Agriculture: Theory, Practise & the Mámas Role

The Kogi have been agriculturalists for millennia. At the time of Spanish Invasion, they had extensive irrigation systems in the lowlands near Santa Marta, and large agricultural terraces on the mountain slopes. Archaeologist Alvaro Soto says of that time: ‘They were using the Sierra, not going against the Sierra… they were using the Sierra by its climate levels. So people that were located in the lower part of the Sierra were people that were fishermans… (who) were producing the proteins and the salt, and they sent that salt through the roads, paved roads that they were constructing with stones, these marvellous works of engineering up to the other levels of the Sierra where they were planting different crops. So in the higher parts of the Sierra they were planting cotton and still higher they were planting corn, maize, beans as basic protein resources.’ (Film Transcript. Tairona Heritage Trust. 1990: 4).
Today, that large-scale system has disappeared - the Kogi are swidden farmers, each family managing several farms at different environmental levels in order to produce the crops compatible with those levels. Trade and barter still continue, but major aspects of the original system, such as the reciprocal trade between the coastal fishermen and highland crop-growers, have necessarily been foregone as the demography of the region has changed.

The essence of the relationship between humankind and nature, however, has not been lost even if the context in which it works has changed. Here, Máma Alejo talks about planting:- ‘Everything we plant must be blessed. They must be helped to grow. Our beans, corn, they all have guardians; fruit trees too - they all have guardians…. We must ask… the guardians’ permission. If we didn’t do that, then, if crops aren’t blessed…How can they grow properly? They dry up and rot, without it. That’s how it is.’ (Film Transcript. Tairona Heritage Trust. 1990: 13).

Alvaro Soto was referring to an holistic view that the Taironas had of the Sierra. The quote from Máma Alejo indicates that this holism has survived the disintegration of Tairona civilization to the present day. People are still seen as parts of a whole, rather than set apart from the world of nature. This sentiment for the world of nature is founded on the observations of the Mámas.

The Thinking of the Mámas.

The Mámas ‘believe that rhythmic geophysical changes of the environment affect all life forms and, above all, they believe that human life is subject to a multitude of influences that emanate from the universe… The principal phenomena of environmental periodicity the priests are concerned with are the following: First, the annual, seasonal cycle of four times ninety days; Second, the lunar rhythm of twenty-eight days, and Third: the circadian rhythm of twenty-four hours.’ (R-D 1990: 8).

‘Now it is a fact that Kogi priests have observed that many functions of biological organisms correspond to environmental cycles. People, animals or plants synchronise themselves with certain periodicities in the physical environment. For example, it would appear that the menstrual cycle of women is geared to the phases of the moon. On the other hand, animal migrations, the breeding season of mammals, the hatching times of birds, the sudden appearance of insect pests and so on, all seem to be correlated with the periodicities created by the sun and the moon.’ (R-D 1990: 8). From this it follows that the Mámas ‘... do not think that biological rhythms are endogenous and that they have a genetic basis; on the contrary, they believe that they are directly caused by environmental cycles.’ (R-D 1990: 8).

The timing of human intervention within these environmental cycles thus becomes paramount. ‘The Kogi believe that certain moments in time are of a decisive importance in causing and shaping events. This conceptualisation is partly derived from their astronomical knowledge and practice in which, of course, exact time periods or precise moments of observation are all-important. The agricultural cycle, the onset of the rainy season, the coming of the tradewinds and similar events seem to provide ample proof to the Kogi, and their sun- and moon-watching stations are used to predict some of these events… This emphasis on time-reckoning, on calendric elaborations, and on ways to predict the coming seasons are quite normal in agricultural society… A successful adaptation to a recurrent pattern of seasonal changes had to be based on efficient devices to make possible the precise detection of the beginning of the rains some time before they actually arrived.’ (R-D 1990: 7).

‘One of the most interesting aspects of these beliefs is that, quite apart from trying to predict and measure environmental changes such as the succession of seasons, the mámas try to interfere in biological cycles.’ (R-D 1990: 8). One example of this ‘interference’ is in the training of those children chosen to undergo the priestly training. (See ‘The education of the Mámas’ document). Another example is the timing of agricultural activity.

The practical implementation of Kogi thought

’ ... let us suppose that in a certain valley of the Sierra Nevada a particular crop is known to go through a sequence of specific, predictable growth stages which depend upon a number of equally known ecological factors. According to the mámas the planting of this crop (maize, beans etc.) must be correlated with certain moonphases which, in turn, are usually accompanied by rainfall of a certain intensity and duration. The correlation varies according to season, and to the changing position of the moon in the sky.

The crop is known to have its natural enemies, such as rodents, insects, birds or snails. All these animals have their own, different developmental cycles which are thought to depend entirely upon environmental influences. The mámas are greatly concerned about the diurnal and nocturnal rhythms of activities of animals, and believe that they are completely geared to solar and lunar periodicities. The moon, in fact, is taken to be the guiding stimulus, and it is believed that all lunar periodic processes are synchronised with biological periods.

The mámas, however, say that the animals do not at all times feed on certain cultivated plants but only when the animal cycle coincides with the plant cycle at a certain moment in time. For example, certain tender sprouts will be attacked by an animal species only between the first and second week of plant growth but not anymore after having reached the third week.

It follows that the synchronisation of plant growth and animal damage to crops must be interrupted, it must be ungeared. Animals are supposed to be completely synchronised with solar and lunar periodicities, and completely subject to circadian rhythms; they will breed, hatch, and appear in cultivated fields at specific moments determined by their biological cycles. What a máma does, then, consists in setting back the normal cycle of plant growth simply by planting a few days or even a few weeks later than what seems to be the propitious moment as indicated by the moon. Rains will fall, the animals will set their biological rhythms accordingly; but the Kogi will bide their time; they will plant belatedly after having made offerings and danced for several nights in the temple. In this manner, by the time when the different crops begin to develop and to approach their most vulnerable growth stages, their natural enemies have already reached a growth stage at which they are not harmful any more. Not having encountered cultivated plants to feed on, they have gone to feed on wild-growing plants. In other words, the naturally interlocking cycles have been disengaged by cultural manipulation.

The mámas make a point of this: Animal and plant life - they say - depend upon celestial periodicity, but the growth of cultivated plants can be culturally manipulated; it can be timed, and so it can be protected against damage and destruction.

Kogi priests are said to know in detail the mechanisms of these biological interactions, together with their supposed synchronisations with celestial constellations, moonphases, rainfall patterns, prevailing winds, changes in temperature, and so forth. Planting a field thus becomes a matter of great time precision and often the mámas will give detailed practical instructions beforehand, saying that they obtained their knowledge by divination. The fact that the physical environment of the Sierra Nevada is extremely varied, and that the Indians are slope-dwellers who occupy different altitudinal levels and ecological systems, presents, of course, major tactical problems because it is obvious that what is involved here are a number of biological cycles of quite different length.’ (R-D1990: 8-9).