Ancient Colombia: A Journey through the Cauca Valley: Thoughts and Comments from the Curator

While researching for the exhibition Ancient Colombia: A Journey through the Cauca Valley I became fascinated by the chronicles, the writing and views of some of the first Europeans to enter Colombia. The idea of using these sources as an avenue for approaching and learning about ancient objects was intriguing. These writers were actually there! They saw some of the societies and met some of the people we as archaeologists are trying to learn about; the people who made and used the ceramics in our collections. Furthermore, in an environment where neither wood, nor textile, featherwork, nor bones survive well in the archaeological record, descriptions by chroniclers of the clothing and adornments of the indigenous people, are hugely valuable. As such, some argue that first-hand accounts by Europeans are the closest we can get to understanding the Colombian past. 

On the other hand, scholars have to be careful about using texts written by Europeans for interpreting indigenous American practices and objects. Firstly, 16th century Spaniards had little to no understanding of the indigenous people of the Americas—their beliefs, religion, or their way of thinking. To most of the conquistadors, these were savages. Even for those who were sympathetic to the cause of the “Indians”, the culture gap was great and writers often misinterpreted what they saw. Secondly, these texts only comment on the people living in Colombia in the 16th century, ignoring a cultural history dating back thousands of years (the first ceramics in Colombia are dated to 4000 BCE). Therefore, the exhibit compares and contrasts what we might learn from the chroniclers with what we know based on archaeological excavation, art historical interpretation and seriation, and ethnographic research with descendant communities in Colombia and Central America. 

One obstacle I encountered in planning the installation arose out of the decision to use historic texts as source material. I chose to focus on the works of just one chronicler: Pedro Cieza de León, who landed on the north shore of what is now Colombia around the year 1533, and ended up traversing the length of the Cauca Valley on his journey through Colombia and on to Ecuador and Peru. He was between 13 and 15 years old when he arrived in the New World, and began writing a diary 8 years into the journey.

Throughout the text, he emphasizes the personal experience of the events: 

“Much that I have written I said with my own eyes, and I travelled over many countries in order to learn more concerning them. Those things which I did not see, I took great pains to inform myself of, from persons of good repute, both Christians and Indians.” [Prologue]

“I spent more than seventeen years in the Indies, many of them in the discovery and conquest of new provinces, others in new settlements, and in travelling over different countries. As I noted the many great and strange things that are to be seen in this new world of the Indies, there came upon me a strong desire to write an account of some of them, as well those which I had seen with my own eyes as those which I had heard of from persons of good repute.” [Dedication]

Reading about the experiences of the Spaniards, I had to admire the hardships that they endured. The young Cieza de León travelled from Cartagena (Colombia) overland to Lima (Peru), a journey that would still be quite an adventure today! He speaks of the “hunger, thirst, death, terrors, and fatigue which were suffered” and repeats: 

“The judicious reader will reflect through what amount of labour, hunger, thirst, terror, danger, and death the Spaniards must have passed in these navigations and discoveries, and what waste of blood and lives they must have entailed.” 

Even with his detailed account in hand, it is difficult to imagine the incredible things he must have experienced, and hard not to be in awe thereof. However at the same time, Ciza de León, like his contemporaries, was clearly convinced of the greatness of Spain and the holy church: 

“The world should know in what manner so great a multitude of tribes, as there is in these Indies, was brought into the bosom of the holy mother church by the exertions of Spaniards. These exertions were such that no other nation in the world could have endured them. Thus God chose us for so great a work, before any other nation.” [Prologue]

One of the biggest moral dilemmas I felt in using colonial sources as part of this exhibition was that I didn’t want to glorify the chroniclers. Pedro Cieza de León was one of the more sensitive observers and writers from this time period. His accounts are well-written and remarkably free of derogatory statements about the “Indians”. Near the end of his book he writes: 

“His Majesty has to give thanks to those who passed through those hardships, and served loyally without butchering the Indians. Those, however, who have been butchers are deserving of punishment, in my opinion.” [Parte 1, Cap.26, fo.31] 

But this statement also illustrates that many of the conquistadors were ‘butchers’, and there is no doubt that the primary objective of the conquistadors was the search for gold and treasure. What happened to the indigenous societies of the Americas at the hand of the European conquerors is a tragedy. Many of those who weren’t ravaged by disease were robbed, enslaved, or killed, their religion and traditions forbidden, and their sacred sites and ancestors destroyed. Bearing this in mind, it is also clear that chronicles of this kind are filled with misunderstanding, cultural bias, or are wilfully misleading to serve the agenda of the conquerors. 

So where did that leave me? As an archaeologist by training, I approached the objects from a very particular point of view. But we have so little archaeological context from Colombia that I wanted to consider other sources of information. Ethnographic research by a colleague of mine contributed to the final product. While including these clearly problematic historical sources, I tried to keep the emphasis on the cultural misunderstandings between the chroniclers and the indigenous people, rather than the conquerors and the conquered. I attempted to focus on the objects, what we can learn from them, and what we now think we know about them, and compare this to what Pedro Cieza de León thought he knew about the societies he encountered. In the end, it was about using what is available to us for learning about a world that is now largely lost. And as Cieza de León himself was well aware, his account was and remains a unique resource: 

“in all parts where I had been, no one was engaged in writing anything concerning what had occurred; and time destroys the memory of events in such way that soon there is no knowledge of what has passed.” [prologue]

All quotes taken from “Parte Primera de la Chrónica del Perú”. Pedro Cieza de León. Sevilla, 1553 [translation from Spanish by Julia Burtenshaw]. The original text is available to read online

Ancient Colombia: A Journey through the Cauca Valley is on view at LACMA, January - December 2015. Art of the Ancient Americas Building, Level 4, Gallery 410. 

About the Author

Julia Burtenshaw, Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow

Julia Burtenshaw is a Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow in LACMA’s Art of the Ancient Americas department. Her main expertise is in Pre-Columbian ceramics of South America, in particular the diverse styles that make up the Cupisnique ceramic complex of northern Peru in the final millennia BCE.

Julia recently received her doctorate from the Sainsbury Research Unit, University of East Anglia (UK), entitled: “Cupisnique, Tembladera, Chongoyape, Chavín? A Typology of Ceramic Styles from Formative Period North Peru, 1800-200 BC.” She previously worked at the British Museum (UK) and the Museum zu Allerheiligen (Switzerland). During the course of her career thus far, she has written for peer-reviewed journals, museum catalogues, exhibitions, and radio programs, on objects from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, and Mexico.