A Sacred Mountain
by Jerry D. Moore
The world is spotty and hard to decipher.
— Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless
I learned that Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff had been a Nazi when I was in a Santa Marta supermarket. I had just stepped into the Exito Hypermarket (the Colombian equivalent of a Wal-Mart) when someone shout “Jerry! Jerry!” and I turned to see the archaeologist, Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo. Augusto was born in Colombia and has conducted extensive research there, including excavations at Ciudad Perdida. Now a professor at the University of Florida, Augusto was visiting Santa Marta for a few days, meeting with local scientists before leaving for the Amazon.
We went to the small coffee shop in the hypermarket and chatted over espressos. I told him about my trek to Ciudad Perdida. He mentioned that in a few weeks he would be in Vienna for an international conference of academics who work in the Americas, where Augusto would participate in a symposium honoring Reichel-Dolmatoff. I asked Augusto if he was going to present the results of his research in the Amazon, an area where Reichel-Dolmatoff had also worked.
“No.” Augusto looked down at his coffee. “No, Jerry—and this is confidential for right now—I am giving a talk on Reichel-Dolmatoff, and I am documenting that he was a Nazi.”
“Is that a surprise?” I asked. “Many people got caught up in the war.”
“No, Jerry, it wasn’t like that at all.” Augusto’s face darkened in sorrow. “He was an early member of the SS, and he killed a dozen people.”
This was a shocking revelation and a burdensome discovery for Augusto. Among anthropologists in Colombia and elsewhere, Reichel-Dolmatoff’s status was nearly divine, as he had literally established the intellectual contours of ethnography and archaeology in Colombia. A man of refinement and liberal outlook, Reichel-Dolmatoff’s ethnographic research led to a nuanced and pluralistic vision of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, treating the different world views as sophisticated philosophies deserving of respect and reflection. Ironically, Reichel-Dolmatoff’s ethnographic embrace of intellectual diversity contradicted racist notions of ethnic superiority widely held in Colombia when he arrived in 1939.
Augusto had actually been to Reichel-Dolmatoff’s home for tea, and after Reichel-Dolmatoff died in May 1994, Augusto wrote Reichel-Dolmatoff’s obituary for the journal of the Society of American Archaeology, noting that his former professor “always thought of research holistically” and repeatedly “expressed the view that if humanity wanted to survive and stop its destruction of nature, we had to start learning the lessons of the past and incorporating them into our understanding….”
You can watch Augusto’s presentation in Vienna on YouTube. Augusto presents the evidence. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff’s given name was Erasmus Reichel. He had joined the Hitler Youth at age fourteen and was a member of the Nazi Party by nineteen. In 1933, at the age of 21, Reichel was a member of the Leibstandarte SS, a force with different roles within the Nazi party. Although members of the Leibstandarte SS were Hitler’s bodyguards, it seems as if Reichel was in a unit sent from Munich to Berlin to guard buildings and facilities important to the Third Reich. As the German historians Holger Stoecker and Sören Flachowsky, who worked with Augusto on this research, clarified in an August 25, 2012 interview with the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, it is unknown if Reichel actually knew Hitler, although he clearly was an acolyte.
Reichel was also apparently a murderer.
If you watch the twenty-five minute long video of his seminar, you see Augusto become increasingly upset as he documents Reichel-Dolmatoff’s Nazi past. He hits the wrong buttons on his computer, derailing his Power Point presentation. He fumbles with his brief case and finds a typed translation of Reichel’s account. Reichel killed rival Nazis in 1934 purge known as the Night of the Long Knives, killings he documented in a lengthy although obscurely published article, “Confessions of a Gestapo Assassin.”
Augusto’s voice trembles and catches, and then he reads Reichel’s account:
…I rang the bell. An old man came out, scowling and saw me and said ‘Oh, that’ and gestured, and I shot him twice. The man fell and tried to sit up on the staircase but I jumped up and shot him again in the front, from very close distance; my assistant ran down the staircase and I followed when I heard a woman scream and two children ran out the door screaming ‘Assasin! Assasin!’
Oyuela-Caycedo loses his voice, he stifles a cry, and says, “it pains me to read this.” He slightly regains his composure, “I am sorry but this pains me because I knew Gerardo Reichel, and this is difficult.”
From 1934 – 1935, Reichel was stationed at Dachau, the prototypical concentration camp, that housed German political prisoners in those early years. According to Stoecker and Flachowsky, Reichel’s role was to train Austrian recruits as guards.
