Colombia: A Case Study of Archaeology and Nationalism

Eunice Lee

Introduction and Overview

In 1850, a small group of state-commissioned explorers set out from the small Colombian town of Zipaquirá with the purpose of mapping out the country’s vast regions and providing information about its inhabitants. This geographic and archaeological campaign came to be known as the Chorographic Commission and is viewed today by many Colombian scholars as foundational in the construction of their country’s identity (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 349). At the time of the expedition, Colombia—or New Granada, as it was then called—faced a precarious future as a young, fledgling nation that had declared independence from Spanish rule only decades prior. It seems unsurprising, then, that much of the Commission’s observations of prehistory and history at key sites attempted to link the current period with ancient epochs, “thus endowing the fragile new republic with a coherent past as well as a cohesive territory” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 348). In striving to reconstruct a more patriotic history, the Commission at first glance appears to be a product of the government’s deliberately nationalistic use of archaeology to legitimize its rule and cast off Colombia’s colonial past.                                                      This line of reasoning is largely consistent with the argument posited by Philip Kohl (1998), who asserts that the way in which archaeology and nationalism develop in a particular country depends deeply on whether or not that country is a product of post-colonial rule (p. 236). More specifically, the field of archaeology in many post-colonial states is ostensibly shaped by a desire to overcome previous imperialist influences and assert their own nationalistic agenda. At the heart of this conflict between casting off imperialism and seeking a new nationalism through archaeology lies the idea that “control of the past provides a source of legitimization for control of the future” (Kohl, 1998, p. 236). In other words, reinforcing the ideal of a unified, pre-imperialist cultural past strengthens the authority of governments attempting to move beyond their colonial history. While Kohl’s argument has an undeniable logic, it presents a somewhat limited interpretation of the ties between archaeology and nationalism. A closer examination of the Chorographic Commission reveals a much more complex dynamic in which partisan politics, contrasting ideologies, and racial divisions repeatedly confused the interpretation of archaeological findings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These deep-rooted trends have persisted in modern Colombia, leading to the absence of the kind of unified national archaeology posited by Kohl.  With the archaeological debate still largely dominated by a Eurocentric worldview, modern-day Colombians continue to find themselves warring between an anticolonial critique and a pro-Spanish viewpoint in regards to the past. To further complicate matters, the exclusion of native indigenous populations from the creole elite’s concept of Colombian nationhood has remained an unresolved tension. Even the rise of the popular 20th century indigenismo movement failed to create a viable solution to the dilemma of national identity, as many Colombians still associate strongly with Hispanic culture rather than indigenous culture.

An examination of Colombian archaeology as a case study thus illustrates that Kohl’s model is not, in fact, readily applicable to all countries arising out of colonialist rule, as the question of what exactly constitutes “national identity” may be unclear or under dispute. The role often played by archaeology in the construction of national identity and its potential to serve as a means of political and cultural expression accentuate the importance of closely examining the validity of Kohl’s argument. Adopting a more nuanced perspective can allow us to better understand the nature of archaeology and nationalism not only in Colombia itself, but also in other countries similarly arising out of post-colonial rule. Only by challenging Kohl’s model is it possible, therefore, to move beyond the limitations of a deterministic theory and instead recognize that the development of a truly national archaeology is often dependent on a number of complex factors such as clashing political ideologies and varying conceptions of cultural identity.              


Clash of Ideology: Liberals vs. Conservatives                                                                  Returning now to the Chorographic Commission, we may find that a re-examination of this symbolic event proves necessary in order to better understand the complex processes that complicated the expedition’s findings. We will later see that, in large part, these same processes have endured into the present. Although the Commission was not itself a partisan organization, it was “the product of a partisan era” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 351). In other words, the expedition operated during a ten-year period between 1850 and 1860 during which it was subject to the influences of external political events such as civil wars, regime changes, and a protracted battle between Liberals and Conservatives. Thus, 19th century archaeological research and historical interpretation did not occur in a vacuum; rather, they were profoundly shaped by the specific policy goals of the regime in power and were forced to adapt to the vicissitudes of the changing political environment. While the Liberals favored an anticolonial critique in archaeological interpretation, the Conservatives viewed Spain’s influence as a positive force—a divergence in attitude that only “became more marked over the course of the century” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 349). This divide soon came to characterize the development of Colombian archaeology and consequently impeded a unified approach in national policy.

