have a microcosm for what is happening in the Caribbean and also on the rest of the planet,’ says the latter, Alex Rogers, of Oxford University, on camera. ‘Their view that all these activities are having an impact at a larger scale are quite right.’”

“It’s not all doom and gloom: the Kogi end the film on a message of hope: don’t abandon your lives, they say, just protect the rivers. But how to do that? One way forward is to engage the Kogi (and other indigenous communities who have an understanding of environmental impacts) in environmental assessment plans. The Tairona Heritage Trust has also been set up to support projects proposed by the Mamas. But Ereira stresses, ‘The Mamas are very clear about how we should take notice of what they say. Listen carefully, think, make our own decisions. They don’t want to tell us what to do.’”

“‘I would hope that ordinary people will come away from the film feeling empowered to express what they already know – which is that the planet is alive and feels what we do to it,’ he says.”

“‘Everybody who is a gardener in this country already has a Kogi relationship to the earth but they don’t necessarily have a language to express that. They have an empathetic relationship to the land and what grows on it, and that empathy is what we have build on.’”
Unfortunately, there is no way to protect the rivers without abandoing our lives.  It is our lives – so many – and the way we live them that is killing the rivers, the trees, and everything else.

The Museo del Oro website has some revealing contemporaneous translations:

“This can be seen in the description by the chronicler Friar Pedro Simón (1574 – 1628?) of the Caldera valley on the northern slope of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, even though it has never been possible to identify exactly where this valley was….‘And if there really is a paradise on earth in these indian lands, then this could be it……, this place which has been given two names by us, Caldera and San Marcos Valley. It is crowned by high peaks, and from the summit to the very depths there must be eight leagues, in places less, with crystal-clear gold water in the streams (which slither like glass snakes down from the peaks to the very bottom of the valley), the ridges and deep gorges all covered by large indian villages, with the smiling faces of the indians themselves visible everywhere, more than a thousand large houses, each one inhabited by a family. But the most pleasing sight was the large number of plants, maize, sweet potato, cassava, yams, pumpkins, chillies, cotton fields and groves of trees, almost all of them fruit trees, with apples, papayas, guavas, plums, pine nuts, bananas and many others, also timber for their homes and for burning in the ‘devil’s huts’, where […] the fires were kept burning all the time with smelly wood, in these huts and in others where they kept their jewellery, feathers and blankets and where they held their strangely grand parties and dances […], cleanliness and curiosity, as in the yards that were paved with enormous polished stones, their seats likewise made of stone, or their paths a third of which are paved with slabs. In one village there was a well-carved stairway with six or seven steps a ‘vara’ high, and another narrow one leading up to it where they stood to watch the parties that were held down below in a large, well-paved yard. Sometimes I speak in the past and sometimes in the present, because some of these things are still there but others have disappeared without trace’.”

“‘But what stands out above all the cleanliness and curiosity of these people are the blankets woven in various colours on the loom. There was no indian or woman who did not have sets of jewels, ear rings, necklaces, crowns or rings for the lower lip, all made of fine gold, and fine, well-cut stones and strings of beads. All the young girls wore four or six gold necklaces weighing from twelve to fifteen ‘castellanos’. Their everyday clothes consist of two painted cotton blankets; when they walk, they carry fans made from palm and feathers. They made large pools by hand in the streams, for bathing in’.”

From the Colombian Institute for Anthropoly and History:

“There were so many things made from feathers and they were all so curious that I really cannot recall them all: hoods in the form of ‘mucetas’, roses, flowers, fans, winnows, bodices covered with feathers, large ‘mohanes’ covered likewise with feathers or with precious stones, lined bonnets, tiger-skin suits. They bred parrots, macaws and hummingbirds just for the feathers, which they plucked every year.  Others they killed with blow guns and slender arrows for the same purpose….”.

“….The women spun rapidly and finely, while the men wove slowly and very curiously. One soldier said he had seen an apiary in that valley with more than eighty thousand hives, and in fact there were ten thousand houses and in each one there were upwards of ten people. There were large pots or pitchers that they made very sweet honey in, because it came from the flower of the guama tree, tiny bees, not in honeycombs but in large wax bags that smelled of flowers. There must have been around two hundred and fifty villages and they all obeyed a chieftain called Guacanaoma, although each one had its own chieftain or ‘mohan’. In fact, the whole of Caldera was one long party, with dancing, cleanliness, delight and laziness…”

From wikipedia:

“Tairona was a group of chiefdoms in the region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in present-day Cesar, Magdalena and La Guajira Departments of Colombia, South America, which goes back at least to the 1st century CE and had significant demographic growth around the 11th century.”

“The Tairona people formed one of the two principal linguistic groups of the Chibcha family, the other being the Muisca. Genetic and archaeological evidence shows a relatively dense occupation of the region by at least 200 BC. Pollen data compiled by Luisa Fernanda Herrera in the 1980 shows considerable deforestation and the use of cultigens such as yuca and maiz since possibly 1200 BC.”

“However, occupation of the Colombian Caribbean coast by sedentary or semi-sedentary populations have been documented to have occurred by c. 4000 BCE. Ethnohistorical data shows that initial contact with the Spanish was tolerated by the Tairona but by the 1600 CE confrontations built and a small part of the Tairona population moved to the higher stretches of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This movement allowed them to evade the worst of the Spanish colonial system during the 17th and 18th centuries. The indigenous Kogui, Wiwa, Arhuacos (Ijka, Ifca) and Cancuamo people who live in the area today are believed to be direct descendants of the Tairona.”

From the Tairona Heritage Trust website:

“The Circum-Caribbean tribes which Steward placed at the top of a cultural hierarchy existent at the time of the Conquest included those Chibcha speaking groups which inhabited the northern part of South America, and extended into Central America. The Tairona civilization belonged to this Chibcha group.”