Then something happened. Sometime in 1935, Reichel requested permission to wed — Himmler had to approve the marriage of SS members — although no wedding occurred. There are allusions to a mental breakdown. On January 17, 1936 Reichel was expelled from the SS, being classified as “inept,” no longer trusted. He requested German citizenship, but was denied. He began studying art in Munich, but his problems with the SS and the Gestapo continued. Stoecker and Flachowsky note that in 1936-37 many of Reichel’s former colleagues died under “strange circumstances.” Reichel fled Germany.
At this point, the trail becomes murky. Reichel may have gone to Budapest, but seems to have been in Paris in 1937. Some sources allege that in Paris, Reichel-Dolmatoff studied under the great French social scientist, Marcel Mauss, but this entire phase of his life is obscure. Germany annexed Austria in 1938, and in 1939 Czechoslovakia was handed to Hitler and the Nazis invaded Poland.
In 1939, Reichel-Dolmatoff arrived in Colombia, bearing letters of introduction from the French anti-fascist Paul Rivet, an ethnographer who had worked in the Ecuadorian Amazon and was the founding curator of Musée de l’Homme. Rivet himself would seek exile in Colombia in 1942.
The revelations of Reichel-Dolmatoff’s Nazi past set off shock waves in Colombia and beyond. As Augusto noted in his talk in Vienna, “The problem is that, basically, when we are speaking of Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, we see him as a type of monument, a pillar, a founder of Colombian anthropology, and this is the image that we have always had.”
Based on these documents, Reichel-Dolmatoff’s case was not one of a youth being “caught up” in the war. Erasmus Reichel had embraced Hitler’s murderous ideology.
There was another problem. Despite his expulsion from the SS and the vague allusions to his “mental crisis,” there is no act of renunciation. Flachowsky states that Reichel-Dolmatoff “did not leave [Europe] as a dissident; he sunk out of view to hide and to save his life. Being a dissident implies breaking with an ideology and passing to resistance. He did neither in Germany. Neither in the archival documents or in his diary is there a single phrase or word criticizing or rejecting the National Socialist ideology.”
Yet the evidence of transformation is there in the hundreds of pages of articles and books that Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote. The Colombian anthropologist Gerardo Ardila, in an October 2012 interview on Bogota’s public television program, Hagamos Memorias, responded to Stoecker and Flachowsky’s charge, demanding of them in absentia “there is no evidence that he [Reichel-Dolmatoff] had changed his way of thinking?? — have they read his works? Have they read his works??”
Reichel-Dolmatoff’s writings about the Kogi and other indigenous societies are the evidence of transformation. There is nothing in the later life of Gerardo Reichel-Domatoff that connects him to the earlier actions of Erasmus Reichel, except for the fact that they seem to be the same person.
It is as if two separate lives were joined by little more than fragments of a name and obscurity.
At night the rivers have fevers.
—Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless.
It was still dark when Yorman called my name. I fumbled through the mosquito netting, put on yesterday’s still damp clothes, and shoved my feet into my boots. I made my way to the kitchen hearth, and Yorman gave me a cup of coffee. All the other beds were still. After a quick breakfast, we hiked out of Campo Tezhumake at 6 am.
We left early and we traveled light. Yorman carried a single pack with our food and bedding. I carried a day-sack with water bottle, a first aid kit, and my camera and notebook in a dry bag.
The sky lightened to slate and the forest erupted with bird song. Parakeets flew in chaotic squawking. Cacique birds blasted “ee-choo-kee-ong.” As first sunlight beamed through the forest and the temperature rose, the electric buzz of insects blanketed the forest. We crossed a recently-built suspension bridge and at this point entered the Kogi territory.
The trail edged through dense forest to a ridge-crest between the Buritaca and the Nulicuandecue rivers. White fungus looking like splats of shaving cream sprouted from downed logs in the forest shade. As we gained the crest, the trail cut through the rock walls of ancient terraces. A few potsherds fell from the walls, undecorated fragments of clay cooking pots and griddles. Stone tumbled from the ruins.
The ridge trail was clear and the sun was bright. We passed large agave plants with sword-like leaves. The Kogi plant agaves near their settlements, providing raw fibers for bags and nets. We soon came upon an abandoned Kogi homestead, a single house with a trapiche, a traditional sugar cane press. A thick screw press carved from dense hardwood and joined with pegs and sockets, the trapiche would be turned by a mule or ox, squeezing the cane until sweet juice ran into a wooden bucket. The trail continued to climb. At about 8:30 am we gained the summit and a gate that marked our entry into territory controlled by a Kogi máma, Raymuldo. An entrepreneur, Raymuldo had established a small stand that sold cold drinks and snacks to trekkers, and an Afro-Colombian man worked the stand for him.
