Calima Culture: Origin, Characteristics, Economy, Art

The  Calima culture comprises the set of ancient pre-Columbian cultures that inhabited mainly in the department of Valle de Cauca, in western Colombia. According to experts, the easy access to the Cauca river valley and the Pacific coast made this civilization the most important economic exchange center.

The excavations carried out and the different findings of ceramics indicate that the Calima society was densely populated and that it was an important goldsmith center within the indigenous civilizations, since its inhabitants mastered and developed advanced techniques for working with gold.

In addition, the most innovative archaeological investigations in this area attest that there was no single Calima culture, but rather a set of different cultures that were successively exhibited and possessed their particular technology.

Origin and history

The Calima civilization dates back to 1600 BC. C .; however, it is believed that these territories may have been occupied from 8000 BC. C for a much simpler culture, which was sustained by hunting and gathering wild plants and fruits. The Calima culture lasted for a long period until the 6th century AD. C.

In other words, these Colombian lands began to be inhabited since the Holocene; A term used to define a geologic epoch that spans from about 10,000 years ago to the present (ie, the entire postglacial period).

Depending on the historical period, these cultures had different artistic styles and some differences in their way of life. This allowed archaeologists to divide the Calima into three stages: Ilama, Yotoco, and Sonso (indigenous nomenclatures that survived colonial times.)

This tripartite archaeological distinction explains the cultural diversity found in the vestiges of this pre-Columbian civilization, the chronology of which could not be clearly established due to the same circumstances.


The calima societies that inhabited the Colombian nation extended over much more extensive territories than was believed until recently.

In fact, taking into account archaeological evidence, the calima first settled in those localities where the greatest amount of excavations have been carried out; however, they later spread.

For example, the Calima extended their territory throughout western Colombia, passing through the San Juan, Dagua and Calima rivers, which gave their culture its name; that is, the civilization is named for its location close to this river.

General characteristics

In the Colombian region a considerable number of artificial terraces were found on which houses were built, a characteristic shared by the three Calima civilizations. In addition, during the three periods the work of gold developed in a notorious way.

There were also engravings in rocks and a large number of tombs or graves in which the corpses were deposited along with their belongings, made up especially of ceramics and pieces of goldsmith.

One of the reasons why the Calima culture had a long existence was due to the fertility of the soils and their high content of volcanic ash.

In addition, the rivers and streams were supported by a great variety of fish and turtles. In turn, the extension of the territory allowed an abundant number of game animals.

This abundance of animals and variety of species is reflected in the ceramics through the different zoomorphic forms that were carved in them. Anthropologist Anne Legast managed to recognize several of the species that were represented there.

Ilama phase (from 1600 to 200/100 BC)

The ilama culture is known both nationally and internationally for its artistic achievements. Similarly, the economic base of this culture was agriculture and fishing.

This civilization perfected the cultivation of beans and some varieties of legumes through the migratory or itinerant agriculture system, a technique that consists of burning a certain amount of trees to use them as fertilizer for crops.

It is a migratory agriculture due to the fragility of the soils, which soon wither.

Another aspect that characterized this first culture was the development of pottery activity, whose vessels included anthropomorphic and zoomorphic forms, which allowed us to deduce many of the customs and rites of the Ilama.

The following decoration techniques were applied to these pieces: incision, application and finally painting, which was of plant origin, composed mainly of red and black pigments, also used to represent geometric motifs.

Yotoco phase (from 100 BC to 200 AD)

The Yotoco were characterized by living in towns and villages, positioning themselves in the old mountain range where the ilama had previously settled. This civilization built houses similar to those of its predecessors, which were placed on artificial terraces established on the hills.

The agriculture of this civilization was based mainly on the intensive cultivation of beans and corn; In addition, in the humid areas of their territory they used structured canalization techniques by means of ditches and ridges. It is possible that the farmers of this culture have developed organic fertilizers.

The Yotoco culture is the most renowned of the three Calima phases, since they were in charge of making the most sophisticated and precious metalwork. It should be added that the population at this time was already quite large, so the number of houses had to be considerably increased.

As for the tombs, these consisted of a well and a lateral chamber, similar to those used in the previous period.

Sonso phase (200 AD)

The Sonso are considered a pre-Columbian culture belonging to the first late period, since they inhabited between 200-500 AD. C. to 1200 d. C. in some geographical areas of the Cauca Valley, mainly on the northern and southern banks of the Calima River, from the Western Cordillera to the mouth of the San Juan River.

The sonsos came to coexist with the civilization of the Yotoco period; However, the former managed to evolve economically in the late period, disappearing after the arrival of the Spanish.

