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Lost City Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by Toby Muse

Bitter warfare threatens Colombia's greatest ancient site.

[image] Archaeologists and indigenous peoples have fled the 2,500-year-old Tairona city, where several tourists were kidnapped last year. (Scott Dalton) [LARGER IMAGE]

It is a tale of discovery lifted from a Hollywood script. In 1972, a gang of looters on the hunt for Precolumbian artifacts in the jungles of northern Colombia's remote Sierra Nevada region stumbled across a series of stone steps rising up a mountainside. Some 1,200 steps later, they found themselves at the entrance to an ancient, abandoned city. The looters referred to the site as the "Green Hell," given the heat, the mosquitoes, and the arduous trek required to reach it. Word of it began to slowly leak out as impressive artifacts from the site, such as gold figurines and ceramic urns, began to turn up in the local black market, and the "Green Hell" was finally revealed to the world as Ciudad Perdida, or the "Lost City," in 1975.

To the Sierra Nevada's main indigenous tribes--the Arhuaco, the Kogi, and the Assario--the Lost City was never really lost. While its inhabitants fled with the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, their descendants say they visited and maintained the site over the centuries, keeping its location a secret from the descendants of the invaders. They revere the Lost City as Teyuna, the heart of a network of villages inhabited by their forebears, the Tairona Indians. Believed to have been founded as early as the fifth century B.C., the city complex consists of a series of terraces carved into the mountainside.

For the indigenous population and the small number of tourists that venture here, the ruins of the Lost City are the epicenter of the Sierra Nevada, a vast, fifteen-thousand-square-mile expanse of plains, thick jungles and mountains with few roads and little infrastructure that's been all but forgotten by the Colombian government. The tribes that live there refer to the region as the "heart of the world." The Sierra Nevada is also one of the most contested zones of the country's vicious, four-decade-old civil war, with every major armed group fighting for control of the land. "With all these groups in the [region surrounding] the Lost City, we are very concerned for the Lost City and the surrounding areas" said Maria Uribe, director of the Colombian National Institute of Anthropology, the organization that oversees the site.

Toby Muse is a freelance writer based in Bogotá, Colombia.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America