Poporos and other drug-related masterpieces
at the Gold Museum, Bogota

Poporos y otros objetos maestros ligados a las drogas en el Museo del Oro de Bogotá
Poporos et autres chefs-d'œuvre liés à la drogue au Musée de l'Or de Bogota

twenty-five original pictures
veinticinco imágenes originales
vingt-cinq images


A few things you might want to know before watching the expo...

I finally had a chance to visit the Gold Museum in Bogota, Colombia, in late November 2011. Among thousands of exceptional gold, silver, tumbaga, emerald, copper, clay, wood, etc., objects on display were artefacts linked to the ritualised use of stimulant and hallucinogenic drugs by the indigenous people of Colombia in pre-Hispanic times. I thought it would be a good idea to post a small selection of these masterpieces on DrugStrat. This is made possible thanks to the generous photograph policy of the Gold Museum of the Bank of Colombia (Banco de la República), which allows visitors to take as many pictures as they wish (no flash or tripod allowed though).

A poporo is a device used in many indigenous cultural groups in present and pre-Columbian South America – especially in what is now Colombia – for storage of small quantities of lime (often obtained by grinding sea or snail shells to a fine powder). Most poporos are made of three pieces: the container (recipiente); the lid (cuello, or 'neck'); and a pin or stick (palillo) that is used to carry the lime to the mouth while chewing coca leaves. A tiny quantity of lime is thus chewed together with the coca leaves, which softens their astringent flavour and activates the alkaloids, optimizing the stimulant effect of coca. Indians routinely carry their poporos with them as they go about their daily business. In Colombia, the 'chewing' of coca leaves is known as mambeo (verb: mambear or mambiar), while in Peru and Bolivia the words chaccheo (chacchar) and acullico (acullicar) are used. Coca was (and is) used by indigenous people not only for its stimulating properties but also in rituals of divination, cure, and offerings since spiritual food – coca and other 'master plants' – had to be offered to the gods. In Colombia, the most widely cultivated and used variety of coca is coca novogranatense.

The chewing of coca is sacred for indigenous people, and as a result poporos are also attributed with mystical powers and reflect social status. Poporos sometimes were symbols of fertility because of their colour and shine, and because they were shaped like women and fruit like marrows (squashes), pumpkins and gourds. For instance, for the Kogui people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia – the descendants of the pre-Columbian Tairona cultural group – the poporo is female while the stick represents a penis, so that extracting lime from the poporo by means of the stick symbolises sexual intercourse. It is also said in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that the shape of a poporo's hole, which is moulded by years of wear from daily lime extraction with the stick, tells the story of its owner's life. The poporos displayed at the Gold Museum are basically works of art made for political and religious leaders, and/or for ceremonial use, before the Spanish conquest, which in Colombia ended around 1540. A common man's poporo, then and now, is more likely to be made of a dried gourd (totumo in Colombian Spanish) and to look something like this:

mi poporo 1 mi poporo 2

Some of the poporos and other artefacts at the Gold Museum are made of pure gold. Fine gold was ideal for making ornaments, because it is malleable and can be cut, cast, drawn, hammered, soldered, welded, plated, hardened, annealed, polished, engraved, embossed, and inlaid to create objects that reflect light and sound. Yet it is its symbolism rather than the technology that explains the importance of gold in some many pre-Hispanic cultures. Everlasting, shining and yellow, gold is related in the indigenous American cosmos to the sun, thanks to which life is renewed every day. By clothing themselves in gold, chieftains indicated to the community that their power brought about fertility and life.

However, the Museum also holds a vast array of artefacts made of what the Spanish conquerors called tumbaga, an alloy typically composed of gold (60%), copper (40%) and silver (10%), although some may contain other metals (or 95% gold or 95% copper). Tumbaga was widely used by the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of present-day Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica to make religious objects. Like most gold alloys, and like gold itself, tumbaga was versatile. Tumbaga objects were often made using the lost wax and depletion gilding techniques. The pieces were modelled in beeswax and covered with clay so that when the mould was heated the wax left its form on the inside. Then they were placed in an oxidizing solution containing, it is believed, sodium chloride (salt), and ferric sulfate. This process removed through oxidation the silver from the surface of the object leaving only gold. In another depletion gilding method, the object was burned after being taken out of the cast, and as a consequence the copper from the surface of the object was oxidized to copper oxide, which was then removed mechanically. Many of the pictures posted here show artefacts made of tumbaga. This includes the emblematic Poporo Quimbaya (pictures 8 to 10), which was purchased in 1939 by the Banco de la República in the first serious institutional effort made in Colombia to put an end to the destruction of pre-Hispanic gold work. This extraordinary masterpiece is the foundation stone of the collection of the Gold Museum.

Around 1540, Europeans loosely classified the indigenous groups in 'provinces', based on perceived differences in customs and languages: Anserma, Calima, Caramanta, Carrapa, Muisca, Quimbaya, Quindo, Tairona, etc., most of which were wiped out in the conquest. Several of the artefacts shown here are from the Quimbaya cultural groups, which for 2000 years before the conquest inhabited the valley and temperate slopes of the mid-Cauca River region of central and north-western Colombia (roughly what today is Colombia's main coffee-growing region—the 'Eje cafetero' stretching between the cities of Armenia, Quindío, to the south and Manizales, Caldas, to the north). The tumbaga poporos made by the Quimbaya goldsmiths of the early period (1st - 10th century AD) were inspired by plants (pictures 3 and 15) or depicted people with calm faces and stately postures (pictures 5 and 6).

