SATURDAY, MAY 21, 2016

The Tairona

An introduction to a possible history



TUCSON (A-P) — The Tairona, a Pre-Columbian civilization in the region of NE Columbia who traded with the Aztecs and Maya, have a story, or rather multiple stories are told about them. It is a story as pieced together from archaeology, chronicles, and oral history that varies with the storyteller. Scientists (e.g. archaeologists), historians and other scholars endeavor to tell the most likely story. The following is based on the stories others tell, but is not limited to "just the facts" known about this one people and their civilization. A strict telling is limiting and may lead to a story that falls short of being the most likely. Drawing upon all that is known about all civilizations and their peoples, and using it to flesh out the skeletal knowledge we have of the Tairona, will be more instructive.

Any story of the past is an imaginative reconstruction based, at best, on evidence. Stories of the future are stories of possible futures based on the past with no archaeological record as evidence to guide the storyteller. To avoid qualifying every statement and referencing every claim, the following story is didactic and may be dismissed a pure fiction, but it is a likely story told as if the storyteller was privy to all. That stylistic pretense is fiction, but the story is otherwise intended to be a "likely" story.

First, let's tell a tale of a civilization that did not end up building monuments to elite interests nor commit empire on a grand scale ending in the obligatory fall or conquest from without. They did not build massive pyramids, build palaces for the elites, nor wage war on neighbors. Movies are not made about them. There is no venividivici. We of the global Euro-Sino Empire of fossil-fueled growth, exploitation, and planetary destruction cannot take much interest in the Tairona and their contrarian ways. Indeed, we may be programmed from birth to be unable to understand them.

A remnant population of Tairona civilization, the Kogi, did survive into the 21st century. They have spoken to warn Younger Brother, and few Young'ns have been able to listen and fewer have learned from them. They are as apostates to the growth culture of consumers without borders. They are heretical unbelievers who do not believe in belief, who do not advocate for "MORE!". They focus on the world before them and understand and use metaphor to speak of things that have no name. They point to the what-is. The believing minds of Younger Brother would rather believe than know, and so fail to see what is in front of their face even when the mámas rub their noses in it.

"Kogi ideas about the structure and functioning of the Universe, and Kogi cosmology is... a model for survival in that it molds individual behaviour into a plan of actions or avoidances that are oriented toward the maintenance of a viable equilibrium between Man’s demands and Nature’s resources. In this manner the individual and society at large must both carry the burden of great responsibilities which, in the Kogi view, extend not only to their society but to the whole of mankind." (Reichel-Dolmatoff, ‘Training for the Priesthood among the Kogi of Colombia’ in Wilbert J. (ed.) Enculturation in Latin America - an anthology. UCLA.1976: 267. Emphasis added.)

Younger Brother Mámas have "ideas about the structure and functioning of the Universe," called science. We also need to maintain a viable equilibrium between "Man's demands and Nature's resources." This is Ecolacy 101 of which few Younger Brothers know anything, let alone enough to mold human behavior into a plan of action and avoidance. The mámas of the world need to unite, to work together so we and the world as we know it does not die.


