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Decoration of an ancient tomb in Tierradentro 	Source: Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock

A Fascinating Look into the Lives and Deaths of the Tierradentro People of Colombia


One of the greatest Pre-Columbian civilizations of Colombia were the Tierradentro who flourished for centuries. They created a remarkable series of cave tombs and monuments which offer us a unique insight into life in the area before the Spanish Conquest . The National Archeological Park of Tierradentro with its many shaft tombs has no parallel in Latin America and is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

The History of The Tierradentro Culture

The builders of the tombs and funerary monuments in the Tierradentro lived in the uplands and valleys of the Northern Andes and were related to the ancient San Agustín culture. They were a highly advanced society who developed ingenious agricultural and hydrological systems . The small settlements consisted of a hierarchical society, ruled by a priestly caste.

Pottery artifacts from National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro (Photo by Inyucho)

Pottery artifacts from National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro (Photo by Inyucho)

Evidence indicates that the Tierradentro people lived in the area from about the 2 nd century BC. The culture went into decline in the 13 th century and was finally destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors .

History of National Archeological Park Tierradentro

The Tierradentro tombs were forgotten about until modern times when they were opened and looted. In response to the widespread pillaging, the Colombian government established the archaeological park. The conservation project which was launched has helped to preserve the tombs and other remains.

The magnificent valleys of Tierradentro, Columbia (Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock)

The magnificent valleys of Tierradentro, Columbia (Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock )

Ongoing efforts to preserve the many paintings in the caves continue, yet some concerns have been raised about the conservation projects as they may be negatively impacting on the authenticity of the tombs. Erosion of the site is also a problem and the cave tombs require constant maintenance.

The Design if the Tierradentro Tombs

The national archaeology park has the highest density of shaft-tombs in South America. These tombs with side-tombs, known as hypogea, are carved from the soft volcanic rock (tufa) excavated into the sides of hilltops and slopes. The burial structures can measure up to 36 by 21 feet wide (12 by 7m). 

The majority of them were most likely built as a secondary burial site for members of the upper echelons of society as they may first have been buried elsewhere and then re-buried in the shaft-tomb.

The tombs were expertly crafted to imitate the interiors of elite residences with pillars carved into the walls and carved stairs leading to a foyer and rooms. The design of the burial chambers has allowed archaeologists to reconstruct the homes of members of the elite . The tombs’ designs indicate that the Tierradentro people believed in the great continuity between the realms of the living and the dead, and that they may also have practiced ancestor worship .

The geometric patterns of the tombs (Nick Leonard / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The geometric patterns of the tombs (Nick Leonard / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Traces of painting, mostly done in red, black and blue, featuring geometric animal and human-like figures, adorn the walls, with a number of anthropomorphic statues in the main chambers of the larger shaft tombs. The paintings are now badly faded, in part due to poor conservation work. Not far from the burial complex is the natural rock formation known as ‘the Pyramid’, which offers a breath-taking view of the amazing landscape.

Visiting Tierradentro

The National Archaeological Park of Tierradentro is in the southwest of Colombia. It is located in the municipality of Inzá, in Cauca.  The shaft-tombs cover a few miles and there are four main sites. It is possible to obtain a passport to visit the sites. A 2-day passport is recommended. 

Accommodation in the town of San Andrés de Pisimbalá is available and there are organized tours to the site. For the more physically adventurous, many great hiking trails near the burial complex are sure to entice and the views are spectacular. A good level of general fitness is essential to visit the complex.

Entrance to the ancient tomb in Tierradentro, Colombia. (Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock)

Entrance to the ancient tomb in Tierradentro, Colombia. ( Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock )

Two museums in the park contain artifacts that have been excavated from the tombs down the years, including jars, pottery, and even fabrics. The tombs themselves are typically located on slopes and can be difficult to access, but once inside, they are easy to explore.

Top image: Decoration of an ancient tomb in Tierradentro          Source: Matyas Rehak / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


Nachtigall, H. (1955). The cave tombs of Tierradentro . Ethnos, 20(2-3), 167-176

Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00141844.1955.9980795?journalCode=retn20

Patterson, T. C. (1965). Ceramic sequences at Tierradentro and San Agustín, Colombia . American Antiquity, 31(1), 66-73

Available at:   https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-antiquity/article/ceramic-sequences-at-tierradentro-and-san-agustin-colombia/0583EF2D333D87322B01F3372D90681D

Rappaport, J. (1985). H istory, myth, and the dynamics of territorial maintenance in Tierradentro, Colombia . American Ethnologist, 12(1), 27-45

Available at: https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1525/ae.1985.12.1.02a00020

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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