I was hiking very slowly, and the other folks from my group led by Juan Carlos overtook us. Yorman was sent on with the others and I continued with Juan Carlos. The trail passed through an open pasture with traces of terraces, another Tairona site. We hiked through banana stands and moved into the forest. The path descended towards the Buritaca.
We forded the river that ran clean and fast over cobbles. The route climbed again and followed the riverbank, a slick and narrow trail across moss-covered bedrock, and then we waded across the Buritaca again. Each time we crossed, we stopped and removed our boots and socks to keep them dry, and then forded the river. As Juan Carlos and I sat on the far side of the river and put our boots back on again, two Kogi boys came running down the trail and then literally ran across the river in their black rubber boots, jumping from boulder to boulder without pause or hesitation, seeming to fly across the riffles where water contoured stone.
My left knee throbbed, and when we reached Campo Romulo around 12:30, I was done. I collapsed into a hammock and instantly fell asleep. I slept for fifteen minutes when Yorman called me to a lunch of spaghetti and cheese. I ate and then I fell asleep again for a few minutes before Yorman shook me.
“We have to go, Jerry. This next part is urgent. It is only 20 minutes to the crossing, but we have cross before the river rises.”
I stumbled out of the hammock, grabbed my trekking poles and camera bag and followed Yorman to the trail. As soon as we left Campo Romulo, it began to rain.
The path hugged the west bank of the Rio Buritaca. In one section, the hillside had collapsed and demolished the trail and a rough gangway of logs bridged the slide with a rickety railing of saplings incongruously ribboned with bright yellow crime scene tape labeled, “¡Peligro!”
Dark, heavy clouds settled into the headwaters of the drainage. Thunder exploded from the crest. The forest streamed.
We got to the ford of the Buritaca. The water was ran knee-deep and fast. Since we were already soaked, Yorman and I decided to splash across without removing our boots. That small decision saved our lives.
We moved across the river carefully but quickly, it was about thirty meters wide at this point. We gained the opposite bank and found the first stone steps leading to Ciudad Perdida and climbed up about ten steps when we heard an enormous roar and looked behind us.
A flash flood pulsed down the Buritaca, an angry wall of brown and white water and maddened snag wood and debris. If we had stopped and taken off our boots, we would have been caught in the middle of the river and swept away.
Juan Carlos ran up from Campo Romulo and shouted from the opposite side of the bank. Yorman whistled and waved that we were still alive. With that, we turned and began to climb the 1200 stone steps to the Lost City.
The steps ran with rain water and were green-black with leaves and moss. We climbed to the first cleared terraces in the late afternoon, just as it stopped raining. The terraces were faced with fieldstone retaining walls up to four meters tall. Circular stone foundations marked ancient houses and temples. The Tairona had leveled a long ridge-top, creating a series of plazas along a principal axis. A bank of circular foundations overlooked a long U-shaped plaza. A chain of large circular plazas crested the ridge.
The view was spectacular: the mountains were green folds to the south and grey warm clouds sat above the Caribbean to the north. But, for me, it was even more important to try to see the invisible, to see the traces of ancient lives. Ciudad Perdida was a thriving community six centuries ago, just one of dozens of Tairona communities sprinkled across the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, villages and towns linked by cobblestone paths. A large stone slab at the site has been etched with a complex pattern of lines and starbursts, apparently a petroglyph that is an ancient map of the region, showing Ciudad Perdida and other communities and the rivers that flow northward from the mountains into the sea. The dense forest covers the physical traces of ancient lives, and I felt deeply privileged to stand there and subtly changed by this journey.
Reichel-Dolmatoff once wrote, “The entire Sierra Nevada is a sacred mountain, composed of innumerable smaller sacred mountains that, in another image, constitute a pantheon or a Kogi family. A Kogi, when looking at the far-flung panorama of the Sierra Nevada, will see in it a range of snow-capped mountains, a village with a temple in its center, an assembly of divine Mothers, a group of people, a spindle, a world axis, all fading into each other, all of them sending their mute messages far over the land.”
I realize that I did not see what the Kogi saw. I did not discern what Reichel-Dolmatoff had discovered. But I tried to see what I could see as I walked to the Lost City, knowing that — as in all things — much remained hidden.
Cover image and top photograph of the Kogi by Camila Rivera
About the Author:
Jerry D. Moore is an archaeologist, writer and professor of anthropology at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson, California. He has conducted archaeological research in Peru, Baja California, the western United States, and southern Mexico where his investigations explored the cultural landscapes and constructed environments of ancient peoples.