“The Chibchas were one of successive waves of migrating groups. The Mesoamericans (Indians originally inhabiting Central America),who arrived in approximately 1200 B.C., introduced the cultivation of corn, and were followed by a second wave in 500 B.C. Between 400 and 300 B.C., the Chibchas travelled from Nicaragua and Honduras and reached Colombia shortly before the Arawaks arrived from the south (Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay). Near the end of the first millennium A.D., the warlike Caribs migrated from the Caribbean, supplanting the Chibchas in the lowlands and forcing them to move to higher elevations. By the 1500’s, the Chibchas, were divided into two principal groups: the Muisca, located in the plateaus of Cundinamarca and Boyacá , and the Tairona, who settled along the northern spur of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the present-day La Guajira Department. The Tairona formed a confederation of two groups, one in the Caribbean lowlands and the other in the highlands of contemporary Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The lowlands Tairona fished and produced salt, which they traded for cotton cloth and blankets with their highlands counterparts. Both groups lived in numerous, well-organized towns connected by stone roads.”

The Taironas

“Steward’s view that the Tairona, as Circum-Caribbeans, were at the pinnacle of American cultural development at the time of the Spanish Invasion, is endorsed by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff who described them as ‘… a native tribe which had reached a level of cultural complexity equal, if not superior, to the Muisca culture of the Andean highlands of the interior.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1974: 290). (Reichel-Dolmatoff (1912-1994) will be quoted extensively in these pages. An Austrian emigré to Colombia, he and his wife Alicia did anthropological and archaeological fieldwork all over Colombia. He started doing fieldwork in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the 1940’s and continued through to the 1970’s. His work was largely published by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), both in English and Spanish, and his ethnographies of the Kogi are the definitive work about them. Prior to his work, Preuss had studied the Kogi at the turn of the century, but for only a short period, for most of which he was ill. Reichel-Dolmatoff can lay claim to being the founding father of Colombian anthropology.) At the time of Invasion, they possessed most of the Circum-Caribbean features mentioned in the previous document, to which can be added goldsmithing ability which still arouses the admiration of contemporary goldsmiths who try, unsuccessfully, to replicate the refinement of their original pieces.”

“In general, the Circum-Caribbeans ‘suffered from the European Conquest perhaps more drastically than any other American Indians. They became ethnographically, if not biologically, extinct, in the Antilles, Venezuela and much of Colombia. Only fragments survive in isolated areas of Colombia and of Central America. Many of the survivors retain a predominantly Indian culture, but it lacks all essential features of the native Circum-Caribbean culture and presents an interesting case of deculturation. The Spanish Conquest dislodged the tribes from their native habitat, especially on the coasts and the more favored highland areas, and threw them back into submarginal lands where subsistence could not support large population clusters or special classes of artisans, priests, warriors, and nobles. At the same time, the Spanish government seized political controls from the native nobles, and Spanish military power put an end to warfare, thus destroying the class structure… The distinguishing socio-religious factors were thus destroyed, and the more elaborate craft products in weaving, metallurgy, ceramics, building arts, and the like lost meaning, for they had been designed largely for the native upper classes. There remained only a simple folk culture: simple farming people, an unstratified society, shamanism, and unelaborate textiles, ceramics, and other craft products made for home consumption. The surviving tribes retain a native culture which resembles that of the Tropical Forest peoples who have also simple technologies and a simple socio-religious pattern.’ (Steward in Lyon 1974: 14).”

“The Taironas experience of Conquest was in some ways peculiar to the general scenario described above and is the subject of the next document.”

Spanish Invasion

“Relations between the Spanish and Indians were not always unfriendly, and European goods reached native settlements in fairly large quantities as presents or as a result of trade. As early as 1529, an expedition under Pedro de Lerma was offering the Taironas agricultural tools of iron, and also ‘many beads, many combs, knives and scissors, coloured hats, caps, and shirts finely worked at the neck’. Another list of 1536 included shirts, doublets, coloured caps, axes, spades and hoes. Wine was also a popular article of trade. By 1572-3 the Indians were becoming more sophisticated in their wants, and we find a Tairona chief from the Bonda region (who already wore a sword and dagger) asking for arquebuses, gunpowder and shot (Castellanos). Like any other prized possessions, European articles were placed in Indian tombs as funerary offerings.”

“Spanish demands, however, increased. ‘The Spanish settled on the coast, and used Indians to work their farms. They demanded gold, and the Indians gave it. And when the Indians ran away, and went up to the Mamas in the mountain to escape, the Mamas gave them more gold and said, “Give it to the Spanish, and go back to work. Because without the fish and salt that you send from the coast, the rest of the Sierra cannot live.” The Spanish squeezed the Indians ever harder. But in 1600, after nearly a century of co-existence, a new governor in Santa Marta provoked a major uprising.’ (From the narrative to ‘From the Heart of the World – the Elder Brothers’ Warning’.)”

“‘It was the arrival of the Catholic fathers after the initial conquest which sparked off the rebellion, because they forbade the continuance of the religious rites of the Indians.’ (Tayler 1997: 10). In 1599, Governor Juan Guiral Velón confronted the Tairona leader, Cuchacique, in a decisive campaign which broke the back of lingering Tairona resistance and the remnants of their society, decimated by war and introduced diseases, retreated into the heights of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.”

“Mama Valencia is the Kogi Mama responsible for remembering history. This is how he describes the effect of Spanish Invasion in the narrative to the documentary. ‘People used to live in peace, all over this land. We, the Older Brother, had no problems with the Younger Brother at all. Always in peace, in peace, in peace. That’s how it was. And then he arrived. Younger Brother arrived, and he started to kill us, and to destroy. They set dogs on us. We were terrified and the people panicked and didn’t know what to do and just ran wherever they could. That’s how it was. Things fell from our bags as we ran and scattered everywhere. Falling. Scattered. Our finest things. And when we stopped and we looked – hey – everything was gone. Nothing left.’ (Transcript: 12).”

[Notice the revisionist history – “People used to live in peace, all over this land.”  The evidence is overwhelming that the Tairona were  “extremely warlike” before the Spaniards arrived – that is the reason they were able to resist them for a hundred years.  Another tribe who successfully resisted the Spanish was the Jivaro, head-hunters of the Amazon, likewise fierce warriors – I just cannot resist digressing slightly with the following:

“Early Spanish chronicles relate that in the year 1599, the Jivaros banded together and killed 25,000 white people in raids on two settlements. In particular, the massacre of the Logrono stands out as particularly ruthless. The attack was instigated over the natives being taxed in their gold-trade. After uncovering the unscrupulous practices of the visiting governor, molten gold was later poured down his throat until his bowels burst. Following his execution, the remaining Spaniards were killed along with the older women and children. The younger useful women were taken as prisoners to join the clan. The settlement itself was raided and burned to the ground. From this point onward, the Jivaro Indians remained unconquered despite the fact that they inhabited one of the richest regions in South America for gold deposits. The Jivaro’s fierce fighting reputation and head-shrinking practice continued to discourage outsiders from entering their territories.”]

