When a Colombian sugarcane plantation worker and his tractor plunged into a hole which had suddenly opened up in the earth, the spectacular discovery buried under the soil would lead to a large-scale looting frenzy, murder, and the destruction of ancient artifacts and tombs from a rich, mysterious, unknown culture.
This is the story of the Malagana Treasure.
In 1992 a sugarcane farm employee was working the fields at the Hacienda Malagana located in Palmira municipality of Colombia‘s Cauca Valley. The ground gave way, and both man and machine tumbled into the hole. As the worker tried to solve his predicament, he noticed shiny, golden objects in the dirt. Upon closer inspection he realized he’d found treasure, and told no one, instead choosing to secret away the valuable objects for himself.
Little did the man know, but he’d just removed priceless, ancient gold artifacts from burial tombs and hypogeum of a previously-unknown indigenous culture of Colombia.
The Gold Rush
The employee sold what objects he could from the newly-found tombs, but his secret didn’t last long. When other employees and locals learned there was treasure buried in the fields, word spread like wildfire, and a looting frenzy began. Between October and December 1992, approximately 5000 people are said to have descended upon Hacienda Malagana in what was described as the “Malagana Gold Rush”. The hypogeum was plundered mercilessly and thoroughly by hordes of gold-seekers, and it is reported that at least one person was murdered. Almost four tons of pre-Columbian artifacts were removed from the site to be melted down or sold to collectors in what was described ruefully as the “grandest haul since the original Conquistadores.” Hundreds of tombs were destroyed in the process.
“Stylized feline nose adornment from Malagana 200BC-200AD as part of the exhibit “The Spirit of Ancient Columbian Gold”. When wearing this large nose ring, a shaman transformed into a jaguar. Powerful predators, jaguars symbolized authority and status.” (David, Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
It was not until January 1993 that authorities were alerted to the looting at Malagana. According to accounts, reporters at the scene captured the mayhem on camera and published photos in newspapers. The police at the scene were unable to contain or control the chaos, stop the looters from fighting, nor protect the site from widespread destruction.
It is not known how many irreplaceable artifacts were lost to private collections or were simply melted down for gold.
Malagana was one of four societies making up the Calima culture. Calima culture gold mask, Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia. (CC BY 2.0)
Starting in March of 1993 archaeologists from the Instituto Vallecaucano de Investigaciones Científicas (INCIVA) and the Instituto Colombiano de Antropología (ICAN) attempted to excavate the site, but looters still interrupted the work and the security situation remained difficult, so research had to be postponed. By 1994 the treasure hunters had given up, and archaeologists were finally able to learn more about the mysterious culture.
Research indicated that the habitation site dated to between 300 BC and 300 AD.
As the cemetery site had been largely destroyed, researchers focused their attention on a residential area some 500 meters (1640 feet) away.
Malagana is located in the Colombian municipality of Palmira, Valle del Cauca. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Because the site was found under the sugarcane estate of Hacienda Malagana, the cultural complex discovered under the soil, and the unknown people were so named. The Malagana people are one of four societies that successively occupied the valley and make up Calima culture (200 BC – 400 AD). The Calima culture included the Llamas, the Yotoco, the Sonso and the Malagana.
Calima culture gold ceremonial tweezers. Men in ancient Colombia used tweezers to remove their facial hair. This elaborate pair may have been used during rituals or ceremonies. Simpler versions of such tweezers would have been used on a daily basis. Gold objects were made throughout the ancient Americas for the exclusive use of an elite class of rulers, priests, and other noblepersons. Acquired by Henry Walters, 1910. (Wikimedia Commons)
In “Women in Ancient America: Second Edition”, authors Karen Olsen Bruhns and Karen E. Stothert write that the Malagana people flourished in their settlement situated in marshes and fertile agricultural land. The remaining artifacts and ceramic models in tombs of the culture suggest to researchers the Malagana lived in rectangular houses on stilts.
Bruhns and Stothert write that several pits excavated revealed ceramic offerings featuring women, perhaps shamans. In the sculptures depicting young women, each figuring contained a rock crystal.
Crab-shaped vessel (alcarraza), Malagana, Colombia. (Beesnest McClain, Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Possessing their own distinct iconographic style, the Malagana crafted fine ceramics, mostly white or terra cotta in color. They made large bottles, double spout vessels, and musical wind instruments, ocarinas. Their gold and silverwork was clearly outstanding judging by reports from looting witnesses and remaining artifacts now in museums.
It belongs in a museum
Bogotá’s Museo del Oro reported obtained some of the looted gold objects from Malagana as early as late 1992. Some 150 pieces of Malagana gold were eventually acquired, with nearly 500 million pesos ($300,000 USD) paid to looters by the museum in an attempt to preserve the artifacts. This move was criticized by some as encouraging looting of sites and artifact trafficking. However, with the rescued artifacts, and the information from researchers, 29 of the Malagana graves from the hypogeum have been reconstructed, and context established.
Other museums managed to salvage some artifacts as well, if only by taking images of the items to record lost Malagana iconography.
Calima culture sculpture, Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Unfortunately, looting at Hacienda Malagana has continued since the initial rush in 1992 (albeit in reduced numbers), and incidences of digging have been reported as recently as 2012.
The sad reality of looting
In “Handbook of South American Archaeology” Helaine Silverman and William Isbell note with dismay that in Peru alone, “more archaeological sites have been destroyed since World War II than in the first 400 years following the Spanish Conquest. And destruction is accelerating, whether caused by outright looting, economic development (e.g., agricultural development, irrigation projects) or population resettlement.”
Such looting and destruction sadly continues today around the globe.
The cemetery and the cultural artifacts may have been plundered, but slowly they are being brought to museums, and researchers are diligently preserving and protecting the cultural heritage of the lost ancient peoples of Malagana.
Featured image: Funerary Mask, from Malagana 200BC-200AD on exhibit with the exhibit “The Spirit of Ancient Columbian Gold”. (David, Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
By Liz Leafloor
Originally published at Ancient Origins.