restricted access Sacred Architecture among Ancient People of South America
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Sacred Architecture among Ancient People of South America

The New World's oldest monumental architecture began to appear in both coastal and highland areas of Peru. We begin our search for the religious concepts manifested in it by examining settlements built by the Tairona, who did not produce monumental architecture but were adept at metallurgy and other crafts. Following that, we will look at the worldview and religious beliefs of one of their descendant groups and of others little contaminated by higher civilizations.

The Chibcha-speaking Tairona, who can be traced through their ceramics back to Caribbean coastal sites dated around 200 BCE, had been pushed into the mo untainous region known as the Tierradentro of Colombia by the time Spaniards arrived. The group is considered to be ancestral to the Kogi and the lesser known Wiwa, Arhuamo, and Cancuamo tribes of today. It is of particular interest to the feline theme traced in this study that the word Tairona, and related names by which the four linguistic groups of the area know these people, means "males" or "sons of the tiger (jaguar)."

In the 1970s the Tairona culture became known to the outside world through the "rediscovery" of the Lost City. This settlement was composed of 184 stone-paved terraces covering some thirty-two acres, upon which round houses once stood. A population of 1,500 to 2,400 people is estimated. Larger villages have since been identified, such as Pueblito, composed of 254 terraces that may have housed a population of some 3,000. Larger cities are now believed to have been located on the western slope of the mountains. The sites, which may have developed about 900 CE, are notable not only for the terraces themselves, but for stairs, sewers, bridges, and curious subterranean burial chambers.1

In addition to the singularity of the Tairona hypogea, the chambers of which are reported to reflect their round houses, there was obviously something unique about their house construction that caused a sixteenth-century Spanish chronicler to note the "curious carpentry" in the thatched-roof dwellings of their king and of "three great log cabins."2 His observations suggest the use of mortise-and-tenon, tongue-and-groove, or scarfing joinery. Although the first-mentioned was used in [End Page 295] monumental Peruvian and Bolivian stone construction, that technique and others may have been rare outside the area.

The hypogea, dating between the sixth and ninth centuries CE, were carved out of soft rock to a depth of five to eight meters, They are described as having stepped or spiral entryways, generally on the west side, that lead to a main circular or oval chamber of up to twelve meters in diameter surrounded by smaller ones. In at least one example the central chamber was carved with a domed roof and pilasters forming niches that embrace benches (figure 1). The walls and columns are painted with red, white, and black stars and diamonds. Human masks are carved into the tops of the pilasters and cornices. Ashes of the cremated dead are placed in burial urns beneath the floors.

The Tierradentro hypogea bear an uncanny resemblance to Maltese/ Gozitan hypogea, which also mime architectural features (figure 2). However, the concentric diamond (lozenge, or crossed-thread) pattern of the Colombian tombs is of special interest. Generally known as the god's eye, it is a symbol of death and resurrection. The form is obviously derived from weaving, and although it was used as a final wrapping on cat mummies in Egypt, its widespread distribution throughout Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Indonesia suggests an Asiatic origin. In Sumatra it is associated with the hornbill, which conducts souls to the afterworld. In Tibetan Buddhism it is a "ghost trap" and certain Southeast Asian people bury god's eyes with the dead as "wings" for the soul-bird. In Thailand they are placed on graves as "ladders" to help the dead reach heaven. Laotians hang them on ghost altars erected over graves. Burmese decorate memorial posts with them, and they appear as clan totems in a certain ceremony observed by Australian Aborigines. The same symbol is sometimes carved on images of...