Although the expedition members represented a coalition of both Liberals and Conservatives, the expedition was formally commissioned by the Liberal government under José Hilario López and adopted a decidedly anticolonial tone as a result. Manuel Ancízar, one of the members of the expedition, described his emotional reaction to the historic site of Tausa where Spanish conquerors had brutally killed native populations: “I seemed to hear the clamor of the combatants. . . . barren loneliness was all that was left. . . . where once had echoed the songs of innocent Indian women and the laughter of their sacrificed children” (as cited in Appelbaum, 2013, p. 348). As this example illustrates, the Commission’s writers interpreted the natural and human history of the Andean cordilleras in a distinctly nationalistic manner, drawing on a legacy of past revolutionary struggles and an overcoming of imperialism in order to paint a picture of a country with a promising future. The expedition adopted a similar attitude toward its archeological findings of the Muisca tribe, the most important being the Gámeza boulder. Covered in petroglyphs and found at the intersection of the Gámeza and Sogamoso Rivers, this boulder was touted by the creole elite as “evidence that the Muisca constituted a great civilization that practiced… astronomy and maintained a complex calendar” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 357). By emphasizing the achievements of ancient tribes, the Commission and its sponsors created a link between their own fragile young republic and the great civilizations of its pre-Hispanic past.

While an overtly Liberal view colored the Commission’s findings, an important question to consider is how the larger public chose to interpret the archaeological results of the expedition. Evidence indicates that reactions were heated and riddled by factional conflicts. With former Conservative president Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera emerging as one of its most vocal critics, “the work of the Chorographic Commission was the subject of myriad disputes” in the Bogotá press (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 369). Mosquera publicly attacked the Commission’s writings for being overly critical of the Spaniards and declared that “we Colombians are Spanish, and the son should be just” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 370). While Liberals imposed an anticolonial intent on the Commission’s findings, the larger community clearly refused to accept these results without question. Some even attempted to assert their own interpretation of the archaeological findings. In his 1895 book Chibchas antes de la conquista española, Vicente Restrepo discounted the supposed sophistication of the Muiscan pictographs and “scoffed at analogies between the Chibchas [Muiscas] and the modern nation,” claiming that the ancient natives had been “timid in the face of Spanish superiority” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 372). This example clearly reveals that Restrepo, much like other Conservatives, remained unapologetically in favor of a Hispanic-dominated culture. As discussed earlier, the Commission represented the government’s early attempts to form a nationalistic archaeology. However, a multitude of different political agendas and policies pulled this attempt in different directions, confusing the results until neither a nationalistic nor an imperialistic archaeology resulted, but rather a contradictory mixture of both elements.


Role of the Native and the Rise of Indigenismo

            Can we then frame the movement for a genuine national archaeology as a battle of the Liberals against the Conservatives? After all, while the Conservatives defended an obviously pro-imperialist viewpoint, the Liberals ostensibly maintained a much more patriotic stance. To answer this question, we must consider the role of indigenous natives in the Colombian Liberal elite’s construction of national identity. In their written accounts, the members of the Chorographic Commission portrayed Spanish soldiers as “crude thugs,” while the Muiscas were “highly civilized” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 362). These descriptions emphasized Spanish cruelty during the conquest and portrayed such actions in an unmistakably negative light. Despite their admiration for the pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations, however, the expedition members—in accordance with typical creole elite beliefs—did not translate this sentiment into respect for the contemporary indigenous population. The primary dilemma originated from the fact that mid-nineteenth-century Liberals “exalted the conquered civilizations that they saw as precursors to their own nations, but… identified personally as belonging to the Spanish race that brutally conquered these civilizations” (Appelbaum, 2013, p. 371). Consequently, the Chorographic Commission represented a flawed, non-inclusive version of archaeological nationalism—one in which the 19th-century Colombian elite attempted to construct a national past that refused to acknowledge the historical and cultural influence of the modern indigenous natives it subjugated. Despite openly criticizing the destructive actions of Spanish colonizers, the Liberals thus continued to deliberately exclude indigenous populations from conceptions of national identity.