Tairona Timeline

  • 5900 BP: Region inhabited by bands of matriarchal hunter-gatherers.
  • 3150 BP: Agriculture, cultivation of maize, begins mixed with continued hunting and gathering.
  • 2150 BP: Relatively dense occupation of the region but without conspicuous elite privilege and empire building.
  • 1900 BP: Beginnings of complex Tairona civilization. Population increases as agriculture becomes more widespread and intense; robust local trade networks emerge.
  • 1650 - 1450 BP, Tairona 1 phase: 200 years, goldwork extensive, elaborate pottery, ornaments not limited to elites, but elites lord over commoners, at least in moderation, using threat of force with support of religious elites. Early empire building becomes evident. As usual, elite interests lead to overtaxing production in outlying areas by exploiting both commoners and environment, stressing environment and commoners, leading to environmental overshoot and descent with or without revolt.
  • 1450 - 1050 BP, Tairona 2 phase: 400 years. Descent is followed by slow environmental recovery. Significant local variations indicate tolerance of diversity. The religious elites align with the commoners and come to lord over the chiefs, those who would use force, had used it, and had gone too far. Elite personal privilege decreases. The priests, the religious class, are social/intellectual elites who live as the commoners and come to no longer serve the aristocratic elites whose power is based on military threat. They work to serve their own elite interests and lord over the commoners by constructing empires of belief. Monument building is limited to ceremonial sites. Their empire could span multiple chieftainships and they were able to enforce regional peace. Peaceful development maximizing human interests, however, lead to over-development, to overshooting the environmental carrying capacity, to peak population, and to forced descent. Among the priests, an intellectual elite within the elite had emerged to think things through, but they were marginalized.
  • 1050 - 300 BP: Tairona 3 phase, 750 years. The intellectual elites had been paying attention, some had warned the priests and commoners that their way of life was unsustainable. After climax, during descent, some intellectuals could say "I told you so" and they lead an internal coup to replace the believing priests. They retained some trappings of religion as it was the conceptual language the commoners understood, but their focus was on the here and now environment that must be placed above short-term human interests. A hierarchical network of villages develop. Trade increases as does the population of the entire region during the recovery phase, but it is managed to remain well within carrying capacity. The mámas, as Agents of Earth or Earth Guardians, are the governors, the educated elite (mámas train for 18 years), whose attention to detail, to serving Aluna, the life-support system (environment), worked to enable prosperity within limits, the pax máma. They had learned the hard way but they learned to avoid their predecessor's mistakes. They put environment above human interest. They do not speak of going to another world. They live in this one, right and well, guided by what actually works. They do not believe "it," they think about it (all things great and small) as they want to know the mind of Aluna, not believe in Aluna. They tell the commoners there is "another world," a conceptual world commoners know little of, lines of thought that the mámas travel, but the mámas know metaphor when they see it and speak it. They work only to serve the Mother (environment) and help the commoners live right and well within limits; limits to population growth, per capita consumption, and limiting resource exploitation to protect environmental resources from human demands. Peace becomes the norm. Without distant elites making demands, the mámas guide local settlements to take care of their environment. Population is adjusted to long-term carrying capacity. Thus no empire building based on force or threat of force develops. Most Taironans live in the lower elevations along the cost, the lowland Taironans who also fish and harvest sea salt. The upland Taironans grow different foods and trade cotton, living in the Heart of the World where the most accomplished mámas studied and taught at Máma U.


The Tairona phase 1 story is one of empire-building-as-usual, of chieftainships competing, bigger fish swallows little fish, agricultural surplus supports warriors, wealth is accumulated and aristocrats demand ever more from increasingly distant commoners as empire expands. At some point, commoners cannot produce ever more, even under threat of force, and the system breaks down, empire falls either to be conquered from without or slowly recover, typically to repeat the pattern.

Tairona phase 2 offers a twist to the usual story. Priests bite the hand that feeds them, their co-lords with their warrior minions, and came to dominate them with the support of the commoners, who were near revolt, as is possible when elites are weakened by material descent. The Taironans were subject to being raided by the more war-like Carib Indians who would come Viking-like to raid coastal villages. The warrior class was replaced or reeducated to become community guardians. They maintained an ever watchful presence and if invaded, at the first sign, a call was put out to neighboring communities to send their guardians along with all available commoners, men and women, to come and form a wall of humanity. A few canoes of a few dozen warriors, confronted by an organized mass of thousands, had no other option but to flee, even if the thousands were merely armed with sticks and stones. The chief of each small community of 50 to 150 people came to be appointed by the priests as were the guardians who replaced the warriors. Neither chief, guardians, nor priests lived in bigger or better houses than the commoners or consumed more stuff. The priests directed the chief to organize the people to do needed public works projects, such as to maintain the roads. Prosperity grew and it all looked deliriously good as the economy grew. The priests, however, were too focused on serving the people and being popular, on enabling growth and development. They neglected the environment even though they "knew" or thought they knew that they were the environment. But it turns out they really didn't know the environment, merely believed they did, and there were consequences.

