Quimbaya Civilization, Petroglyphs and “Flying Jets

San Agustín Archaeological Park, Colombia
San Agustín Archaeological Park, Colombia


In the lush valleys and rolling hills of modern-day Colombia, a remarkable ancient civilization existed between the 1st and 10th century CE: the Quimbaya civilization. They thrived until around the 7th century CE, leaving behind a legacy that continues to captivate archaeologists, historians, and art enthusiasts to this day.

Known for their exceptional craftsmanship, intricate gold work, and sophisticated culture, the Quimbaya people have become a source of fascination and intrigue, offering valuable insights into the pre-Columbian societies of South America.

Left behind are the tolimas or tumbagas, ancient Quimbaya artifacts made of gold and bronze and dated between 300-1000 AD.

There have been many artifacts recovered from this period such as vessels, animals and human figurines, jewellery and ornaments, but among them, some of the most fascinating artifacts that had been recovered are the famous “Quimbaya flying jets”. Ancient artifacts that very much resemble modern aeroplane designs and include many features that basically demonstrate that the Pre-Columbian Quimbaya Culture knew and understood principles of flight some 2,000 years ago, similar to the Saqqara Bird. Or so many believe.

Quimbaya Airplane
Quimbaya Airplane

The Quimbaya Civilization

The Quimbaya civilization inhabited the central and western regions of the Cauca River Valley in what is now Colombia, with their heartland located in the Quindío, Risaralda, and Caldas departments. Surrounded by the mighty rivers and dense forests of the Andean foothills, the Quimbaya thrived in a diverse ecosystem, benefiting from fertile soils and an abundance of natural resources.

Map of pre-Colombian cultures
Map of pre-Colombian cultures

While there is no clear evidence that pinpoints exactly when and how the Quimbaya came into existence, their emergence as a distinct civilization can be traced back to the early years of the 1st century of the Common Era, when they developed sophisticated agricultural, fishing and hunting practices, mastered ceramic production, and established a hierarchical social structure. Their society was characterized by both centralized political authority and regional autonomy, with various chiefdoms governing different territories.

The Quimbaya were also known for their mining abilities and the civilization is best known for their exquisite gold work, which showcases their exceptional craftsmanship and artistic finesse. The objects produced by the Quimbaya were made with an alloy of gold and copper, which the Spaniards called Tumbaga.  The majority of the tumbaga pieces, made with an alloy of gold and 30% copper, are very similar to those accounts mentioned by Plato in his dialogues about the lost city of Atlantis.

Quimbaya birth sculpture –
Alleged Quimbaya birth sculpture – Visualizing Birth

This alloy has a lower melting point than either copper or gold alone, but is harder than copper when cooled and more malleable during the working process. Tumbaga possessed remarkable versatility, enabling it to undergo various processes such as casting, hammering, plating, hardening, polishing, engraving, embossing, and inlaying with remarkable ease. It exhibited a wide range of compositions, with certain gold items containing minimal copper, while others contained over 90% copper. Additionally, numerous pieces incorporated additional metals like silver.

These objects were not merely ornamental but also held symbolic, religious, and ritualistic significance. These objects ranged from intricate figurines, such as animals and humans, to jewellery, masks, and ceremonial objects.

The mastery of goldsmithing allowed the Quimbaya to create intricate details, such as delicate feathers, expressive facial features, and dynamic poses. The pieces often exhibited a high level of realism and displayed a profound connection to nature, reflecting the Quimbaya’s deep reverence for their environment.


Religion played a crucial role in Quimbaya society, and their spiritual beliefs were closely intertwined with their daily lives. The Quimbaya worshipped a pantheon of deities associated with natural elements such as the sun, moon, stars, animals, and agricultural fertility. Ceremonies and rituals were performed to honour these deities, seeking their protection and favour.

Anthropomorphic pendant;
Anthropomorphic pendant; 5th–10th century; gold; height: 4.4 cm, width: 3.5 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, New York)

Furthermore, the Quimbaya’s close relationship with the natural world is evident in their artwork. Through their gold figurines and jewellery, they captured the beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom, paying homage to the creatures that inhabited their surroundings. This connection to nature not only highlights their deep understanding of the environment but also reflects their reverence for the balance and harmony of the natural world.