            Although Colombia’s structural racism was deeply rooted, the rise of the popular indigenismo movement in the 1930s and 1940s offered an opportunity for the country to finally integrate its indigenous population into society. Essentially an “affirmation of indigenous heritage,” indigenismo swept across Latin America and called for “a revival of interest in the position of the Indian” (“Colombian Nationalism,” 2000). Yet despite its massive popularity in other neighboring countries, the indigenismo movement in Colombia proved to be much weaker and more limited by the pre-existing social structure. As J. León Helguera (1974) argues, “indigenismo in Colombia may be seen as part of the search for an authentic national identity [that occurred] within the context of an essentially mestizo-creole Hispanic framework” (p. 1). Because it was unable to ever truly break free from the strict class-based and racial divisions of this “framework,” Colombian indigenismo failed to successfully emerge as a major political or cultural movement.


Historical Perspectives on Indigenous Exclusion

To understand why indigenous culture proved so historically resistant to integration into national identity, we can briefly consider the nature of the initial Spanish conquest in Colombia. Two characteristics become readily apparent: first, the outright refusal of the Spaniards to acknowledge any aspect of native cultures, and second, the extent and severity of Hispanization. Unlike the conquest of Mexican territories in which the invading Spanish culture assimilated some aspects of the native culture, the Spaniards in Colombia “precluded the possibility of even a token cultural symbiosis occurring” (Helguera, 1974, p. 3). Helguera (1974) claims that the Colombian example is therefore unique in comparison to the experiences of other Latin American regions such as Ecuador, Peru, or Mexico that underwent similar colonization periods (p. 4). He credits this divergence to the fact that the indigenous civilizations of Colombia were “mediocre” in terms of overall cultural sophistication when compared to the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas (Helguera, 1974, p. 3). Unimpressed by what they found in the New World, Spanish invaders in Colombia put an early stop to any kind of assimilation and deliberately isolated the native culture from their own “superior” culture (Helguera, 1974, p. 3). The second characteristic of Spanish conquest—Hispanization—is directly tied to the first. Moving beyond a simple isolation of native culture, the invaders soon began to aggressively impose their own language on the indigenous peoples (Helguera, 1974, p. 4). By replacing native languages with Spanish outright rather than combining with local dialects to create a kind of patois, this rapid and extensive Hispanization proved so effective that “no functional printed grammar of Chibcha survives” (Helguera, 1974, p. 4). Language is a fundamental component of any culture, and the Spanish conquest of both the people and their linguistic heritage effectively eliminated the possibility of a strong native identity surviving into the future.

The well-established segregation of indigenous culture from Colombian national identity is also symptomatic of the historical lack of any stable and continuous state attempt to curate Indian archaeological artifacts, for a nationalistic purpose or otherwise. In fact, the majority of indigenous archaeological collections in the early 20th century fell under the stewardship of members of the Colombian intellectual elite such as Leocadio M. Arango, who assembled native artifacts “in the absence of any official collecting and preservation program” (Helguera, 1974, p. 9). These efforts, unfortunately, were largely amateurish and based on unscientific knowledge—more akin to a hobby than an organized, systematic attempt to catalog indigenous history. However, with the rise of the indigenismo period came new hope for a national policy specifically dedicated to the curating of Indian artifacts. The Colombian government seemingly substantiated this hope with its 1938 decision to create an official Archaeological Service “to begin the rescue and preservation of the nation’s pre-Hispanic treasures” (Helguera, 1974, p. 12). Such an effort indicated a new political attitude in favor of greater conservation efforts. While it is easy to view this event as evidence of a deliberate, state-sponsored initiative to incorporate indigenous artifacts into a national archaeology, it is important to note that “the country’s ‘Official Culture,’ despite its permissive tolerance of the … Indigenistas, remained Hispanic in its core” (Helguera, 1974, p. 14). Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the fall of the Liberal regime in 1945 corresponded to the collapse of the Indigenista Institute. The attempts of the Liberal regime and its intellectual elite to “rescue” pre-Columbian artifacts proved to be superficial in nature and did not accurately represent the larger population’s desire to keep indigenous culture separate from the persistently Hispanic-dominated national identity.