Tairona phase 3 began when the priestly empire of belief faltered, when the promised ever-growing-prosperity failed and growth transitioned into descent, into hard times. The credibility of the priests, in the commoner's mind, was discredited by their failed promises. The Empire of Belief ended when the people stopped believing in it. The intellectual class that had mostly been ignored by both priests and commoners had long seen through the confabulations of the priests and had foreseen a bad outcome to priestly rule. They had warned the priests and commoners, but had been ignored until the Empire of Belief could no longer be believed in. The ones who would rather know staged a coup and ousted the true believers. The intellectual class found much to admire in the priests, as compared to the aristocratic lords who lived by force or threats, but they showed no restraint in cleaning house, in disposing of bad ideas. The commoners saw them as the new priests, called mámas. They retained the priestly lifestyle, wore the same cloths as the commoners, ate the same food, sleep in a hammock like everyone else, and live in houses just big enough. Their material possessions fit in two bags that were carried under each arm. The idea of using their elite status for self-gain was either unknown or dismissed as aberrant as 18 years of education had made clear.

The mámas had been paying attention and had learned the hard lessons as taught by the Universe (the Mother). It had to be system over self. We all are the environment, Aluna, and we must serve our life-support system or suffer horribly. The suffering had been horrible and the mámas saw this as indicating a human failure to moderate human demands on Aluna's resources. It was their task to help the commoners live right and well within limits to achieve a sustainable prosperity. They studied hard, and thought and thought and thought about how best to do so. Their guidance mostly worked and improved as the centuries passed.

The commoners respected them accordingly. They willingly sought their advice and accepted limits. The mámas were elites and they ruled by consensus among themselves. Some mámas merited greater respect from the other mámas and so were somewhat more elite. The empire of the mámas was an Empire of Respect as merited. They ruled the commoners by merit. The consensus of the mámas was their best guess as to what would work. The Tairona were ruled by a meritocracy, and thereby thrived in moderation within limits. Their civilization did not grow, did not expand, did not conquer new lands, but all had enough and the centuries passed. Enough was enough.

Education of mámas: First nine years, students are selected from birth to about 5 years of age and children in training live in a cave or closed to daylight structure with contact by the mother and máma teachers. During early adolescence/puberty students are given a break from training to explore the world outside. Student or teacher may decide to discontinue their training at this time. Those continuing training receive another nine years of intensive study, that includes mindfulness practice, before becoming mámas and working to serve the environment and community. They do not do physical labor. Females, though fewer in number, are also educated to become mámas. Women are by nature atuned to Aluna and do not require the special education and coca leaf chewing practice to aline themselfs with the Great Mother as do the men.

The mámas, like all organisms, want to maximize prosperity (empower) for all. But they thought about it. Some years were better than others, but even in a bad year humans should have enough of what they need. There will always a 100-year bad-year, a 500-year bad-year, and a 1,000-year bad-year not to mention bad-decade or century. Even in the 1,000-year bad-decade, environmental reserves must be such that the people never end up eating each other.

Almost every year would be a year of prosperity such that more growth in human numbers and per capita consumption could be supported. Normal humans are clever apes who can and will maximize growth. The mámas had learned from Aluna that to live in prosperity over the centuries, one had to willingly live within limits or have limits imposed from without via die-off. Really clever apes could learn to live within limits to maximize empower over the long view of time.

Mámas realized that all humans should have enough but no more. If what is needed to live well—a healthy, loving and productive life—is 1x, but the people demand 10x, then the environment can either support 10,000 humans at 1x or 1,000 humans at 10x. To consume 10 times more than actually needed was unethical, was to deny a healthy, loving and productive life to 9,000 human Earth Guardians.

