Tierradentro Hypogea, Colombia’s Mysterious Underground Necropolis
Tierradentro is a national archaeological park in Colombia. Within the Tierradentro Park are structures known as hypogea as well as stone statues. This unique South American site gives visitors a glance into Colombia’s mysterious ancient past.
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 they are decorated with paintings or carvings scored into the rock. The name hypogea refers to the funerary aspects of the structures.
Where is Tierradentro?
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is found in the municipality of Inzá, Department of Cauca, Colombia. The Tierradentro (meaning “inside earth”) 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 70 side-by-side hypogea that run along a ridgeline.
- Alto de San Andrés is the location of six large hypogea.
- Alto del Duende has four hypogea.
- El Tablón is an area that contains no hypogea, but hosts 11 statues in standing human forms, of varying heights and sizes which are associated with tombs from earlier periods.
Statues from El Tablón in the Tierradentro Archaeological Park. ( Matyas Rehak /Adobe Stock)
Combined, these features mean that the Tierradentro Archaeological Park has the largest concentration of pre-Columbian monumental shaft tombs with side chambers.
Secrets of the Builders and Architecture
A series of excavations revealed the many hypogea carved in the volcanic tuff below hilltops and mountain ridges. Through carbon dating the hypogea have been shown to date between 600 and 900 AD. Little is known about the pre-Columbian culture that once inhabited the area and created the hypogea as a burial ground, but it is believed that they lived in small settlements in the valleys nearby as well as more dispersed settlements on hillsides near their fields.
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It is unknown how the builders 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.
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 (16.4-26.2 ft.) below the earth’s surface. There are some variations in depth, with some chambers reaching as deep as 25 meters (82 ft.) 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. (Matyas Rehak /Adobe Stock)
Mysteries Still Surround the Tierradentro Hypogea
The identities and relationships of those buried have not been determined, however scholars believe that this was not their original burial site. 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 beautiful patterns. Experts believe 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.
The stone sculptures in particular are seen as very important. They are carved out of volcanic stone and represent humans figures. Men are depicted wearing long cloths, various adornments, and banded head-dresses, while the sculptures of women are shown wearing turbans, skirts, and sleeveless blouses.
Stone sculpture at the Tierradentro Archaeological Park. ( Matyas Rehak /Adobe Stock)
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.
For five decades, the vestiges of an advanced but unknown Andean culture were out of reach due to armed conflict in the area. But now that the FARC guerrillas have been demobilized in the region, those who are interested can finally visit and marvel at the wonderful features of this archaeological park. They can see the amazing hypogea and learn more about its cultural significance first-hand.
Tomb decorated in geometric patterns. Tierradentro. (tacowitte/ CC BY 2.0 )
Top image: Inside a tomb at Tierradentro. Source: BigStockPhoto
By M R Reese
Updated on August 26, 2021.
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