Theory: Plato was in pre-Columbian America!
Suggestion: We should start looking in Santa Marta, Colombia, for his footprints!
The above claims may sound ludicrous. Nevertheless, I am quite certain I have found the influence of Plato’s thought in an indigenous Colombian civilization.
Let us be clear from the outset: I am not the first to suggest such a shocking claim. Previous theories of encounters between the native peoples of the Americas and those across the Atlantic and the Pacific have been numerous. Below are seven of the most common theories:
(1) There is a large boulder some 20 miles west of Popayan, Colombia, in a wilderness named La Yunga, carved with symbols. Von Kinder von Kinder, a former professor, deciphered the markings some 80 years ago as Phoenician, dating from 180 to 202 BCE.
(2) Not much is known about the people who built the mysterious statues of San Agustin—the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in South America. Some experts claim the area was settled 5,300 years ago. Because of the musical instruments some of the statues seem to be playing—instruments only found in other parts of the world before the San Agustin civilization disappeared during the 15th century—other experts suggest these people were either influenced by or were Asian, Hindu, or Egyptian.
(3) Some, like Gavin Menzies, in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, claim Chinese DNA has been found among native peoples of Colombia, and that similar DNA can be found up and down the Pacific coast of the Americas.
(4) Erik Von Daniken, the controversial Swiss author, is known for his outrageous claims that extraterrestrials influenced ancient civilizations and cultures, like the San Agustin civilization.
(5) Others claim there is a presence in Oceania of several cultivated plant species native to South America, and that domesticated chickens were introduced to the continent via Polynesia, South Pacific. All of this, it is said, occurred before Columbus.
(6) Most widely-known is the Bering Strait Theory: ancient peoples from Asia traversed the Bering Strait between what are now Russia and Alaska. These people then migrated south, and Colombia saw the continent’s first inhabitants arrive between 12,500 and 70,000 years ago.
(7) Others have suggested that white men had been to Latin America before Columbus. Many of the major pre-Columbian civilizations believed there would be a return of white-skinned gods, and because of this legend many Amerindians were caught off-guard when the European white men landed and conquered. These legends, in a land where white skin was nonexistent, imply previous contact with Europeans.
To these theories I add my own by proposing there is evidence the Kogi indigenous people of Colombia (direct descendants of the great Tayrona civilization) were influenced by the ideas of Plato’s work, The Republic, in their culture and the way they organized their economy and politics, even before Spanish conquest. The similarities between Plato’s ideal society and the Kogi’s real one are surely too close to have occurred by mere coincidence, especially since no society in history has ever come close to resembling Plato’s republic. The similarities are uncanny.
This is not an academic paper, so I won’t go into extreme detail. Those who want to explore the similarities for themselves should start by reading Plato’s Republic, then Alan Ereira’s Elder Brothers on the Kogi (or check out Ereira’s film documentary, From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning).
You can take my word for it or do your own analysis, but I am left stunned by the similarities between Plato’s ideal society and the Kogi way of life, as if Plato’s metaphors and allegories were taken literally and put into practice. If you have ever learned a second language, you may be able to relate to the experience of taking expressions at face value when, in reality, they have metaphorical meaning. The fact Kogi way of life literally exemplifies Plato’s ideas suggests the Kogi could have learned such ethics from foreigners whose main language was not a variation of Chibcha native tongue. I suggest one of two things: the ideals of Plato’s republic may have influenced the Kogi in deep ways, or the Kogi came up with these remarkable philosophical and ethical practices on their own. I hope the latter is true.
For me, this is the real El Dorado! The two lost cities are both in Colombia. The lost city of the Muisca civilization is the source of the legend of El Dorado, while the lost city of the Tayrona civilization (the most important archaeological discovery in Latin America of the 20th century) is where the Kogi people reside.
El Dorado for the Spaniards was simply a place to pillage for its material wealth—the open vein of the Americas, as Eduardo Galeano once wrote. In contrast, the Kogi people are the real El Dorado, because they are a living and thriving example of a semi-utopian society. A utopian society, by definition, does not and cannot exist. This suggests true harmony and peace among people, through politics, as Plato suggested, is not utopian, but possible. What is even more remarkable is their way of life has mostly remained untainted and peaceful after centuries of being surrounded by the most violent of the region’s conflicts: Colombia.
Though it is important to see the connection between Plato and the Kogi, the real purpose of my discussion is not merely pedantic, and I am aware my initial claims are speculative. What I hope to achieve with this discussion is that by linking Plato’s articulation of an ideal society to the Kogi of the Colombian Sierra Nevada Mountains of Santa Marta, we can start to recognize that the lives we may want to lead are more possible than we thought.
A further purpose that grows from the previous one is that maybe, instead of looking at an ancient Greek philosopher who lived over 2,400 years ago, we can begin to look inwardly more intensely, at ourselves, presently and historically, for an example of how we can organize our societies to fulfill human needs and concerns more effectively.
It makes sense to go to the most peaceful people in the world to learn how to be peaceful, while simultaneously studying the most violent to see what the reasons and causes may be and causes for such violence.
If Plato were alive today, he may have claimed the Kogi was the closest society in history to the true republic. If this is the case, and we currently look to Plato’s republic to educate ourselves about politics, then why not look at the Kogi and try to learn from these living ancient people with even more vigor than we study Plato, since Plato just philosophized while the Kogi actualize?
In fact, if we can remove the unwarranted and ingrained prejudice that only the West is civilized, we may be able to start looking within at the history, cultures, economies, and politics of those once (and often still) viewed as savages, barbarians, and uncivilized peoples not only for knowledge (e.g., how the Egyptians built the pyramids) but wisdom: the ability to optimally apply knowledge to produce desired ends.
A society that neglects its elders sacrifices its future.
Colombia’s future will continue to be sacrificed unless we start to include other voices, such as the Kogi’s, such as the indigenous Minga. The perspectives of these elder brothers and sisters do not have much weight in Colombian democracy, since they account for less than 1% of the country’s population. We need to take aggressive action to listen and learn. They have been here longer than we have. They have something to offer.
Though many elders of the world are no longer with us, many still walk among us. We should become more curious about the centuries and millennia of wisdom passed down from all parts of the world, not just the ancient Greeks or the immature U.S., for example. The more we do this, the more we will be able to generate our desired actions and results, and, thus, increase the probability of a more positive future for us all.
I will say it again, a society that neglects its elders sacrifices its future.
It is time to listen before we drive them, and the rest of Colombia, into extinction. It’s time to listen before even our own footprints become archaeological artifacts for post-Colombian civilizations.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.