The landscape of the Páez in Colombia

In her work on the Páez of highland Colombia, Joanne Rappaport showed how features of the landscape and understandings of the past become linked. Rappaport discussed how selected places in the landscape form a 'sacred geography'. They serve not only as mnemonic devices in which the Páez remember their history and territorial boundaries, but also as flexible means of continuously re-inventing this history and territoriality through visual relationships between, and ritual activities at these sites (Rappaport 1985; 1989; 1990). The mythical past is omnipresent in the landscape. Take the legend about the caciques (mythical culture heroes) as an example (Rappaport 1985: 35):

"The entire cacique myth lays out all the defining features of Páezdom, from the central highlands in which the caciques originated, to the small streams in which they were born and the rivers into which the pieces of caciques-turned-snakes fell. The rivers form major waterways which lead to the frontier highlands surrounding Tierradentro, wherein are situated the lakes into which the caciques are said to have disappeared."

The landscape and history of the Páez communities are characterised, similar to principles of hypermedia, by short episodes and fragments which each relate to a particular part of their history and of their landscape. As in landscapes of the Australian Aborigines, time thus becomes spatially ordered, and space temporally structured (Rappaport 1989). Past time and present landscape are inseparable.

Such spatial ordering of the past among the Páez is comparable to ethnographic observations elsewhere (Harwood 1976: 791f.; Rappaport 1990: 10f.; Tilley 1994: chapter 2). On the Trobriands, myths are clearly associated with particular geographical locations. They structure the corpus of myth into distinct units, which can be altered and 'modernised' separately. These units function as geographical mnemonics and make it always possible to recall (different portions of) the corpus, e.g. along a spatial axis which also provides the temporal axis of the myth (Harwood 1976).


Harwood, Frances (1976) Myth, Memory, and the Oral Tradition: Cicero in the Trobriands. American Anthropologist 78, 783–796.

Rappaport, Joanne (1985) History, myth, and the dynamics of territorial maintenance in Tierradentro, Colombia. American Ethnologist 12(1), 27–45.

Rappaport, Joanne (1989) Geography and historical understanding in indigenous Colombia. In: R.Layton (ed.) Who Needs the Past? Indigenous Values and Archaeology, pp. 84–94. One World Archaeology Vol.5. London: Unwin Hyman.

Rappaport, Joanne (1990) The Politics of Memory: Native historical interpretation in the Colombian Andes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilley, Christopher (1994) A Phenomenology of Landscape. Places, Paths and Monuments. Oxford: Berg.

© Cornelius Holtorf