“As much gold having been looted from the Sierra as they wanted, Spanish presence in the province diminished, and the remaining indigenes were left, with only some missionary incursions, to reconstitute their society. It was not until 1875 that there was any attempt to re-establish a colonial administrative presence there again. It is this protection afforded by their harsh environment that allows for the argument that the descendants of the Tairona, and especially the Kogi, represent a special case in the history of South American indigenes.”


“In pre-Hispanic times, as at present, small-scale mining may have been a part-time occupation carried out during the dry season when stream beds were exposed. Some localities, however, supported specialist communities of full-time miners and smiths. The most renowned site of this kind was Buriticá, in the mountains of northern Antioquia. Buriticá was a true industrial centre, exploiting both alluvial and vein gold, and exchanging the surplus for food and other necessities and in the surrounding villages, the Conquistadors found workshops for melting down the metal, with crucibles, braziers and balances to weigh out the gold. The chronicles do not distinguish between the melting of bulk metal, and the melting of gold as a preliminary to making trinkets and jewellery, but the general impression is that Buriticá exported both finished items and raw metal to be worked up elsewhere. Some gold and jewellery was exported to the Quimbaya and Muisca peoples, but most of it was traded northwards to Dabeiba, where a community of specialist goldsmiths grew up on the basis of imported raw material. From Dabeiba, a trade route led to the Sinú and supplied the entire coastal region from Urabá to Cartagena. At places along the route were market centres where professional merchants exchanged coastal products (fish, salt, cotton cloth) for Sinú jewellery and ingots of raw metal from Antioquia.”

“Most of the gold used by the Indians was obtained using only the simplest equipment: fire-hardened digging sticks to break up the earth, and shallow wooden trays (bateas ) in which to carry and wash it. Spanish chronicles also note that streams were sometimes diverted to expose the gold-bearing gravels of their beds and that the Indians dug shafts to reach the gold-bearing quartz veins of the cordilleran regions of Caldas and Antioquia. The mines of Marmato (Caldas) are mentioned in sixteenth-century documents, and tools made of tumbaga were found there. During the nineteenth century, the British engineer Robert White visited Los Remedios in Antioquia (once the richest town of its size in the Indies), and discovered an extensive area of mine shafts, spaced some 3.5 to 4.5 metres apart, each shaft no more than one metre wide. White estimated that thousands of men could have been employed there. The deepest shafts had steps cut in the sides, and went down as much as 24 metres. The sloping shafts (inclined at about 30° ) were up to 36 metres in depth, and so narrow that a man could not turn round in them. Each shaft was a simple tunnel, with no side galleries and no attempt at shoring or ventilation.”

[I cannot find any reference to slavery or child labor but the descrition of the tunnels doesn’t sound like a place anyone would willingly work. But maybe that’s just my claustrophia talking!]

“The Tairona region was flourishing and produced goldwork of a standard still admired by goldsmiths today. The Sinú was one of the richest and most populous areas of Colombia. More than 100,000 hectares of land were covered with a corduroy pattern of artificial ridges, providing well-drained fields for maize and root crops. Pedro de Heredia describes a temple big enough to hold more than a thousand people, and containing twenty-four wooden idols covered with sheet gold. Most of the raw material would have come from Buriticá and Dabeiba and the Spaniards noted that Sinú gold was of fine quality, containing some silver but little copper.”
“Radiocarbon dating shows that Muisca metalwork was nine hundred years old by the time the Spaniards reached Bogotá. The Spanish were enthusiastic in their descriptions of this fertile area situated in the high, temperate plateaux of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. The individual towns were organised into two loose federations, one in the north ruled by a chieftain with the title Zipa from Bogotá and the southern by another lord, the Zaque, from Hunsa. Not much remains of their presence because the houses were all built of wood.  In the aftermath of the failed rebellion and retreat into the mountain, the Taironas ceased to use or fashion gold.”

“The middle Magdalena Valley, the ancient Tolima region, was the home of two distinct Indian groups; in the north the Panches, bellicose headhunters and permanent enemies of the Muisca, and in the south, the Pijao, also warlike but skilled goldsmiths. Typical gold pieces are flat, stylised human figures terminating in crescent- shaped bases – traces of the Tolima style are evident in Popayán work.”

20th Century Kogi

“Kogi society is strictly hierarchical. At the top are the Mamas (derived from ‘mamos’ or sun), the spiritual leaders or priests, whose education is one of the most remarkable aspects of their society . Ideally, future priests are chosen by divination and undergo their training from birth. Full education lasts 18 years and takes place in special caves in the Sierra, during which time the ‘moros’, or trainee priests, are deprived of daylight as far as possible.”


“It is generally agreed that South American indigenes, who numbered 14 m. at the time of the Spanish Conquest, are derived from Mongoloid expansion, mainly hunters and gatherers, via the Bering Straits about 20,000 years ago. Rapid development was initiated around 2,600 years ago by the growth of agriculture. ‘The greatest cultural development occurred in the central Andes with the Inca Empire, which at its height encompassed about 1,000,000 square miles and had a population of about 6,000,000. The Chibcha in Colombia were probably the next most developed culture’ (NEB. 1991. Micropaedia. vol. 11: 37).”

“Some features of Circum-Caribbean tribes were: intensive farming, fairly dense population; stable settlements usually dispersed around religious centres; a class system in which status was accorded priests; government as contrasted to informal social controls of the kin group; the beginnings of multi-village states, federations or realms; special privileges accorded to chiefs, i.e. extra wives, obeisance of subjects, riding in a litter; priest-temple-idol cult; celestial and astral deities; religious mounds, altars, offertories and shrines; wattle-and -daub houses, causeways, aqueducts, canals, defensive works and stone buildings; loom weaving of domesticated cotton cloth garments.”

