A Muisca observatory or calendar, El Infiernito, Colombia

El Infiernito: Sacred Site of the Muisca Civilization of Colombia


El Infiernito (Little Hell), is a pre-Columbian archaeological site near Villa de Leyva in Monquira, Colombia, that was built by the agricultural Muisca civilization that lived between 600-1600 AD. It is a site that has caused immense speculation and intrigued many as it consists of numerous phallic shaped monoliths with a Stonehenge-like organization. Significantly, the remaining evidence implies that the site may be strongly interconnected with astronomy, agriculture, and religion. Though the majority of Muisca architecture did not survive due to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, El Infiernito is one of the legacies left behind by the culturally rich past society.

A Deeply Ingrained Ritualistic and Organizational Site

When Spanish Conquistadors first arrived at El Infiernito in the 1500s they considered it to be “Pagan,” in turn the term Infiernito meaning “little hell” was given to the site. The Spaniards constructed a monastery near the site as means of encouraging the Muisca to abandon indigenous practices and to convert, but the deeply ingrained ritualistic and organizational aspects of El Infiernito are what prevented them from completely Christianizing the polytheistic locals.

In 1847 Colombian Army Geographer Joaquin Acosta initially reported twenty- five stone columns to have been erected in the Monquira Valley, but as many as one hundred and nine stones have been unearthed since its discovery. The monumental constructions, which were originally carved in “pink sandstone” with an incised circle around the upper part, are divided and set in “two parallel rows” - 54 stones can be found in the north field and 55 in the south field in an east-west alignment. 

The ruins of a Muisca observatory, El Infiernito, Colombia.

The ruins of a Muisca observatory, El Infiernito, Colombia. (Patton/Flickr)

Archaeological Conclusions on El Infiernito

The first full archaeological exploration of the area commenced in 1981 managed by anthropologist Elicier Silva Celis. Thereafter the site was conclusively declared to be an archaeological centre. Elements that were part of specific buildings such as temples, towers, altars, and centers functioning as astral observatories have been discovered throughout Villa del Leyva.

Investigations have determined Little Hell to be a sacred field, specifically for “astronomical and meteorological observation” and particularly designed to act as a ceremonial centre for sun worship and other religious practices to encourage the spirits and phenomena for fertility of the land and society.

Significance of the Stone Pillars

Geographer and Explorer Alexander Von Humboldt suggested that the pillars are astronomical stones (or menhirs) as they are positioned precisely in the centre to align with the moon, sun, and stars.   

Further study led by archaeoastronomer Juan Morales revealed that the principal pillars are pointing towards the rise of the sun during the equinox. The summer solstice sun can be seen from them rising from the sacred lagoon Iguaque, which is the known as the birthplace of the Muisca, at a precise and calculated alignment of an azimuth of 91°.

The aforementioned has led many to believe that the pillars symbolically represent the calendar of the Muisca. Contemplation and observation of the sky by spiritual leaders and local astronomers from the earth prepared them to come to “higher realizations;” the carved monoliths in Villa de Leyva may have facilitated that process.

Muisca phallus-shaped stone pillar, Villa de Leyva, Colombia.

Muisca phallus-shaped stone pillar, Villa de Leyva, Colombia. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Agrarian Society of the Muisca

Monoliths were also used to predict or estimate the seasons, equinoxes, and solstices. By doing so, it allowed the pre-Colombian society to determine the “correct time to cultivate” and harvest crops needed to sustain the community. El Infiernito would have been a preferable place for human settlement for its agricultural productivity. The Muisca, a pre-Colombian civilization that had a “rural orientation” and predominantly occupied Colombian municipalities after the 7th century AD in Santender, Tolima, Boyacá, and Cundinamarca, as well as some other regions throughout the highlands, were essentially a society who greatly relied on the soil's fertility to flourish.

 The agrarian society enriched themselves economically by trading and mining various goods including coal, salt, copper, emeralds, and an abundance of gold. Gold was considered to be a material of value and highly sought — specialized Goldsmiths would often move between Muisca cities. Its worth was not for economic purposes but for its methodological versatility, radiating quality, its religious connotation, and its association with the sun – an aspect that was very meaningful for the Muisca.

A myriad of golden artifacts associated with the Muisca can be seen at the Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia for instance. Objects such as The Muisca Raft in the Boat Room demonstrate the high craftsmanship and technical skill expected of goldsmiths and appreciated by the natives.

The Muisca Raft, Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia

The Muisca Raft, Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia (Wikimedia Commons)

In fact, historical Spanish chroniclers in the 16th century, such as Juan Rodriguez Freyle, and local oral tradition tell us that the renowned legend of El Dorado—the city made entirely of gold—is connected with the Muisca culture. El Dorado has never been discovered thus many scholars assume it to be mythical and have disputed its existence.

Watch a video on the connection between the Muisca culture and the search for El Dorado here:

Rituals of the Muisca at El Infiernito

Stratigraphic explorations at the site also revealed that the first layer of stratum exposed plant ashes, animal remains, red ochre, incense, maize oblations, charred rocks, and lithic fragments throughout the field. It corresponds to the civilization’s ritualistic ideas. Muisca ceremonies were symbolic and a deep-rooted aspect within the culture and usually consisted of singing, incense burning, music from numerous instruments such as the drums and Ocarinas (spherical ceramic flutes). It was also commonplace for families to make offerings, for prosperity of the land and well-being.

 In such events, sun god  Xué, moon goddess “Chia”, a local chief honored as a deity following his death “Bochica,” the mother of the Muiscas “Bachué,”  the chief of merchants as well as  of metalworkers Chiebchacum,  and many others  were particularly significant according to Kubler (1984).  

Statue representing Bachué, the mother of the Muisca. By Bogotan sculptor María Teresa Zerda. Colombia (Wikimedia Commons)

Festivals took place annually throughout the polytheistic society. The Muisca were known to worship rivers, lakes, and pillars - therefore it is conceivable that some remarkable practices occurred within this awe-striking site.

In addition, some remains of individuals were unearthed in El Infiernito and the findings further imply the importance of religion for the Muiscas. Though grave theft occurred shortly after El Infiernito’s discovery and human remains were scattered, archaeological investigations led by Celis concluded that rectangular area bounded by two sets of stones del Campo Sagrado exposed five burials belonging to both adults and children. Scattered fragments of skulls and long bones (tibia, femur, and humerus) had belonged to the adults and showed red ochre on their surfaces.

By the time of Spanish arrival, the Muisca had grown into a complex society similar to neighboring ones The Aztecs and The Maya in Mexico, and the Incas in Peru. The pre-Colombian society was ruled by “chieftains,” consulted spiritual figures, and adhered to a hierarchical system, with an elite class. As many other pre-Colombian societies often sacrificed or buried elite members following their demise in sacred religious locations, some noblemen and women may too be deeply interred at El Infiernito and yet to be discovered.

Featured Image: A Muisca observatory or calendar, El Infiernito, Colombia. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Gisele Santos

References:

Llonch E, Beyond El Dorado. British Museum Press. 2013.

Kubler, G. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America. Third Edition Yale University Press, 1984.

Morales J. Arqueoastronomía en el territorio Muisca. El Astrolabio. Revista de Investigación y Ciencia. Bogotá. 2005.

Mitchell, J. The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection. Bulfinch Press.1988.

Banrepcultural. 1914. Archaeological Research in Villa de Leiva. [ONLINE] Available at:http://www.banrepcultural.org/blaavirtual/publicacionesbanrep/bolmuseo/1981/bol10/moene1.htm. [Accessed 19 September 15].

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