So the mámas studied life and thought and thought and thought about what was enough as distinct form what was wanted. Enough food, enough nutrition, enough water, enough shelter, enough clothing, enough health care, enough personal possessions. They guessed then tested; evaluated results, and guessed again. In a few centuries they had a good grasp of what humans really needed. The carrying capacity of Aluna was assessed, by guess then test, and máma knowledge grew without limit. Material growth was limited, but love and understanding need not be constrained. Mámas even love Younger Brother.

The mámas married and had children, but no more than did commoners. Young mámas accepted guidance in taking a mate and in having children. The commoners married with a máma's blessing and a máma's blessing was required to have children that the community would take in as a new citizen.

Certain changes in custom were needed and some seemed radical to those who had to change their ways, change what they had been conditioned from birth to believe to be natural and normal. The greatest challenge the mámas had was, while favoring prosperity for all at all times in terms of each having enough, to limit the natural and normal response to prosperity of population growth. The cold equations could not be ignored.

The mámas had to assess the environmental carrying capacity for a given level of per capita consumption of renewable resources. Theirs was the best possible guess and determined the total population for an area while still allowing for the 1,000-year bad-decade. If the population was at the limit, the mámas blessings were equal to the death rate. If the region is assessed to be underpopulated, the blessings are more freely given, and if overpopulated, blessings are fewer. So far, what was needed was clear. The detail of how to avoid unblessed births, was not. The mámas had to think and think and think, and guess then test. They learned to do the hard thing.

The changes in custom that worked: Marriage also required a blessing. The young were helped "to think about it." Marriage based on infatuatory sexual feelings was discouraged as the mámas had noted them to be unstable with "true love" turning too easily into false hate within a few years. Marrying after thinking about it came to be accepted. Marrying and coming to love one another ever more became normal, as was divorce should there be irreconcilable differences. Mámas do not pretend to know all. At best they guess well then test and learn.

To avoid unblessed pregnancies required sex education. If unplanned, an attempt was made to terminate a pregnancy. Ways to do so posed a risk to the woman and often failed. Allowing a pregnancy to go full term was also a risk. If an infant was born unblessed, a máma had to do the hard thing.

Neither the mother nor father were ever punished. Their failure to practice safe sex was punishment enough. Whenever any couple failed, all would redouble their efforts to practice safe sex. One innovation was that couples came to never have sex indoors. Women and children lived in one house while the men of the family live in another close by. Couples would meet up and go to the fields at night to consecrate them under the full view of Aluna. Couples were free to make love, but a meet up in the fields involved some forethought and planning, thus minimizing the unintended.

Because underpopulation under prosperous conditions was not a problem, individuals who chose not to marry and live celibate lives were honored. Homosexuality was not merely permitted, it was celebrated. Gay couples were the primary teachers of heterosexuals on how to love one another while still having safe sex. Those not having a vagina between them taught the young men how to make love without penetrating their lover's vagina. Lesbian couples taught the young men how to pleasure a lover without even having a penis.

Heterosexuals depended on the guidance of their gay brothers and sisters. The women needed far less sex education. Female mámas taught the girls about the more sexually driven boys and how to take care of them - easy when you know how. Woman must demand respect, and an unblessed ejaculation in or on the vagina was to show disrespect. Young men who did not yet know how to pleasure their lover where given lessons by her or, if that failed, told to seek out a gay couple to reeducate and inspire them. If being with child was blessed, then couples could have vaginal intercourse incessantly, and typically did, before and after birth until a máma judges the nursing mother to be fertile again.

There were issues. Mámas dealt with them. Rarely an infant was put to death and all redoubled their efforts to take care. As a result, phase 3 of Tairona civilization lasted 750 years without overshoot and descent, without a collapse of civilization. The lowland Tairona civilization ended, not because they celebrated homosexuality or practiced infanticide (rarely and humanely of course), but because Younger Brother, with attack dogs and guns, committed genocide.