Historical Dictionary of Colombia by Harvey F. Kline, source

  1. 6

“The Tairona were a lowland tribe occupying the foothills of the mountains and rarely populating areas above an altitude of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). The dense population (perhaps having as many of 700.000) lived in large nucleated villages situated i te mountain folds, often in a strategic position for easy defense. The principal tows were Bonda and Pcigueica, both inhabited by thousands of indigenous people, and for some of the valleys the chronicles mentioned hundreds and even thousands of houses.”

  1. 463

“Tairona Indigenous Group. A lowland indigenous group occupying the foothills of the mountains and a strategic position for easy defense. Knowledge sources about the pre-Columbian Tairona civilization are limited to archaeological findings and a few written references from the Spanish colonial era…The Tairona built terraced platforms, house foundations, stairs, sewers, tobs, and bridges foam sonte. Use of pottery for utilitarian and ornamental purposes was also highly developed.”

“The Tairona were an extremely warlike people but military leadership was disorganized and, as a rule, every village had it own guerrilla warfare, rarely joining forces with others. It took the Spanish the better part of a century to subdue the Tairona who, after periods of uneasy peace, rebelled repeatedly against the invaders. The last great rebellion occurred in 1599 and was suppressed in 1600 after three months of fierce battles in which all resistance was broken and the tribe apparently ceased to exist as a unit.”

“The Tairona culture had an urban development with public worlds such as temples, agricultural terraces, irrigation, and paved roads. Nowhere else in Colombia was there such economic efficiency, architectural development, and religious integration.”

The following is and excerpt from the 1990 book, The Sacred Mountain of Colombia’s Kogi Indians, by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff.  Reichel-Dolmatoff spent decades studying the Kogi, as well as working tirelessly for their benefit.

  1. 2 Introduction

“…apart from these sporadic trade relations the Indians are largely self-supporting leading an austere and withdrawn life in their often badly eroded mountain-folds. In many parts of the Sierra Nevada the food resources of one single local environment are insufficient for subsistence, and for this reason the families own house at different altitudinal levels, moving periodically to the cold highlands to tend some small potato fields, and descending again to the temperate valleys where manioc, plantains, sugarcane and fruits can be harvested. Small plantations of coca shrubs are found near all settlements, and provide the men with tender green leaves, plucked by the women. All adult men chew the slightly toasted leaves, adding to the moist wad small portions of lime. The nutritional status of the Kogi is, then, a very precarious one; there is practically no game, and fish are very scarce in the swift-flowing mountain streams; protein resources are few, and although the starchy crops like plantains and manioc provide a fairly permanent food supply, a chronic state of malnutrition appears to be the rule.”

Tairona Helmeted Warrior Deity

The following notes are attributed to David Wilson, Professor in the Anthropology Department of Southern Methodist University, and appear largely based on the extensive field work of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff.

The Kogi and their Tairona Predecessors: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta


Contacts between the Kogi and Western culture probably date to the earlier 16th century, from the time Santa Marta was founded in 1525. From this time on to ca. 1600, the Spanish interest was focused on the northern slopes of the Sierra Madre because it was famous as an area where gold artifacts were very abundant. By 1600 the region was abandoned by the Spaniards and was left, once again, to the original inhabitants. Since that time, the heaviest influence on Kogi culture has been the European crops that were introduced to the area. The Spanish language has hardly affected the Kogi, and their language has remained basically unchanged. Some men do speak limited Spanish, although the women speak very little if any. Today, the entire area of the Sierra Nevada remains indigenous, except for scattered European settlements located at the lowermost edges of the range. “

“The Mountain:

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an extraordinary geographic phenomenon, since very few mountain ranges rise so abruptly to such heights within a short distance from the sea—from sea level this part of the Andes rises to 19,000 feet within 26 miles (ca. 40 km). The mountain forms a trilateral pyramid with the southeastern edge the widest, the northern slope falling down to the sea, and the western edge leading less abruptly down to the Ciénaga Grande and the marshy edges of the Lower Magdalena River. Nature of the Landscape: There is little level land in Kogi territory, and settlements generally are located in valley bottoms overlooking rivers. Also, there is little forested land on the slopes around Kogi settlements.”

“Outsiders’ view of the Sierra Nevada: For centuries it was seen as a sort of “lost paradise,” a place where there were enormous riches to be found and characterized by extremely rich soils …In Reichel-Dolmatoff’s opinion, however, the area is not all that rich. Like other Andean highlands, there are areas of good soil and areas of bad soil, but his overall assessment is that the soils are inferior:

  1. Layers of humus on its lands are generally very thin
  2. Little forest cover
  3. Much rainfall and erosion

After centuries of slash-and-burn cultivation, most of the slopes that are farmed by the Kogi are devoid of trees and now covered with grass.”

“POPULATION AND SUBSISTENCE: In the 16th century the area was more heavily populated, with the Tairona people farming maize, beans, and yuca. They also had access to the nearby ocean, which provided protein in the form of mollusks and marine animals.”

“TERRACES: In some of the valleys there are great numbers of artificial cultivation terraces dating to prehispanic times, but no cultivation is practiced on them. The Kogi will not farm these terraces …”

“KOGI SUBSISTENCE: Although maize was important in the Tairona diet, one rarely sees maize growing in Kogi fields. Although they value it highly as a food, they say that it doesn’t do well in their plots, producing stunted crops. And, although the soil on the ancient fields is black and suitable for such crops, the Kogi have tabooed the use of these fields. Instead, the fields play a ritual role as sacred sites where offerings are made. If someone were to plant his crop there, the Mámas would immediately intervene to stop such a sacrilege. As for planting crops on the terraces inside an ancient center (like Buritaca, or ‘La Ciudad Perdida’), the Kogi view these places as being filled with devils. Indeed, if a Kogi finds an ancient potsherd while tilling his (non-terraced) fields, he may well abandon the field as being filled with evil spirits. Finally, farming as they do on lower slopes near rivers, their fields become subject to periodic flooding and destruction when the rivers and streams overflow their banks.”

