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Reviews

Chiribiquete - Ancestral Home to Jaguar Men

by The Happy Parrot

Image attribution: Carlos Castaño Uribe / CC BY-SA - Book Cover Photo: THP 2020

Translated Title: CHIRIBIQUETE Cosmic Home to the Jaguar Men

Castano-Uribe, Carlos, CHIRIBIQUETE La maloka cósmica de los hombres jaguar, Villegas Editores, November, 2019; ISBN: 978-958-52400-0-1.

This work is available as two separate publications, a large 423 page glossy coffee table volume that I review below, and a smaller but dense pocket book edition without the large format illustrations but rich in technical detail. All funds raised from book sales are donated to help conserve the park.

Chiribiquete is the world's largest tropical rainforest national park. It is located deep in the Amazon region of Colombia and was established as a protected national park in 1989. Since then it was expanded twice, doubling its size after thirty years of exploration and remarkable discoveries described in this book.

Why post this on an astronomy website? Because, among other reasons, it is about a place of great astronomic and spiritual significance to northwest Amazon indigenous communities going back twenty thousand years. More so, its importance goes far beyond astronomical observations, and this review could be posted on a number of different sites. It is about a pristine forest unlike any other, a centuries old indigenous philosophy, the cross road theories of the northern Andes and the Amazon as an intersection of cultures dating back millennia; about extraordinary biodiversity and conservation, geology, and so much more.

Among its highlights, the author discusses the significance and iconography of over 75,000 pictographs and petroglyphs found to date on cliff and cave walls at Chiribiquete; their relationship to the leaping jaguar constellation (overlaps Orion) and jaguar men in the origin of humanity according to ancient beliefs. This massive book is an introduction to many of these findings and leaves you wanting for more in a good way. For copyright reasons, I can't post book pictures but check the links below for a book sample with images and videos in English and Spanish.

Background- The story told by Castano-Uribe is mesmerizing, the gist of it is that back in 1989, while working for the national park service in Colombia, the author was sent to the Orinoco basin on the eastern side of the country near Venezuela, to check on reports of loggers and farmers invading parklands in the area. Getting there requires careful planning as it is a remote location so fuel tanks need to be placed at key points on the way to make sure you can get back. For this purpose they had four seats removed off a six seater airplane to hold the extra fuel and they set off from Bogota headed east over the vast llanos plains of South America.

Along the way they encountered a major storm and the pilot asked the author if they should head back or try and fly around it. They chose to continue around the storm, and this took them southward far off course above thick Amazon forest on a path no one normally flew. Skirting the cloud formations, they edged deeper south and noticed a remarkable sight: the forest below was untouched in ways they had never seen before, pristine even by national park standards. As they flew on, they came across a 200-mile-long mountain range with 38 tepuis or inselbergs, and a canyon cutting the range in half. Such was the beauty of the place that they circled around for a while before heading back to Bogota to plan their return to the region.

Castano-Uribe and colleagues spent the next thirty years quietly conducting seventeen scientific expeditions to the area. As a result, the Chiribiquete National Park – “The Maloka of the Jaguar''– was established. Today the park covers some 43,000 km2 (17,000 sq. mi, twice the size of New Jersey) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site but, more importantly, the region is home to active indigenous communities. The original jaguar men, the Carijona community, guardians of the sierra, disappeared from the area sometime last century though it is believed they are still in the region in self-imposed isolation. According to Castano-Uribe, there is at least one and possibly two communities in the park with no prior contact with "civilization”.

One is left wondering about the expeditions that have brought back so many remarkable discoveries. On the last expedition alone, which took place in 2019, scientists identified 300 new species. Mentioned in passing in the book are some of the people who spent their lives making these discoveries. Among them are scientists like Patricio von Hildebrand, a biologist who lived ten years in the jungle exploring the site, and Roberto Franco who was interested in uncontacted and self-isolating indigenous groups. Franco died in 2014 in an airplane crash on his way to Chiribiquete but at the time he had identified seven areas where such groups live in the Colombian Amazon and two of those are within the park's boundaries. Another key scientist is biologist Thomas van der Hammen, also mentioned in the book, who had a great impact in Colombian biodiversity studies. When he observed the wall paintings for the first time in 1991, he was so moved he called it "the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon." Along with others in the book, there is surely fodder for books to come.