In addition to coca, pre-Hispanic societies handled a wide range of plants, some of which were psychoactive and had key religious uses. Shamans used sacred plants including tobacco and DMT-rich yagé and yopo (pictures 24 and 25) to help immerse themselves in the spiritual dimension of reality and visit other levels of the universe by journeying through the middle, upper and lower worlds. Consumption of these plants, combined with fasting, sound and light effects and repeated body movements, induced a state of trance in which the invisible became visible. Shamans and priests were experts in processing and consuming the 'plants of the gods', in their cultural uses, and in recognising the different spirits they encountered in their trances, although it is likely that in some ceremonies use of hallucinogens was not restricted to shamans and priests.

(Sources:Schultes et al., Wikipedia and Gold Museum website)

After enjoying this online exhibition, you may want check out the website of the Gold Museum. A good summary of the history and present-day objectives of the Museum can be read here (Spanish). And if you are in Bogota, visiting the Museum is an absolute must; it is an experience you won't forget.

Finally, watch this 4-minute animation film:

Poporo from museodeloro on Vimeo


If you are interested in Andean coca, DrugStrat has a wealth of graphic and text resources for you, including...

Coca, cabeza y corazón (text)
Some background information on coca / Algunas informaciones generales sobre la coca / Quelques informations générales sur la coca (text)
dot Agricultural Drug Economies: Cause or Alternative to Intra-State Conflicts? (text)
dot Production agricole de drogues illicites et conflictualités intra-étatiques : dimensions économiques et stratégiques
dot La filière coca : du licite à l'illicite. Grandeur et décadence d'une marchandise internationale
dot Les cultures à usage illicite dans la région andine
Hablan los diablos (text)
Yungas Wachus / Wachus de los Yungas de La Paz / Wachus des Yungas de La Paz (photos)
Harvesting coca en Yungas de La Paz / Cosecha de la coca en los Yungas de La Paz / Récolte de la coca dans les Yungas de La Paz (photos)
Yungas Road, Bolivia / Carretera a los Yungas de La Paz, Bolivia / Route des Yungas de La Paz, Bolivie (photos)
Drying coca near Eterazama, Chapare, Bolivia / Secado de la coca cerca de Eterazama, Chapare, Bolivia / Séchage de la coca près d'Eterazama, Chapare, Bolivia (photos)
Coca Landscapes, Yungas de La Paz / Paisajes de la coca, Yungas de La Paz / Paysages de la coca, Yungas de La Paz (photos)
The ADEPCOCA market at Villa Fátima, La Paz / El mercado de ADEPCOCA en Villa Fátima, La Paz / Le marché d'ADEPCOCA à Villa Fátima, La Paz (photos)
The Sacaba coca market, Cochabamba, Chapare, Bolivia / El mercado de la coca de Sacaba, Cochabamba, Chapare, Bolivia / Le marché de la coca de Sacaba (photos)
Coca in La Convención Valley, Cuzco, Peru / Coca en el valle de La Convención, Cuzco, Perú / Coca dans la vallée de La Convención, Cuzco, Pérou (photos)
Making Ypadu in Lima with Anthony Henman / Preparando ypadú en Lima con Anthony Henman (photos)
A kid's eye view of aerial spraying in Colombia, Ecuador / Las fumigaciones en la mirada de los niños / Les aspersions aériennes en Colombie et en Équateur vues par les enfants (drawings, dibujos, dessins)
Sites of Peru / Sitios del Perú / Sites du Pérou (photos)


Click on thumbnails below to display full-size pics
Haga clic en las viñetas para ver las imágenes ampliadas
Cliquer sur les vignettes pour afficher les photos


1. Mambeo
Poporo Quimbaya_y_Palillo
2. Poporo Quimbaya y Palillo
3. Poporo Quimbaya fruta
4. Poporo Quimbaya Totumo
5. Poporo Mujer Quimbaya (side)
6. Poporo Mujer Quimbaya (front)
7. Poporo Quimbaya Mico
8. El Poporo Quimbaya Reflejo
9. El Poporo Quimbaya (front)
10. El Poporo Quimbaya (top)
11. Poporo Calima Jaguar y Palillo
12. Poporo Calima Jaguar
13. Poporo Cuello Palillos Cascabeles
14. Palillos Cascabeles Quimbaya
15. Poporo Quimbaya Maíz y Palillo
16. Poporo y Palillo
17. Catorce Palillos
18. Tres Palillos
19. Palillo Palmera
20. Palillo E.T.
21. Palillo Caimán
22. Palillo Músico
23. Palillo Cantor
24. Yagé (ayahuasca) y Cucharas
25. Muisca Yopo Trays and Inhaler

** All pictures taken with a Canon EOS 60D camera, except 16, 24 and 25 taken with an iPhone 3GS


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