Female Figure Pottery 150 b.C. – A.D. 1600 San Marcos, Sucre 20.10 x 25.10 cm
Female Figure Pottery 150 b.C. - 1600 A.D. 27 x 11,8 x 7 cm

The Zenú Tradition

In pre-Hispanic times, Colombia's Caribbean plains were inhabited continuously from at least 200 B.C. until the Conquest. Numerous communities that were related culturally lived in the valleys of the Sinú, San Jorge, lower Cauca and Nechí rivers, and for centuries the artistic expressions of these peoples were similar, as were their concept of death and the way they managed the environment.

A network of canals and raised fields was built in this region to control floodwater, and this system was altered and expanded all the time. It was at its greatest extent in the San Jorge valley between 200 B.C. and 1000 A.D., but was also implemented in the lower reaches of the Cauca and Sinú rivers.

The themes that were expressed in goldwork or pottery objects show that the various communities living in these areas were politically and religiously related. The designs printed on the textiles, which the cast filigree work that adorned so many thousands of gold objects referred to, the 'basketwork' moulded in clay, the relevance of the clay female figures, and the building of mounds over the graves of the dead were features of all the peoples of the plains. Just like the canal system technology, which remained in use for more than a thousand years, these features lasted a long time and are part of what has been called the long Zenú tradition.

Artisans nevertheless expressed these ideas in their own individual ways in each region, thus making it possible to differentiate between them. Even so, they imprinted a common identity, one to which we have today given the name Zenú.

The population began to decline after 1100 A.D., for reasons that are unknown. Communities retreated to the grasslands where flooding did not occur and to the Sinú valley, which was where the Spaniards found them in the sixteenth century.

The conquistadors came across many different peoples and the remains of a former splendour in the Sinú and San Jorge valleys. They gave all these peoples name 'Zenú', because their territory was entered via the River Zenú, as it was called in those days.

Each valley constituted a separate political unit at that time. The Sinú valley was called Finzenú, with its capital Zenú on the banks of the river of the same name. That was where the principal religious shrine stood, together with the largest and most important cemetery, which was where the remains of leading dignitaries and personalities had been laid to rest for centuries. The San Jorge basin was called Panzenú, with its main political centre at Ayapel, and the variety and productivity of the cultivated areas there, not to mention the regional power that was exerted by its chieftain, surprised the Spaniards.

According to the Zenúes, the chieftain of Zenufana, a mythical figure, formerly governed the lower Cauca and Nechí region, where the main gold deposits were to be found. At the time of the Conquest he was considered to be the most important of the old chieftains, as it was he who organised the whole territory of Greater Zenú and assigned complementary political, economic and religious duties to the chieftains of Finzenú and Panzenú, who were relatives of his, and he had also issued rules and precepts that were still in force in 1537, despite the fact that the lower Cauca region was no longer inhabited by Zenú communities.