The Quimbaya also had a strong connection with their ancestors, and the dead were venerated. Elaborate burial practices, including the provision of grave goods, indicate a belief in an afterlife and the continuation of the soul’s journey beyond death.

The rituals and ceremonies they performed to honour their deities and ancestors played a crucial role in maintaining social cohesion and seeking divine guidance.  The intricate gold objects they created were not only expressions of their artistic prowess but also tangible representations of their faith and devotion.

Funerary urn
Funerary urn – in Museum of the Americas (Madrid, Spain)

The Quimbaya civilization began to decline around the 7th century CE, likely due to a combination of factors, including internal conflicts, environmental changes, interactions with neighbouring cultures and the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors who began to colonize Colombia in 1509. However, their rich cultural legacy lived on.

The modern rediscovery of the Quimbaya civilization began in the late 19th century when the first archaeological excavations unearthed their exquisite gold artifacts. These discoveries sparked a renewed interest in Quimbaya culture, inspiring further research, preservation efforts, and museum exhibitions.

The Quimbaya Petroglyphs

The Quimbaya petroglyphs are rock engravings created by the skilled hands of Quimbaya artisans between the 1st and 7th centuries CE. These enigmatic symbols, etched onto various rock surfaces, hold significant cultural, religious, and artistic value. They are found in different regions of present-day Colombia, including the Quindío, Risaralda, and Caldas departments, where the Quimbaya civilization thrived.

Quimbaya Petroglyphs - Colombian rock art motifs: some ideas for interpretation
Quimbaya Petroglyphs – Colombian rock art motifs: some ideas for interpretation

The petroglyphs depict a wide range of subjects, including humans, animals, plants, celestial bodies, geometric patterns, and abstract symbols. They vary in size, complexity, and style, reflecting the diversity and artistic expression of the Quimbaya civilization.

The designs often exhibit a high level of precision and attention to detail, despite being carved into hard rock surfaces. Humans are depicted in different poses, engaged in activities such as hunting, farming, and dancing, providing insights into the daily lives and activities of the Quimbaya people.

Animals, including jaguars, birds, snakes, and frogs, also feature prominently in the petroglyphs. These creatures hold deep significance in Quimbaya cosmology and spirituality, representing both earthly and spiritual realms. In places like the Park of the “Marked Stones” (San Agustín Archaeological Park, Colombia) and Natural Park of Las Piedras Marcadas (Alburquerque, New Mexico), the depiction of celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars, suggests an awareness of the celestial cycles and their importance in their belief system. Some theorize that they were made in honour of extraterrestrial encounters.

Archaeological park of San Augustin
Archaeological Park of San Augustin – Author: Martin Gray
Copyright: © Sacred sites UNESCO

The symbolic meanings behind many of the petroglyphs remain a subject of ongoing research and interpretation. The complexity and variety of the symbols indicate a sophisticated system of communication, possibly used for religious ceremonies, marking sacred sites, or conveying cultural knowledge within the Quimbaya society.

The Quimbaya petroglyphs have survived the test of time, enduring centuries of weathering and the encroachment of modern development. Efforts are being made to document and preserve these ancient artworks to ensure their longevity and accessibility for future generations.

Quimbaya Artifacts

One of the most iconic representations of Quimbaya art is the gold figurines. These miniature sculptures, between 5 to 7cm in animal depictions and 5-50cm for human figurines and mythical creatures, were created with astonishing precision and artistry. The Quimbaya artisans meticulously crafted each piece, capturing the intricate features of animals such as jaguars, birds, lizards, insects, butterflies, fishes and frogs. The figurines exhibit a remarkable level of naturalism, with lifelike poses, intricate feather patterns, and expressive facial features.

Poporo Quimbaya
Poporo Quimbaya – The poporos are containers that the indigenous people used to store the lime they used when they chewed coca leaves. In 1939, the Bank of the Republic of Colombia acquired this artifact that ended up becoming a symbol of the country and even appearing on national coins.