Archaeological work

Due to the acidity of the soils in the three places where the excavations were carried out, the skeletal remains could not be preserved. This prevented information on the species of animals that were hunted by this culture from being preserved.

Likewise, its importance within the Calima economy is also unknown, since the instruments or utensils made with this material could not be found.

In the same way, archaeologists resigned themselves to the loss of information on those artifacts made with wood or textiles, since their conservation is almost impossible.

Despite this, a remarkable amount of vessels and utensils could be preserved that allowed archaeologists to establish important precepts about this culture.

Utensils and technology

The inhabitants of upper and middle Calima used a material known as diabase, which consists of a kind of igneous rock popularly called “black granite.”

With this material they made artifacts for scraping and cutting, with a crude appearance but very effective. They were surely used to streamline agriculture and work the land.

On the other hand, almost completely round stones used as hammers were found with some frequency in the tombs, while in other graves irregular blocks of black lidite were found in the form of raw material.

Culture findings

Regarding the archaeological findings of cultivation, charred seeds could be found in the El Topacio region, made up mostly of corn.

Some fragments of beans and achiote were also found; Likewise, the presence of phytoliths proves the existence of pumpkin or squash crops.

Social organization

It can be deduced that there was some type of social stratification through the size of the tombs and through the quantity and quality of the deceased’s trousseau. According to experts, it was an elite composed mainly of shamans, caciques and warriors, where the cacique was the most authoritative figure.

Similarly, it is known that this culture practiced polygamy: there was a primary wife and several secondary wives. In this civilization, women were allowed to engage in various agricultural activities, as well as caring for livestock.


As mentioned above, the economy of the Calima culture was constituted by the development of pottery. They were also developed in some metals using the techniques of hammering, engraving and casting. In general, they worked with gold and copper, which were used to make death masks and necklaces.

Headbands, bracelets, nose rings and earmuffs were also found, which were made mainly by the Yotoco culture through the lost wax casting technique, which was ideal for making the most elaborate works such as necklaces, pyrite mirrors and rings.


It could also be deduced that this civilization traded through barter with other indigenous communities; This is known because several roads were found that led to other regions, ranging from 8 to 16 meters wide.

Agricultural activities

Archaeologists discovered that during the Yotoco period, forest clearance was intensified in order to expand the agricultural system. This could be confirmed by the erosion findings found in various parts of the territory.

Likewise, the Calima culture developed a cultivation system that consisted of the construction of rectangular fields that had a width of 20 to 40 meters, these being delimited by ditches. They also used ridges over 100 meters long and 4 meters wide.

Another of the economic activities developed by the Calima culture consisted of hunting monkeys, tapirs, and deer, merchandise that was used to barter with neighboring tribes.


The art of the Calima culture was characterized mainly by the decoration and carving of different vessels, which are known for their anthropomorphic iconography.

They are even endowed with very peculiar facial features that allowed archaeologists to glimpse what the faces of that time looked like.

In the same way, these vessels show how these natives combed their hair and what jewels or necklaces they liked to wear. Guided by these representations, it could also be deduced that this culture preferred the body tattoo over the use of clothing.

An example of these vessels is the so-called “the fabulous being in its quadruped aspect”, which is made up of two double-headed snakes that, in turn, form the animal’s legs.

The main head includes elements of feline and bat, while a turtle makes up its headdress. The height of this artistic piece is 19.5 cm.

Taking into account the considerable number of vessels and their stylistic variety, the presence of skilled potters can be ensured, who developed sophisticated artistic canons combining naturalism with the stylization of the figures.


Thanks to ethnographic literature, scholars became aware of the presence in the Calima culture of a shaman or healer, who was attributed the power to transform into an animal, especially a jaguar.

This can be seen in some vessels where a figure is perceived holding another main figure, which may be giving birth or suffering from some disease.

Animal features are manifested by round eyes; within artistic canons, these are associated with beasts, while almond eyes are considered human.

Life after death

As can be glimpsed through the peculiarity of the calimas tombs, the connoisseurs established that this civilization possessed an iron belief in life after death.

This is because the deceased, as in Egyptian culture, were buried with all their belongings, even with weapons of war.


The calima practiced sacrifice during the funeral ritual. This means that, when the chief died, his wives were buried with him because they had the obligation to accompany him in the afterlife. In other words, the deceased had to pass to the afterlife in the company of his belongings and his loved ones.


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  4. Rodríguez, D. (2013) Tombs, teeth and culture: 2,500 years of microevolution and the origins of pre-Hispanic societies in the Calima archaeological region of Colombia, South America. Retrieved on November 6, 2018 from Conicet digital:
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