Kogi Timeline

  • 436 BP (1514 CE, 0 BP = 1950 CE): First Spanish Conquistador (first Younger Brother) lands on shore, vows to destroy Tairona.
  • 427 BP (1525 CE): Spanish colonial outpost founded to develop into city of Santa Marta.
  • 351 BP (1599 CE): Tairona in the coastal areas revolt against Spanish oppression, killing priests and travelers.
  • 350 BP (1600 CE): Mayor of Santa Marta vows to exterminate the Tairona as they permit divorce and homosexuality, thus genocide is viewed as a moral crusade.
  • 300 BP (1650 CE): Tairona resistance collapses, crushed by guns and dogs. The last remnant lowland Taironans, those who do not die or become Spanish mestizo bearers living as decreed, flee to the Heart of the World, the higher mountain region, where the highland Tairona and their religious elites (mámas) lived. Most starved, but as many as could inhabit the region did, as guided by the mámas, and became the Kogi holdouts who alone preserved and continued to evolve the Tairona culture into the 21st century. They recently allowed a BBC crew into the Heart of the World in 1990 CE to warn Younger Brother that he had to stop destroying the world. They later offered a final warning, Aluna: There is no life without thought.
  • 0 before present: Younger Brother did not listen.


“Up to now we have ignored the Younger Brother. We have not deigned even to give him a slap. But now we can no longer look after the world alone. The Younger Brother is doing too much damage. He must see, and understand, and assume responsibility. Now we will have to work together. Otherwise, the world will die.” — Kogi máma


Unlike most native peoples, the Tairona were able to co-exist with the Spanish for over 75 years. They endeavored to resist without provoking attack. They tried to placate the Spanish with gold and by providing forced labor. But for Younger Brother enough was never enough. The colonialists grew in number and demanded more and more. Although not a war-like people, the Tairona were so mercilessly oppressed that they had to organize and fight back. They attacked Catholic priests, government officials, and travelers outside of Santa Marta. It took the Spanish 50 years to eliminate the lowland Kogi.

Taking in large numbers of refugees can destroy the social order of those that take them in. The highland Kogi took them in, it must have been a grim time, many starved, but they dealt with the influx and restored balance.

The highland Kogi managed to live in their mountains without attracting much attention and to retain access to a small strip of land on the coast, giving them access to the sea. From the 1950’s onwards there was to be increasing encroachment, such as from American banana plantations, upon Kogi territory. In the 1970's a paved road was built from Santa Marta to Venezuela through the Kogi's coastal land. Columbians moved in to inhabit and farm the lowlands. Marijuana and cocaine plantations made Santa Marta a major shipping port to supply American demands for recreational drugs. By the mid-1980's the Kogi had been forced to retreat up into their mountains so far that they could no longer grow essential crops. The mámas hoped that not all Younger Brothers were like the plantation encroachers and grave robbers, and were forced to negotiate with government officials for help in surviving. In the late 80's they also decided to allow a film maker to help them present a message to Younger Brother.

After the film, paramilitary rebels and military forces fighting them encroach upon the Kogi, occupying the Heart of the World which continues to be torn apart. The government environmental office think they own all resources and are involved in extracting them, environmentally of course. Climate change, incursions, relentless development, disease, and environmental destruction are making for a bleak Kogi future. The conquest that began in 1514 is coming to its end. In 2011, the Kogi give Younger Brother a final message.


The story doesn't end, Earth keeps on spinning; so what next? The currently living may be interested. Again, while there may be only one future, we do not know it. Neither do the Kogi, as they well know. To some small degree we can make a future as best we can envision it, as the early mámas did. Let us endeavor to envision a possible future. One we could live in, as the one we want to live in is irrelevant. The Mother dictates what is possible. What do our mámas say the Mother says to them?

Continue: The Other Kogi: A Tairona-like alternative future 2020 to 2490
































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