Tunnels, staircases, halls painstakingly carved – and all in the cause of death

Colombian Notebook by Mathew Parris (THE TIMES, 14/09/06):

“YOU LOVE LIFE but we love death” was the message from al-Qaeda’s caves on September 11 five years ago. I’ve been visiting caves of a different kind but the message was the same.

Nobody really knows who the peoples were who lived in the lofty, green mountains of southern Colombia in the centuries before and after Christ. They disappeared, leaving nothing but innumerable tombs, guarded by frightening, carved, stone figures: massive, snarling jaguar-men with gnashing teeth sacrificing new-born babies with stone knives. Their human sculptors long gone, they stand alone in the forest, grimaces frozen, silent beneath dripping trees. Few visit, but today you can, now that Colombia’s guerrillas are in retreat.

The tombs that these hallucinatory sculptures guard are incredible. Into the volcanic rock are bored huge vertical manholes up to 20 feet deep. Carved stone steps wind down where a doorway opens out into a room scooped from the rock. Rock pillars support its domed ceiling. Here, the dead were laid, surrounded by necessities for an imagined journey. Painted faces — in red and black — stare down from walls and ceilings.

These people had no iron. They carved stone with chisels of harder stone. Imagine the effort: tunnels, staircases, halls, chipped from solid rock. The notes in the lovingly kept little museums in San Agustín and Tierradentro remark that, for all we can learn, tombs were the principal product of these civilisations. Life seemed to revolve around death.

Is that what finished them? The burden that this fixation placed on an economy must have been crippling. In the interior life of a people, the relentless warping of focus away from the living and on to death surely debilitated them. The mainspring of life should be life. Open curiosity about this world, concern for the here and now — for the landscape this side of the River Styx — invigorates a culture. Death as a national idea is a throttling distraction.

Fundamentalist Islam is a doctrine that must choke itself. Whether from the cave of Osama bin Laden or the tombs of the pre-Colombians, the message “You love life but we love death” should not scare us. It describes our strength.

  • EVERYWHERE you go in the Andes, you see Indian peasants burning back the forests and mountains. They have been doing this for centuries, slowly wrecking their environment. At night, their small fires prick the dark horizon: a ceaseless nibbling. Why is the Green movement in the West so cowardly, seeking cheap applause by targeting big business and “globalisation” when the toughest battle for our planet’s forests and mountains is the battle against the world’s poor? Where are the corporate headquarters of the poor?The rich are easy to hate; big corporations have plate-glass windows to smash; but it is not Monsanto but hungry peasants who are killing the rare Andean bears that eat their maize. Unless we follow the lead of that great Nobel prize-winner, Norman Borlag (still campaigning in his 90s), and use science to mass-produce crops from the world’s best land — already under cultivation — then how shall we throw a cordon around the fragile, agriculturally marginal but ecologically precious terrains we need to save from destruction?
  • ON A recommendation from the staff at the magical Cabañas El Maco, where we stayed among the tombs and statues in San Agustín, we headed for San Andrés in the remote and mountainous area called Tierradentro. We were told to look for a dwarf in the village to be our guide. His name was Fabian — running a shop with his wife as tiny as he. They were a super couple, clever and kind. For them, the internet has been a life-changing thing. Separated from the rest of the world at the end of dreadful roads, they have made contact with a network of like-bodied individuals across the world (including a professor in France) who swap stories, height statistics and advice.Fabian proved a brilliant guide. I used to think all that PC stuff about people not being dwarves but “vertically challenged” — or whatever — was stupid; but, once you know and like someone, you don’t want to hear his difficulties used as a noun to define him. Fabian and his wife talked (in Spanish) of being “little people” and, from now on, I shall try to do likewise; it is what they are.