“PLANTING AND HARVESTING: The men do the initial work of cultivation and weeding, although man and wife work together to plant the seed and harvest the crops.”

“DIET: Cut off from access to the sea by modern Colombian settlements and unable to practice animal husbandry due to their constant vertical movement, the Kogi are essentially vegetarians. Meat is eaten perhaps once a year, on occasions when an ox or cow is slaughtered, at which time everyone in a village participates in the feast.”

“Reichel-Dolmatoff also mentions that the banana, introduced by the Spaniards, nearly completely replaced maize.”

“DIET: At 5-6 years old, the boys are separated from the girls; and the girls, who eat with the women, eat far better than the boys who, together with the men, do not eat well. Because of this, the women tend to be plump (the Kogi ideal) and healthy, whereas the men tend to be skinny.”

“LEAN PERIODS: Although the Kogi consider their land to be rich and productive and, thus they never want to move out and go elsewhere, during the decade of the 1940s when Reichel Dolmatoff carried out his research they were experiencing both good years and bad years. Bad years came about either because of excessive rain or drought, and during these years whole harvests were lost. And, because of this the Kogi always expressed uncertainty about the future, the next harvest.”

“COCA CULTIVATION: The planting and weeding of coca is done by the men, but the women carry out the harvest. Since coca grows only in the sub-tropical zone, planting and harvesting take place year-round. After harvesting, the leaves are toasted inside the ceremonial house. The use of coca is absolutely forbidden to the women, and only chewed by the men after they have gone through the initiation rites into manhood.”

“OTHER SETTLEMENTS: Most people have their fields at some distance from the settlement, anywhere from a 15-minute walk away to as much as a day’s walk away.”

“Each family has two dwellings which face each other, one for the husband and one for the wife and children. Neither the wife nor the husband may enter the other’s structure, and the wife cooks food for all in the open space between the two dwelling.”

“MAIN SETTLEMENT: these do not have any sort of fixed plan, as house are grouped more or less randomly around the ceremonial house. There are no streets and no central plaza. The main settlement is nearly deserted during the weekdays, only being occupied on weekends.”

OTHER STRUCTURES IN THE MAIN SETTLEMENT: Women, girls, and pre-pubescent boys sleep here during the times of visit to the main center.

“CEREMONIAL HOUSE: Covers more area than the other houses and is taller, reaching 7-8 meters in height. It has two opposing doorways, while the other dwellings have only one. Inside the roof are place at least four, and sometimes more, shelves of thick wood which represent the different ecological levels that are exploited by the Kogi. This structure is built in such a way that on two days of the year (the spring and fall equinoxes) a ray of sunlight shines down through a hole in the roof and, as the day progresses, traces an equatorial line across the floor between the opposing doors of the structure. When the families are in town, it is here in the ceremonial house that all the (post-pubescent) men sleep in hammocks slung from the ceiling.”

“Mode of Reproduction:

POPULATION ESTIMATE: 2000 persons (distributed over 1500 km²), so population density for the 1940s would have been 1.3 persons/km².”

“SEX RATIO: Of all births, there were 16% more boys than girls, a situation which does not equal out later in life since Reichel-Dolmatoff counted 118 men for every 100 women, equal to a sex ratio of 118. Nevertheless, he noted no preferential female infanticide.”

[note: there is no other physical explanation for such an extremely skewed ratio other than female infanticide or neglect.]

“COCA CHEWING AND SEXUALITY: Although coca chewing is thought to enhance the sexuality of younger men just past puberty, the Kogi say that later it reduces the desire for sex and causes impotency. All this is good, since the Kogi say that sex is bad and dangerous, and that the suppression of sex is an important and desired effect of chewing coca. For this reason, however, the younger men try to avoid chewing coca, but the mámas and other men often criticize them for not chewing it.”

“SEXUALITY: The physical weakness of the undernourished and coca-drugged men causes sexual tension with the women, and Reichel-Dolmatoff noted a high frequency of sexual aberrations among the Kogi: female and male homosexuality is present, he says, in all villages and incest within the nuclear family is also high.”

from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“AESTHETICS: The Kogi live a very Spartan life, as no decorations are placed on any of their artifacts (gourds, ceramics, musical instruments). Nevertheless, the Kogi have a sense of beauty in the natural world around them. Valleys and mountains are considered beautiful, while beaches, the sea, and the selva are considered ugly. The men consider themselves to be ugly, skinny, and dirty, while the women think of themselves as nice-looking. The men also think the women are beautiful, especially when they are fat, have long hair, large eyes, and large breasts. Anything in the natural environment that is ‘fat’, such as animals or trees, is also seen as beautiful.”

“COMMUNAL WORK: All work on (ancient) roads, bridges, or irrigation facilities for fields is carried out by communal work projects in which the families of one or more settlements participate.”

“MARRIAGE: The general rule is that a man may marry anyone who is not related to him as mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, or aunt. Several generations back, a man could not marry a cousin (either cross or parallel), but marriage with (first) cousins was common at the time of Reichel-Dolmatoff’s study. The Kogi are generally monogamous, with men and women marrying between the ages of 14 and 18 years old.”

“RESIDENCE RULE: Residence is matrilocal, usually, after marriage, and the man lives in the house of his in-laws, being obligated to work for them for a period of one or two years, the end of which is determined by the mámas. After that, the young couple lives neolocally.”


The women see the ceremonial house as their great rival, as they wish that the men would stay with them at home. A women may even pretend to be ill so that her husband will stay home. The anti-aphrodisiac qualities of coca are well known. Overall there is much tension between man and wife.”

“From an early age, a man learns that women are dangerous, that they represent the forces of instability and chaos. Indeed, after marriage men consider their wives to be the greatest stumbling block in their attempt to acquire knowledge (about the Ancient Ones). Such knowledge, they feel, is the only way to acquire security, serenity, and the guarantee that the Cosmos will continue to exist (!).”

“… So, as the ceremonial house increasingly takes over the man’s attention, he pays less and less attention to his house and his wife and children, and to ‘real’ life as he opts for the coca-drenched world of the Ancient Ones. But the great obstacle is that the men live in the real world, which requires the production of food and the sexual act to keep the Kogi viable as a population. So, women are dangerous but indispensable, sex makes the men tired but they do desire it nonetheless, and food is a futile pleasure, here now and gone a little later. Finally, the men consider the women as being less responsible for societal maintenance than are the men, since it is assumed they “know less,” just as younger people know less than older ones.”


