Tales of ancient treasures lured looters to Colombia's 'Lost City'

When looters targeted Teyuna, ancient capital of the Tairona people, archaeologists scrambled to save this repository of Colombia’s past.

ALBUM
Read Caption
A ceramic ocarina made by the Tairona people. Metropolitan Museum, New York
ALBUM

Tales of ancient treasures lured looters to Colombia's 'Lost City'

When looters targeted Teyuna, ancient capital of the Tairona people, archaeologists scrambled to save this repository of Colombia’s past.

In 1976 a group of Colombian archaeologists and their guides embarked on a grueling mission to save and ancient site from looters. Swinging machetes, they inched their way over the thick, jungled foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta near Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

The area had once been inhabited by the Tairona, a pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in the centuries before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Their remarkable, interconnected settlements were being slowly rediscovered, excavated, documented, and studied. Days into the trek, the archaeologists, all members of Colombia’s Institute of Anthropology, were feeling the strain. The long hike through the dense jungle was exacerbated by the searing heat, torrential rain, and biting insects. (See the facial reconstruction of an ancient queen.)

View Images
Round Houses Tairona houses were conical, with wood walls and straw roofs. They were laid out on artificial terraces made of one or two circles of stones and accessed by stairways. The design provided refuge from the heavy rainfall typical of the region.

Their mission was urgent: Authorities had been tipped off that a major archaeological site had been found by huaqueros, archaeological looters. Items from the site had already begun appearing on the antiquities black market. The team needed to bring the site under state control before more damage was done to the country’s heritage.

The team was trying to reach an area that is generally known as Teyuna, which they had taken to calling a more informal name: Ciudad Perdida, “lost city.” The Tairona had abandoned many of their settlements in the late 1600s, but their descendants who still live in the Sierra Nevada had never really considered the city lost. To outsiders, it had vanished, swallowed by the Sierra Nevada’s 15,000 square miles of jungle.

Warlike goldsmiths

The Tairona culture developed in the region around A.D. 200.The Tairona were related to the Muisca peoples, who lived to the south around what is now the Colombian capital of Bogotá. Like the Muisca, the Tairona excelled in craftsmanship of precious metals such as gold, which may have fed the myth of El Dorado. They were noted for their resistance to the Spanish conquistadores, staving off the invaders until around 1600, a remarkable feat given the relatively rapid subjugation of the mighty Inca and Aztec.

View Images
Golden twins embody the delicacy and skill of Tairona craftsmanship. The warrior figurines are made of tumbaga, an alloy of gold and copper commonly used by the Tairona and other pre-Columbian societies in the Americas.

Spanish chronicler Juan de Castellanos identified them as “Tairos” in the mid-1500s. Their conspicuously rich dress attracted the attention of other chroniclers, who described them as both “astute” and “imperious.” The Spanish reported that they wore patterned capes, headdresses of feathers, and necklaces of beads, mother of pearl, carnelian, and gold.

Mission: Teyuna

In the late 20th century, rumors of Tairona treasure in the jungle attracted looters. By the early 1970s, thousands of huaqueros were operating in Sierra Nevada, employed by gang leaders. Two of the workers were Florentino Sepúlveda and his son, who in 1975 discovered stone steps leading up a hillside.

Realizing they had stumbled on an unexcavated site, the Sepúlvedas found artifacts, which they looted and later sold. When other huaqueros learned of the discovery, a violent turf war broke out. In the end, some looters decided to cooperate with the authorities and passed on information about the site’s location to them.

The archaeologists from the Colombian Institute of Anthropology had been exploring the region since 1973 and had already located 199 Tairona villages. The expedition dispatched to secure this new, exciting find consisted of a team of three archaeologists, an architect, and two looters turned guides.

A low flyover confirmed the vegetation was too thick to land by helicopter, so the team decided to go on foot and cut through the infierno verde, the green hell, a local term for conditions in the thick jungle.

The first thing they saw on climbing Teyuna’s principal stairway of around 1,200 steps were the early signs of looters: holes and sherds of pottery spread all over the ground. Hacking back the jungle growth as best they could, they revealed more stairways, terraces, and the remains of other massive buildings in good condition. Over the course of three days at the site, they observed and sketched their findings in relentless rain.

View Images
This stairway at Teyuna was part of a network of stairways and paved paths that linked together the residential, commercial, and ceremonial areas of this complex city.

On their return, Álvaro Soto, the director of the Institute of Anthropology, immediately understood the importance of the find: “It was Colombia’s monumental site par excellence; it was part of our identity and a link with our pre-Hispanic past,” he said. He also highlighted another aspect: the nearby presence of indigenous communities, the Wiwa, Kogi, Arhuaco, and Kankuamo, considered “the living descendants of the Tairona, so they could help us understand the site.”

Ancient engineering

In the decades since then, a large-scale research project has restored the 200 structures, including circular houses, paved roads, stairways, terraces, as well as squares, ceremonial areas, canals, and warehouses. The city is positioned along a steep mountain ridge with stone paths and stairways linking different parts of town. The administrative and political and ceremonial center of Teyuna was concentrated on the terrace crowning the complex, while the residential districts were spread along the hillsides.

View Images
The central terrace of Teyuna in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, is the site’s highest point. The structures here may have had important ceremonial functions.

Archaeologists believe the Tairona built Teyuna in the ninth century, about 650 years before Machu Picchu. Its name in the Chibcha language means “origins of the peoples of the earth.” Living up to its name, it became the spiritual and economic center of the Tairona people. At its height, Teyuna is thought to have housed between 2,000 to 8,000 inhabitants. The culture had not developed writing, and despite having no knowledge of the wheel or use of draft animals, managed to produce an agricultural sur- plus for centuries.

Teyuna’s culture and economy appear to have continued functioning well after the Spanish conquest. The city was abandoned in the 1600s, but many believe that the local population was devastated by diseases introduced by the Spanish rather than by military conquest.

View Images
A stela from Teyuna whose grooves indicate the network of paths and stairways linking the site.

Finding the Lost City

From the end of the 1980s, archaeological work at the site was interrupted by violence linked to drug-trafficking and the consequences of Colombia’s civil war. Work, and limited tourist access, resumed in 2006. The site remains extremely isolated and challenging to access. Visitors still need to hike for several days to reach it, although they no longer need to hack their way through jungle to appreciate the fortitude and ingenuity of one of South America’s most remarkable cultures.