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Tierradentro Hypogea

The Mysterious Tierradentro Hypogea, Tombs and Corpses of the Pre-Colombians

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Tierradentro is a national archeological park in Colombia, South America. Within the Tierradentro Park are structures known as hypogea. Hypogea are defined as any structure built underground, but more commonly they are known as ancient tombs or temples, sometimes with niches for human remains, and often decorated with paintings or carvings scored into the rock. The name hypogea refers to the funerary aspects of the structures. These South American hypogea give visitors a glance into Colombia’s ancient past.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is found in Inza, Department of Cauca, Colombia. The Tierradentro Archaeological Park consists of five main areas:

  • Alto de Segovia is the largest area in the park, measuring approximately 13,000 square meters, and containing 30 large hypogea.
  • Alto del Aguacate is an artificially flattened area containing seventy side-by-side hypogea that run along a ridgeline.
  • Alto de San Andrés is the location of six large hypogea.
  • Alto del Duende is the location of four hypogea.
  • El Tablón is an area that contains no hypogea, but hosts eleven statues in standing human forms, of varying heights and sizes which are associated with tombs of earlier periods.

tatues from El Tablón in the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

Statues from El Tablón in the Tierradentro Archaeological Park. Wikimedia, CC

The many hypogea were found during a series of excavations. Through carbon dating the hypogea have been shown to date between 600 and 900 AD. Little is known about the pre-Colombian culture that once inhabited the area, and which created the hypogea as a burial ground. It is unknown how they carved the deep hypogea into the solid rock surface, how they moved the vast amounts of earth, or how they were able to paint the walls of the hypogea in darkness, without any natural light reaching the depths of the tombs. It is quite possible that we will never know the answers to these questions, as many of those secrets may have died with the corpses buried within.

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Burial mounds in Tierradentro National Park

Burial mounds in Tierradentro National Park. Source: BigStockPhoto

While there is variation among the hypogea, each one was typically constructed with an entry oriented towards the west. The main chamber of each hypogeum is reached by a spiral staircase that winds five to eight meters below the earth’s surface. There are some variations in depth, with some chambers reaching as deep as 25 meters beneath the surface. Branching off from the main chamber are several sub-chambers, each containing a single corpse. The ceilings are domed and supported by columns.

Staircase descending into the tombs in Alto de Segovia, Tierradentro, Inza, Cauca.

Staircase descending into the tombs in Alto de Segovia, Tierradentro, Inza, Cauca. Wikimedia, CC

The identities and relationships of those buried have not been determined. Within the chambers, images grace the walls in precise geometric, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic shapes and patterns. These images are painted in red, black, and white, and form very complex, and very beautiful patterns. It is believed that red represents life, black represents death, and white represents the hope of making it to the next life.

Before the hypogea were declared a protected area, grave robbers stole many of the relics and artifacts from within, making it difficult to determine exactly what the tombs once contained. However, a few statues and some remains of pottery, fabrics, and other small pieces have been recovered. Some researchers say that the details of the paintings and sculptures are reflective of those from the nearby San Agustin culture. The area remains preserved as it was created, although the stairs within the hypogea have been reinforced to prevent erosion, and to preserve the only mode of entrance into the tombs.

Tomb decorated in geometric patterns. Tierradentro.

Tomb decorated in geometric patterns. Tierradentro. Taco Witte/ Flickr

Those who are interested can visit this historical archaeological park in Colombia. They can see the amazing hypogea and learn more about its cultural significance first-hand. In addition to being a UNSECO World Heritage Site, the Tierradentro Hypogea are also listed on the World Monuments Fund's 2012 World Monuments Watch list of 100 Most Endangered Sites.

Top image:  Inside a tomb at Tierradentro. Source: BigStockPhoto

Resources

Tierradentro – World Heritage Site. Available from: http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/tierradentro.html

Tierradentro: (Underground Hypogea) – Ancient-Wisdom. Available from: http://www.ancient-wisdom.co.uk/columbiatierradentro.htm

Tierradentro Archaeological Park: An Open Window to an Indian Past – Colombia Travel. Available from: http://www.colombia.travel/en/international-tourist/sightseeing-what-to-do/history-and-tradition/archaeological-tourism/tierradentro-archaeological-park

By M R Reese

Comments

The staircase is quite impressive. Thank you for the article.

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