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Volume 27, 1894
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Art. LXIX.—Notes on Tombs of a Prehistoric Race of Colombia, South America.

[Read before the Nelson Philosophical Society, 18th June, 1894.]

Plate LI.

Some considerable time since, Mr. T. B. Huffam, at my request, wrote to a near relative of his in Colombia, South America, requesting him to forward some seeds of certain plants I was anxious to obtain, and also any information or curios relative to the ancient inhabitants of that continent. Mr. R. B. White (the gentleman in question), writing from Valencia, Department of Cauca, Republic of Colombia, on the 13th May last, gives some interesting details of the country, and, in addition to enclosing seeds, gives a description of the

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remains of the ancient inhabitants, illustrating his letters with numerous sketches, some of which I reproduce as diagrams. The information given by Mr. White forms the substance of this paper.

I believe I am correct in saying that, although a large amount of information has been collected with reference to the ancient races of North America, very little is known of those of the southern continent, especially of the northern portion of these. Mr. White says they were apparently quite distinct from the Incas of Peru, the most northern limit of the latter being at Pasto, which is three hundred miles to the southward. They appear to have been quite distinct from the ancient tribes of North America. The evidences are abundant of a large population, and to some extent highly civilized, there being statues and monuments with curious hieroglyphics inscribed thereon. These, however, were doubtless the work of a race antecedent to those the subject of this paper, whose methods of burial and specimens of ceramic art are described by Mr. White.

The unsettled state of the country, the unstable government of these South American republics, together with an unhealthy climate, tend to preclude scientific exploration at present, and what little information is from time to time obtained is chiefly gained from men who search for the graves of these ancient people in order to secure the gold ornaments buried with them.

Mr. White states that apparently there formerly existed many tribes, speaking different languages, probably cannibals, and indulging in constant tribal wars. He has not seen evidences of the art of writing, and very little trace of religion, although it is certain they believed in a future state. Their implements were of stone; there is no trace of iron; copper was sparingly used in ornament, silver also sparingly, but gold was common both as ornaments and in a kind of armour. Their pottery varied greatly from common, poorly made, with stamped patterns, to finely-shaped and handsomely-painted specimens. There are also evidences of cotton having been used in the manufacture of cloth. From the different methods of disposing of their dead, it is quite evident that there were distinct races of men in successive periods inhabiting the continent.

The men who make it their business to search for these ancient graves, for the sake of the gold ornaments buried therein, usually, distinguish them under three headings, viz.: the “red Indian,” the “hunting. Indian,” and the “purple Indian.” Each of these had their own peculiar pottery, arms, and utensils, and the red and purple Indians differ also in the colour of the bones.

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The red Indians were the tallest of the three; the skull was large and the leg-bones large and long; their implements roughly made, often merely chipped stones, mostly of phonolite or greenstone, flint being rarely used; their graves were mostly oblong holes, 15ft. to 20ft. deep, with niches at the sides to receive the bodies. Very few gold ornaments are found. The pottery is roughly made, neither glazed nor painted, and ornamented with lines and dots. The bones are usually stained red; hence their name.

The purple Indians, or Morado, were about 5ft. 8in. or 5ft. 10in. in height, the bones being bluish-grey in colour, although called purple. Their implements were of polished stone, well formed and polished. Buried with them are often large quantities of gold-ornaments. From one grave, of which a sectional drawing is given, as much as 121b. avoirdupois of gold was taken. The wife is usually found buried with the husband, and a slave or attendant (especially if there is a quantity of gold ornaments) is also found placed in a niche in the upper part of the shaft, as if on guard. Around the body are placed earthen vessels, doubtless to contain food, &c.; and at the head of each body are small effigies in clay. On the right of the man appear his arms and copper or gold ornaments. The passages leading to the vaults are often complicated; the shaft is from 25ft. to 60ft. deep, from the bottom of which the passage or tunnel, in a more or less tortuous direction, according to the rank of the dead, ends at length in a vaulted chamber. From the vault to a turn in the passage in a line with the shaft is usually a small hole pierced through the surrounding earth, evidently for ventilation. After the bodies were buried the entrance from the passage to the vault was barricaded with timber, and then the whole of the passages and shaft were filled in with earth, and so tightly rammed that the “grave-searchers” find it far easier work to sink a new shaft down on to the vault than to clean out the old one. They are enabled to do this, since by careful search the remains of a filled-in trench can be found, extending from the mouth of the shaft to a point vertical to the position of the vault. The trench has been so carefully filled in that both it and the shaft are extremely difficult to discover, and to be a successful grave-finder requires much practice and experience.

Among the favourite emblems on the pottery of the Morado race, were owls (most probably parrots), frogs, and lizards. In the grave (the subject of the sketch, Plate LI.), in addition to the gold before mentioned, were found two clay effigies, the face of the one representing the woman being much broader and larger than that of the man. There was also a clay seal, of the impression of which, a sketch is given. These seals are

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excessively rare, and during a residence in the country of twenty-five years not more than half a dozen have been seen by Mr. White.

Some tribes cremated their dead, and placed the ashes, with leg-bones and skull, in a large jar about 2ft. high, and of elegant shape. Other tribes dried the bodies of their dead by the aid of the sun and smoke. Others again fenced their graves with bamboos in which slots were cut like organ-pipes, so that when the wind was blowing they gave out a howling noise, which, no doubt, was intended to frighten away evil spirits. Some Indians, Mr. White states, forced their stone axes into the branches of certain tough trees, and when the fibre and bark had securely grown around them they, by cutting off the branch, secured a natural handle to their axe. This style of burial of the dead does not appear to be similar to that of the North American races, but is more after the manner of the ancient Egyptians and old Etruscans and Scythians, whose remains are found in Egypt, Italy, and the Crimea.

The total absence of iron is remarkable, as we find it to have been used by the Egyptians fully four thousand years ago; and it was also known to the early inhabitants of Asia and Europe. In their reliance upon stone implements, and the apparent absence of the knowledge of the use of metal for that purpose, they greatly resemble the Maoris. I notice that Sir George Grey, in a recent speech at the Colonial Institute, stated his opinion that the Polynesians were of Mexican origin. I would suggest, Why not of South American? and in that light it is interesting for us in New Zealand to “learn as much as possible of the probable habits and customs of the people formerly inhabiting that continent, in order to throw light upon the probable source whence the Maori race sprang, as I for one cannot with any satisfaction accept the reasons hitherto advanced (especially those of a philological nature) for the theory of an Asiatic source. Be this as it may, it is at least interesting to preserve any details illustrating the ethnology of extinct races of man.