…for the men is achieved only as a function of obtaining and increasing one’s knowledge of religious esoterica, including the Ancient Ones.”


Every village has two or more mámas. They care for the village in every way, controlling everything including the fertility of people, the land, society, and the cosmos.”

“The way they control society is simple: namely, through the threat of illness, hunger, and sterility from the supernatural powers in their cosmos. When a máma is going to die earthquakes and eclipses take place, and these are signs of the approaching end of the world.”


  • Those who would become ritual specialists were divined at birth
  • A boy was taken to a máma’s house and treated differently from all other children:

— Had to sleep in the day, stay up all night

— Could not see the sun

— Bodily functions had to be controlled until nightfall

— Then he was taken to the ceremonial house and kept there separated from the rest of society.

— His teachings were carried out only at night, by firelight.

— At four or five years old, he was given gold ornaments and a mask to wear that could never be taken off again at night, his hair was permitted to grow long, and he was not permitted to play.

— He became the máma’s son

— Nine years after the start of his training, the boy was ready to make a decision to become a full- fledged máma.

— During the next nine years, he went through puberty, was given a poporo, and the máma spoke to him about sexuality, marriage, and rituals.

— He had still not seen daylight, nor a woman or any person other than the máma

— Then, eighteen years after the beginning of his training, he was permitted to go outside during the daytime to see people, light, houses, sun, and women for the first time.

— Everyone saluted him in veneration, but would not converse with him when he went near them.

— He was considered, like all other mámas, to have received his powers and wisdom from the Mother”.


The Kogi say the following about it:

  1. It causes mental lucidity that helps during ceremonies and with religiosity in general, or in conversations, personal rites, and collective rites. A man who chews coca becomes animated, and his memory and speaking abilities are enhanced.
  2. It helps the men talk about the Ancient Ones.
  3. It causes insomnia, which is good, since it helps a man stay up for hours if not days on end, and the most prestige comes to those who can talk about the Ancient Ones in this manner.
  4. It reduces the effects of hunger, which is especially felt during the long ceremonies when a man may not consume any food
  5. It reduces the desire for sex during a man’s middle and later years of life, eventually causing impotence, which is good.”


— Each initiate is given his poporo

— The máma says that this gourd represents a woman, the young man “marries this woman” during the ceremony, and he perforates its top in an imitation of the ritual deflowering of women.

  • The stick represents the male sexual organ, so that the introduction of the stick into the gourd and the rapid movements employed in extracting the coca are symbolic of sexual intercourse.
  • The máma then tells the initiate that this symbolic act should be substituted as much as possible for the actual act of sex, which is bad”


Reichel-Dolmatoff notes that ‘all the necessities of life and all of its immense frustrations are concentrated therefore in this little gourd instrument which for the Kogi signifies food, woman, and memory.’ Given this belief, it is rare that any Kogi man is ever seen without his gourd, lime, and coca bag.”

“KOGI ATTITUDES ABOUT THE CEREMONIAL HOUSE: The Kogi men view the ceremonial house as the womb of the Mother, the originator of all life and the Kogi. When they go into the ceremonial house, therefore, they see themselves as inside the Womb of the Mother. When they lay down in their hammocks, they are inside her placenta. Thus, the ideal place for the Kogi men is to return as

much as possible to her womb, lying inside her placenta.”

“THE COSMOS: “The cosmos has the form of a very large egg, with its point toward the top. Inside this egg lie the nine levels of the world, which are like giant round plates. We live on the middle plate. Every one of the nine levels contains a sun, a moon, stars, and

people. In the highest, tiniest world lives a race of giants. In the lowest world a race of midgets. Our earth is the ninth daughter of the Universal Mother black earth. Long ago, only Kogi lived in this world. then came the whites who chased and persecuted them,

bringing illnesses and badness. These whites came from some lower world, and this is why they were bad. The whole egg, this cosmos, is very heavy. It is placed on two large beams and four men hold it up, two of them On the east and two of them on the west. Below the world there is water. At the level of the water, floating on the surface, is a huge beautiful flat-topped rock. Upon this rock the Mother is seated.”

“She is nude. She gives food and water to the four men, and cares for them. She has to take care of them to make sure they don’t get tired, and this is her only task. Once in awhile, one of the four change the beam from one shoulder to the other. At that moment, the earth shakes. For this reason, it is bad for anyone to throw rocks or roll them from mountaintops, or that women move during the sexual act. For if these things are done, then surely the egg will fall off the two beams and destroy the world.”


According to the Kogi, the course of the universe, the path of the stars, the change of seasons, sun and rain, and with them, fertility and growth, are not guaranteed nor is their continued existence certain. Instead, their existence and continuation are dependent upon proper individual and communal focus on religion. If the individual and society live in accordance with the cultural norms, then the universe will continue its course, winter will follow summer, day will follow night, and the rain will follow the sun, women will be fertile, and illness will claim no victims. But, if society strays from this path of righteousness, if moral codes are forgotten or not followed, then the world will end. At various times of the year, on the occasion of the solstices and the equinoxes, elaborate ceremonies are carried out. The object of the solstice ceremonies is to ‘make the sun turn around’, that is to say, to implore the sun to return once again to its house.”

“The object of the equinox ceremonies is to celebrate planting and the harvest. But, there is nothing joyous about these ceremonies; instead, the Kogi exhibit a profound preoccupation for their success [they are ‘tinkering’ with the Universe]. This success depends upon innumerable ritual prerequisites of a personal nature, including dietary restrictions, sexual abstinence, fasting, insomnia, baths, and confession so that everything will be ‘in its place.’ And, it is only the men who are in charge of this, as women are almost entirely excluded from the ceremonies themselves.”

The following is taken from a 2003 publication by Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, “Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia”, which is a fascinating and comprehensive source for the role of gold in the ceremonies and dances of the Tairona, traditions that have carried through to the Kogi today.  Fundamentally, like many other civilizations in Central and South America where the metal was plentiful, they worship gold and regard it as sacred.  Why this is seen by the Woo Woo as “spiritual” but Wall Street’s worship of gold is not, I cannot explain.