Jaguar men- Important to note here that Chiribiquete is not simply an archeological site. It is an active spiritual and cultural site for 46 different ethnic groups in the northern Amazon region. See the article titled Echoes of Silence by shaman Uldarico Matapi Yucuna (Colombia Amazonica issue X, 2017) on the mysticism and importance to indigenous communities of Chiribiquete as the center of the world (link at the end of this review).

Reviewer’s sketch of Jaguar pictograph at Chiribiquete National Natural Park, Colombia.

To date, after thirty years of excavations and research, not a single tool, bone or material evidence of the people who made the pictograms has been found on site. And yet they left over 75,000 pictograms and petroglyphs, and the forest remains intact, as it was centuries ago. Why is this? The clues are in the images they left and the lack of domestic use materials or settlement evidence. We know from the iconography they were highly spiritual and that they were warriors. We see where and how they prepared the paints, some dating back 20,000 years and others from recent times, but what they did not leave is evidence of domestic settlement.

The answer, Castano-Uribe tells us, is that it is a shamanic site, a highly sacred location for northern amazon peoples and we know this in part because current inhabitants tell us it is used for special rituals. These center around the jaguar and the origin story of humanity and jaguar men at the center of the world. It is consistent with similar beliefs and art from the huge neotropical landmass that extends from Mexico and as far south as Argentina, the jaguars’ natural habitat. But pictograms of many other animals, objects and people are preserved as well.

There are images of ceremonies, hunting and battle scenes, plants, monstrous looking beings, and astronomical observations. These are beautifully shown with explanations of indigenous philosophy throughout the book. We learn about the mythology of origin and the importance of leaving an ochre colored spiritual memory, the "venerable grandmother," imprinted in reddish tones on these giant tabletop rocks jutting out hundreds of meters above the tree canopy amid an endless sea of green forest. The findings put in context today's inhabitants of the region, contemporary Amazonian shamanic practices, and connections with distant points in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Chile.

Astronomy- There are two mountain ranges within the park. As mentioned above, the Chiribiquete mountain range is approximately 300km (200 miles) long and is perpendicular to earth's equatorial axis. It is right on the equator and the rift splitting the range in two is itself on the equatorial mark and is the location of most, though not all pictograms.

"Chiribiquete serves as an observatory and astronomic calendar. Pictographic representations in the caves and on cliff faces show that prehistoric men had knowledge of astronomy." States the author in chapter four. "Because of its location, the site has special relationships with the sky and the celestial equator. The milky way is permanently visible at the zenith in the night sky with slight north-south variations throughout the year pointing to the months. Iconic phallic rock formations and deep cylindrical depressions within the mountains mark the places where the father Sun planted his staff on earth for the original creation."

At the rift where the range splits in two, the milky way covers the sky from east to west perfectly, horizon to horizon, in a majestic grand arch parting the night sky in two halves. Along its path the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening giving way to the moon along the path but at a slight inclination (23 degrees) such that it crosses the equator every six months, a fact the shamans understood as shown in drawings and ceremonies. An observer facing the mountain range north or south, will see the moon as riding the milky way's back like a canoe. The Moon was the Sun’s first daughter and in an incestuous creation begat the jaguar and their penance for this is to remain apart in the sky forever. The incestuous taboo belief is common among many cultures in the neotropics and the Andes, and is seen in many pictograms on site with the Sun and Moon on a cosmic canoe (the milky way) and the jaguar pouncing in the same direction as its parent’s east-west transit.

Here, the Orion constellation is visible every night of the year with the belt forming the jaguar's phallus, Betelgeuse and Saiph the front legs, and Rigel and Bellatrix the cat's hind legs as it pounces in the sky. M2, the cluster, though somewhat distant, is the jaguar's semen with the cat's tail forming an arc to the side of Rigel-Bellatrix permanently in the sky above. Hence the significance of the Jaguar, the milky way and the sun at this location. A cosmic triad of significance evident in pictured images that survives to this day. The remote site is known to indigenous communities as the center of the world where jaguar men first arose.