National Archaeology in a Modern Context

What is the character of nationalism and archaeology in Colombia today, and to what degree is it still influenced by the colonial past? Even in the modern era, the country’s national identity is relatively weak in comparison to other Latin American countries (“Colombian Nationalism,” 2000). This lack of a strong unified nationalism has created an environment of cultural vulnerability that allows external forces to intrude and easily take over local historical research. As Rafael Curtoni and Gustavo Politis (2006) note, foreigners have long dominated archaeological research in South America (p. 96). Consequently, a situation has emerged in which Colombians become, in a sense, excluded from the study of their own past.

The current lack of Colombian involvement in local archaeology can be seen as a continuation of trends arising from its colonial period when Spanish intellectuals held sole monopoly over the construction of nationality. In 1861 for example, José Maria Samper “proposed a racial pyramid to arrange and establish the ethnic diversity of the country” which placed the white race at the top of the pyramid and the indigenous populations at the bottom (Curtoni and Politis, 2006, p. 97). At a subconscious level, the old class hierarchy established during this time remains a fundamental part of Colombian national consciousness today. Consequently, a deep-rooted “colonial and racist thinking” has long permeated the study of archaeology and other social sciences (Curtoni and Politis, 2006, p. 96), creating a situation in which even current attempts to fashion a national identity continue to be affected to some degree by cultural racism. In fact, rather than focusing on the pre-Hispanic past, much of the existing archaeology of Colombia finds itself instead tinged with a Eurocentric emphasis.

This bias finds its starkest manifestation in the recent trend to pay greater attention to colonial period archaeology at the cost of neglecting prehistoric archaeology. Within the last twenty years, rather than seeking to legitimize their right to nationhood by exploring artifacts from a pre-Hispanic past, Andean archaeologists seem to be focusing more and more on a period in which Western imperial powers exercised dominion over Latin America. In fact, one of the major components of Andean historical archaeology today is the effort “to restore, stabilize and research the history of churches, monasteries and convents in colonial Andean cities” (Jamieson, 2005, p. 362).  In addition to its role in religious assimilation of native populations, the Catholic Church served as a major political institution during the colonial era and continues to represent an emblem of Spanish imperialism. The focusing of the region’s archaeological efforts on researching and restoring Hispanic religious structures thus illustrates Colombia’s deliberate embrace of its colonial past—a trend that bodes ill for the future development of a truly national and anti-imperialist archaeology.

            Perhaps more troubling, however, is the fact that some scholars actually view this rise in colonial archaeology as a positive trend. For example, Ross W. Jamieson (2005) claims, “the fact that the results of these projects have been extensively published… is particularly encouraging”

(p. 355), and he even expresses hopes that such efforts will “coalesce into an increasingly dynamic… and internationalized effort to understand the colonial period in the Andes from an archaeological perspective” (p. 365). This attitude not only encourages Colombia’s deliberate embrace of its colonial—and therefore pre-independent—past, but also undermines efforts towards a more anti-imperialist approach in cataloguing the country’s history. Thus, Jamieson and other like-minded intellectuals resign Colombian archaeology to a future in which the state’s own unique national identity is essentially subsumed by a more Eurocentric worldview.




            In examining different kinds of states, Kohl presents a somewhat deterministic theory: countries arising out of post-imperialist rule will develop a form of archaeology driven by the desire to forge a new identity separate from their colonial past. A case study of the Colombian Chorographic Commission, however, illustrates that the reality of the situation is much more complex. In Colombia, the study of the past is heavily influenced by a well-established Hispanic culture that is not only tied to the imperialist regime, but effectively excludes indigenous populations from national identity. Consequences of these trends continue to reverberate even today, as evidenced by the emergence of historical perspectives that not only discard an anti-imperialist stance, but seemingly embrace the country’s colonial past. As such, the future of archaeology in Colombia remains uncertain, and the rise of a distinctly unified and inclusive approach to the country’s cultural heritage is little more than a possibility rather than a guaranteed outcome.








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