“Pedro de Aguado, writing in 1581, describes the appearance of the Indians in the sixteenth century, before the old customs had disappeared:”

“‘Their persons are much adorned with objects and jewels of gold. The men wear ear-ornaments, each of which weighs 15 and 20 pesos, and caricuries in their noses, hanging from the cartilage in the middle, and great chaguales, which are like round plates and half moons on their chests. And around their necks they put many kinds of beads made of bones and shells and green stones, which are much appreciated among them, and beads and metalwork made of gold. The women wear much the same jewels as I have described for the men, including very large bracelets and hanging items of gold, and on their legs above the ankles and on their calves they wear big beads of chaquira [shell], gold and bone, as much as each one’s husband can afford, and they also wear these on the fleshy parts of

their arms. Similarly, on their chests they put certain moldaduras [cast figures?] of gold, and with these they go covered.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1951: 83)”

“In a 1629 account, Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa describes the dress of the coastal Indians:”

“‘The clothing of the Indians of the Diocese and State of Santa Marta consists of shirts and painted cotton blankets; they wear gold earhoops (orejeras), bits of gold in their nostrils, gold plaques and eagles on their breasts, with pebble bracelets, and gold pieces on their wrists and insteps. The caciques and principal men with more wealth than the others, wear also fine round precious stones and gold jewels. The Indian women wear petticoats and painted cotton blankets, lavishly adorned and decorated with gold jewelry and other precious stones.’ (Vázquez de Espinosa 1942: 316)”

“One of the most detailed descriptions of Tairona costumes is provided by Simón in his account of the Valle de la Caldera in the sierra. He refers to feather capes, sleeveless vests covered with feathers, feather fans, garments made of jaguar pelts, cotton clothing of various colors and designs, and, of course, gold objects. ‘There was no woman who did not have a set of jewelry, ear ornaments, necklaces, crowns, lip plugs, moquillos [translation uncertain] of fine gold, fine and well made stone items, and strings of beads. Around their necks all the girls wore four or six moquillos of gold, weighing from 12 to 15 castellanos’ (1882–92, 5: 191).”

[My guess is that they are describing only the wealthy who presented themselves, not the working poor.]

“Other Spanish documents mention eagles, parrots, birds, frogs, figures of zemis, devils made in gold (Friede 1951), and a jewel representing two men ‘in that diabolical and unspeakable act of Sodom.’ (Oviedo, cited in Bray 1978: 45)”

“War costumes and ceremonial costumes followed this same general pattern. Castellanos describes the Tairona warriors of the sierra: ‘their heads adorned with long feathers, golden diadems on the foreheads. On their chests were pectorals or disks that caught the rays of the sun, with other jewels . . . hanging from their ears and noses. They were painted with annatto (a red dye from Bixa orellana] . . . and had bows and arrows in their hands’. (1955, 2: 539).”

“Several archaeologists have commented on the indicators of rank and wealth evident in the quality of domestic housing. In her comparative study of the architecture at Buritaca 200, Pueblito, and Frontera, Patricia Cardoso points out that the largest and best-constructed house-rings tend to occupy privileged positions near the centers of the sites and also have richer contents. In particular, she identifies a number of large rings, located close to temples or ceremonial structures, whose contents include buried ritual paraphernalia. Several archaeologists have commented on the indicators of rank and wealth evident in the quality of domestic housing.”

Burial sites also indicate a great disparity of wealth:

“Masks and gold regalia also play a role in the training of apprentice priests, as the Teiku story indicates. The training is arduous and is carried out under the tutelage of experienced mamas, in seclusion and darkness, over two nine-year cycles. At the age of four or five, the child apprentice is given his first gold ornaments: bracelets, rings, and necklaces of gold and stone beads. A year or two later he receives his wooden dance mask and feather crown, and his gold ornaments are augmented with necklaces and pectorals. Dressed in this regalia, for hours on end, night after night, the children are taught the dance steps, the cosmological recitals, and the elements of the creation story that together constitute the Law of the Mother. It is this knowledge that will give the boys status and power in the community when they become fully-fledged mamas.”