The astronomical discussion (Ch. 4) goes into detail on the meaning of the snake pictograms which for different Amazonian communities represent the milky way, seen as a boa and anaconda. The boa being the bright starry part and the anaconda being the darker parts of the milky way. These in turn are used to track the spring and autumn equinoxes when fish ovulate, fruits are harvested, and mark the season for masculine initiation rituals. Women’s rituals are set by the moon’s phases. The astrophotography in this chapter is beautiful. Again here, the book goes into good detail on the astronomical sophistication of the shamans and how they use the calendar since ancient times.

Biodiversity- Much of the book focuses on the anthropology of Chiribiquete but the spectacular setting and isolation make the story. The park lies in a confluent zone of species from the Amazon and the Andes mountains enabling a stunning biodiversity. It is the source of 30% of the Amazon's surface water, home to eight species of carnivores, thirty large mammal species including pink river dolphins, two hundred species of fish, nine primate species, and 300 butterfly species. Several species are found only at the top of one or two tepuis. Most are represented in different manners in the paintings left behind on the walls of Chiribiquete.

Controversy- Early in the book the author acknowledges that their archaeological findings, while spectacular in nature, seemed to go against orthodoxy with local findings dating earlier than the arrival of humans in the Americas 14,000 to 18,000 years ago via the Bering Strait in Alaska. Problem is, Chiribiquete's evidence seems to date back closer to 20,000 years ago and possibly earlier. These first arrivals came upriver from the Atlantic Ocean in Brazil and Guyana by canoe hundreds of miles away. A satisfying discussion of how this was resolved takes place in chapter 2 but I will spare you the spoilers. Suffice it to say it goes beyond arrowheads and pottery shards to include genetic analyses and other findings in Patagonia and Montana to solve the mystery.

Conclusion- Castano-Uribe has put together a compelling illustrated account broadly covering a variety of perspectives of Chiribiquete’s people and their philosophy, the park’s biodiversity, geology and astronomy. The story of how it was discovered and the challenges the region faces are fascinating and sad at times but, as with most human interventions, it unfolds without much regard for our feelings amid Colombia’s evolving politics after 50 years of civil war ended with a fragile peace agreement in 2017. The book is a strong bid for our concern. He aims to move us to value the people and the park through knowledge in the hope that we will care for it responsibly. Will the Colombian state and its citizens be good stewards of Chiribiquete? Highly recommended.

Visiting- Chiribiquete survives to this day due to its remote location and visits are restricted to preserve its biodiversity and fragile archaeological sites. Check the national parks link below for guided authorized visits but note you will not actually go deep into the park. No tourism is allowed within the park but one gets to see the tepuis and cliffs with paintings from an observation point, by airplane, and from one of the many rivers.

Glossary

Chiribiquete: Indigenous term that translates to "the Sun's home among the star swarm".

Maloka: Communal building or area where much of an indigenous group's social life takes place.

The book with images [Spanish]:

https://villegaseditores.com/products/chiribiquete

Additional Information:

Park Fact Sheet:[English] https://WWF_Chiribiquete_fact_sheet_final.pdf

Wikipedia [English] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiribiquete_National_Park

Significance of the site and pictographs in Revista Colombia Amazonica issue X, 2017, titled Echoes of Silence by shaman Uldarico Matapi Yucuna:

[Spanish] Revista Colombia Amazonica- probably the best source for al types of scientific research and updates on the park.

Images:

https://www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/portal/es/parques-nacionales/parque-nacional-natural-chiribiquete/

Video

[English] Chiribiquete: Best Kept Secret;

excellent short minidocumentary https://vimeo.com/620152996

[English]: World heritage nomination video https://youtu.be/3KcZSeqGRtI

[English] National Geographic: https://youtu.be/Z7rPWpSr5Ew

[Spanish] 2018 expedition videography: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LODUSQWG9_w

[Spanish] 2019 interview with Patricio Von Hildebrand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCRdownDwXE

National parks website [Spanish and English]:

https://www.parquesnacionales.gov.co/portal/es/parques-nacionales/parque-nacional-natural-chiribiquete/

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