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La Tolita-Tumaco: Fragments of Identity

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

By Kendall Hanner

The territory of present-day Colombia offers an invaluable opportunity for the advancement of anthropological studies and discourse of indigenous cultures and identities. Amongst the dozens of tribal identities existing throughout Colombia, prior to Spanish colonization at the close of the sixteenth century, are unique enclaves of cultural artifacts. With sparse to no written historical records of these civilizations, these artifacts have been irreplaceable in piecing together the histories of these indigenous civilizations. Oakridge Auction Gallery’s offering of a culturally-immersive collection of Pre-Columbian works of art serves as an opportunity to contribute knowledge and awareness to the field. Scheduled as Part III of our June 28th, 2023 Discovery Sale, the prolific Pre-Columbian collection includes cultural works original to the Quimbaya, La Tolita-Tumaco, Muisca, Nariño, and Sinú identities.

Perhaps one of the better-known Pre-Columbian cultures, for their iconic elongated head manipulations, are the La Tolita-Tumaco. Settling primarily in modern Ecuador and the southern coast of Colombia around the time of 600 BCE, the La Tolita developed an advanced social, religious, and distinct cultural identity. Reaching the climax of stylistic maturity between 200-400 CE, the La Tolita established villages centered around a plaza, characterized by earthen mounds, known as tolas, reserved as residences for the elite. In addition to these residential constructions, archaeological evidence reveals the La Tolita to have built religious headquarters, with ceremonial centers and political complexes. The pillaging and cultural erasure of the La Tolita set forth by Spanish colonization has resulted in an irreparable loss of artifacts and information. The loss prohibits scholars from formulating a more cohesive idea of the belief set and social class system that necessitated such community structures, leading to the reliance on often fragmentary findings.

Through observation and analysis of the tangible surviving artifacts, scholars have been able to theorize their use and significance. The aforementioned elongated head formation holds stylistic and cultural significance. Modeled by this pair of La Tolita figures, featured as Lot 264 of the Pre-Columbian sale, the contour of the head protrudes vertically before extending backwards.

This stylistic implementation can also be observed throughout several of the thirteen total La Tolita humanoid fragments offered in ceramic group lots, as pictured below.

The stance of the figures is leaned forward, as if beginning to bow. In tune with the majority of La Tolita ceramics, the figures are constructed from gray clay paste, characterized by a grainy and slightly porous texture. Considering the volume of observable remnants suggesting a sophisticated religious and cultural system, the intentionally-deformed cranium is believed by most scholars to indicate an elite or divine status. The artistic replication of this practice bolsters this theory, with the pair of figures perhaps serving as a devotional or ritual object. When considering a global lens of explanation for the deformity, performed by binding the desired body part at early stages of osteo development, the relationship between head size and intellect comes to mind. Or, similarly, a larger-than-human head suggesting divine, otherworldly knowledge.

It is through the findings of well-documented and legally obtained artifacts and works of art that fragments of a nearly lost cultural identity can be pieced together to unearth a more comprehensive understanding of South American indigenous groups. The preservation and analysis of artifacts found within this Oakridge collection offer a depth of knowledge and recognition to an often neglected culture of beauty and sophistication.


Scott, David A. “The La Tolita-Tumaco Culture: Master Metalsmiths in Gold and Platinum.” Latin American Antiquity 22, no. 1 (2011): 65–95.

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