Posted by gail zawacki at 2:53 PM

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  1. Kaat at MamaStoriesNovember 27, 2013 at 1:29 PMReply
  2. Barry Lopez, in his book Arctic Dreams, manages to give a balanced view of the indigenous Eskimo (as he called the indigenous arctic people, in ’86). He admires and describes their connection with their land, but he also lists the animals they’ve brought to extinction and near extinction through their hunting.
  3. rpauliNovember 28, 2013 at 2:05 AMReply
  4. What a wild spot on the planet.http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2008/09/darien-gap-most-dangerous-absence-of.htmlhttps://www.findmespot.eu/en/spotnews/mark%20eveleigh_the%20curse%20of%20the%20darien.pdf
  5. rpauliNovember 29, 2013 at 1:54 AMReply
  6. This is wonderful… thank you.found this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnLX9pdKuEg
    Another Kogi documentary The Elder Brothers Warning
  7. AnonymousNovember 29, 2013 at 9:41 AMReply
  8. Great post Gail, so informative, researched and well-written. I’m convinced that we’ve done a great disservice to ourselves somewhere along the line. I believed that we, as a species, were SUPPOSED to somehow reach the next plane of existence while keeping the species alive and intact without over-breeding. It turns out that we simply can’t do it for many reasons: the drives you list, the waywardness of our environment (so the drive to bear children to keep it going), and the collateral damage we so callously do to the environment with no thought whatsoever (just the simple act of dumping our waste in water sources is so ignorant as to make me wonder why we ever named ourselves “sapient” when we clearly aren’t). There’s no more doubt in my mind that we’re on the same plane as all the other species here, but we refused to believe it – at their, and now our, expense. We all have our time and then we’re gone. Despite all our desperate attempts to survive the on-going crisis of our own making, we won’t continue, precisely because we’re ruining our habitat (as both the Kogi and Guy McPherson have stated – and it’s obvious to anyone who takes the time to examine what we’re doing).Thanks again for a great site and your well-researched work, Gail – I appreciate it, and you, for it.Tom
  9. pinkpearlNovember 29, 2013 at 4:04 PMReply
  10. Gail, this comment is just to say thanks for your blog. I visit it nearly every day. At times, it’s a refuge for me. In my everyday life I know very few people who are even a little bit willing to consider these issues (or any issues at all, but they WILL talk about Beyonce for an hour). It gets lonely. But you’re here! Hooray!
  11. AnonymousDecember 21, 2013 at 6:45 AMReply
  12. I have never heard of overshoot of Australian Aborigines and I have been paying attention a long time. They were here for up to 60’000 years, and developed practices such as vasectomy to keep tribes small. As their history prior to white contact is all oral tradition I am wondering what evidence for any overshoot there is. Perhaps during the 60’000 year period the inland deserts (which still sustain many aboriginal people) were forested and supported more people, as these shrank over thousands of years the population shrank too. However this is speculation. Im wondering what evidence there is for the claim. I also wonder how materialistic you can be when nomadic and can own as much as you can carry which is about taken up with essentials for survival.I also am skeptical of the claim of materialism for aboriginal peoples generally from my experience. I see full blooded aboriginals pass each other all the time and hold out their hand as they pass, if one has money they must give it to the other. If one has food they must share, they must share everything they have.Fijians are similar, with them also if you comment you like their shirt for example, they will take it off and give it to you, and will be very offended if you refuse.NZ maoris similar again, generally must share, also if you try an instrument, weapon etc belonging to someone else and can use it better than them they give it to you.Uncle Bob
  13. gail zawackiDecember 21, 2013 at 9:48 AMReply
  14. Hi Uncle Bob,I am a bit busy with the holiday but here’s something of an answer, backwards.First, as to materialism I think you misundertand my point. I don’t mean an unwillingness to share. I mean that “things” are important to people in all cultures, if only because they are symbols. It seems to be a part of our genetic makeup to imbue inanimate objects with meaning, because it appears in all cultures that I know of no matter how ancient, with increasing amounts as a civilization grows more complex. But a bead or a pot or a feather might be just as important to a hunter-gatherer as a gold Rolex watch is to a modern consumer. People have been burying their dead with objects for a very long time, for example.As to the Aborigines, they, like the Anasazi, are poster folks for the “peaceful sustainable hunter-gatherer” believers.Like other indigenous people who whose populations were decimated by disease and brutal genocide brought by mostly European colonists, it is extremely difficult for scholars, anthropologists and historians to debunk those myths without being accused of racism, so often they suppress evidence of warfare, cannibalism, and famine. Furthermore, most of the earliest written records are from people who followed first contact, when the native people had already suffered epidemics of fatal disease from the first explorers, so populations were already greatly reduced, and their lifestyles not representative of pre-contact habits.The simple cultures of the Aborigines were the result of overshoot way back when Australia was first discovered by humans 50,000 or so years ago). (Note the sentence in wiki below: Most were hunter-gatherers with rich oral histories and advanced land-management practices developed over thousands of years since the ecological destruction of the initial colonisation phase.)There is controversy of course, since there are no written records of pre-European contact. However, two things are clear: after people arrived, the megafauna went extinct, and the landscape changed. Whether the landscape changed (for the worse) due to direct human activity (burning), or indirectly (because they ate all the megafauna) is uncertain. But the fact that they ate all the megafauna, although still disputed by the WooWoo, is pretty well settled science now. (See the links in the next comment, this one is too long for Blogger to swallow).What is also clear is that some people left Australia 30 – 40,000 years ago and migrated to the island of Tasmania, an extremely inhospitable place at the time. The only reason people leave their home is because it is too crowded. Eventually as the climate warmed, they were trapped by rising seas about 8 -13,000 years ago. While there, they engaged in tribal warfare, not what you would call sustainable.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tasmanian_AboriginesThe Paredarerme Tribe had good relations with the Big River tribe, with large congregations at favoured hunting sites inland and at the coast. Relations with the North Midlands tribe were mostly hostile, and evidence suggests that the Douglas-Apsley region may have been a dangerous borderland rarely visited (Ferguson 1986 pg22).The Aboriginal Tasmanians were primarily nomadic people who lived in adjoining territories, moving based on seasonal changes in food supplies such as seafood, land mammals and native vegetables and berries. They socialised, intermarried and fought ‘wars’ against other tribes.[15]The South East people had a hostile relationship with the Oyster Bay people whom they frequently raided, often to kidnap women.(Gotta love this though: Although Aboriginal women were by custom forbidden to take part in war, several Aboriginal women who escaped from sealers became leaders or took part in attacks. According to Lyndall Ryan, the women traded to, or kidnapped by sealers became “a significant dissident group” against white authority.)
  15. gail zawackiDecember 21, 2013 at 9:49 AMReply
  16. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistory_of_AustraliaIt has been estimated that in 1788 there were approximately half a million Australian Aboriginal people, although other estimates have put the figure as high as a million or more.[27] These populations formed hundreds of distinct cultural and language groups. Most were hunter-gatherers with rich oral histories and advanced land-management practices developed over thousands of years since the ecological destruction of the initial colonisation phase.http://m.sciencemag.org/content/292/5523/1888.shorthttp://m.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/climate-change-not-to-blame-for-loss-of-australia8217s-megafauna/story-fnihsrf2-1226672137411http://m.sciencemag.org/content/283/5399/205.shorthttp://m.sciencemag.org/content/309/5732/287.short
  17. lucasDecember 25, 2013 at 2:35 PMReply
  18. Aloha Gail,Truly one of your best non ozone posts. I recently came across what appears to be a new significant development in the religion of Woo. In try to comment on this new development, I have ended up writing a small essay — too long for a comment. Is there some way I can get it to you as is? If not I will edit it down. I am using Hawaiian expressions because I do live in Honolulu and native Hawaiians do play a role in this development.Mele Kalikimaka me ka hau’oli makahiki hou to you and your ohana.
  19. gail zawackiDecember 25, 2013 at 7:00 PM
  20. Aloha Lucas! You can write to me at witsendnj at yahoo dot com/ I would love to read your essay.