The figurines, for example, were not solely decorative but served as representations of mythical beings or sacred animals. They played a central role in religious ceremonies, serving as conduits to communicate with the spiritual realm and seeking blessings or protection. The Quimbaya believed that these figurines possessed supernatural powers and played a vital role in bridging the gap between humans and deities.

In addition to figurines, the Quimbaya created stunning jewellery, including necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, often adorned with intricate patterns and delicate filigree work. The intricate details and symmetrical designs of their jewellery showcase their advanced metalworking techniques and their aesthetic sensibilities.

Lime Container (Poporo)
Lime Container (Poporo) – Standard coca-chewing paraphernalia – Metropolitan Museum, New York

The intricate designs and patterns found on the artifacts also held symbolic meanings. Geometric motifs, such as spirals, circles, and zigzags, were prevalent and likely represented cosmic and natural forces. These designs reflected Quimbaya’s worldview and their understanding of the interconnectedness between humans, nature, and the spiritual realm.

Classifying these items accurately is challenging because they didn’t undergo the usual archaeological discovery methods. Instead, they were taken by looters during the late 1800s from the Central Cauca Valley. Archaeologists have theorized that the items came from two tombs, but cannot say so with 100% certainty.   The current collection of 123 items only exists because someone turned them over to the Colombian authorities. 

The Quimbaya Flying Jets

Out-of-place artifacts, often abbreviated as OOPArts, are objects or artifacts discovered in archaeological or historical contexts that appear to be incongruous or inconsistent with the established timeline or cultural context in which they are found. These artifacts challenge conventional theories and raise questions about human history, technological advancements, and the evolution of civilization.

Tolima Pendant - Museo del Oro del Banco de la República
Tolima Pendant – Museo del Oro del Banco de la República, Bogota

One such type of artifacts are the Quimbaya “flying jets”, also known as the Tolima Jets, recovered among the Quimbaya artifacts. Archaeologists and researchers alike have classified them as butterflies or insects common in the area.

The symbolic significance of the Quimbaya flying jets is still subject to speculation. Some theories propose that they were representations of mythical creatures or deities associated with the celestial realm. Others suggest that they were ceremonial objects used in rituals and rites related to the Quimbaya’s spiritual beliefs or agricultural practices.

Tolima Jets -
Tolima Jets – Museo del Oro del Banco de la República, Bogota – Visit their Facebook Page for More details

However, there are many who believe that the Quimbaya flying jets don’t resemble animals at all, but rather modern-day flying machines and airplanes, complete with rudders and propellers. This theory is highly controversial and disputed among scholars, with many claiming that the likeness to modern airplanes is nothing more than a pareidolia phenomenon. Modern researchers hold mixed beliefs regarding the Quimbaya culture before Columbia, as well as their supposed knowledge of flight, which is based on the gold artifacts.

However, the tolima jets, so-named after the region in which they were found, are small, stylized gold objects shaped like birds or insects with elongated, streamlined bodies and intricately designed wings. These aerodynamic marvels were created through a combination of casting and hammering techniques, showcasing the Quimbaya’s mastery of metalwork.

Each artifact exhibits a high level of artistry, with meticulously crafted wings, delicately incised patterns, and precise shaping to achieve a streamlined form. It is clear that the Quimbaya artisans carefully considered the aerodynamic principles of flight, resulting in designs that imitate the grace and agility of birds in motion.

Could The Tolima Jets Fly?

Proponents of the Ancient Alien Theory, UFO enthusiasts and pseudo-archaeologists believe that the Tolima Jets are not zoomorphic interpretations of the real world, but rather a form of advanced technology that the Quimbaya civilization possessed 2,000 years ago.

Scale Model of Tolima Jets
Scale Model of Tolima Jets – Source: The Quimbaya RC project

It is possible that aerodynamics were understood by the Quimbaya; however, this does not mean they created planes or flying machines

“In the 1990s, three men, including two aeronautical engineers, Peter Belting, Conrad Lubbers and Algund Eenboom, used the dimensions of the Quimbaya artifacts to create large-scale models of these artifacts, which proved successful in flight testing.  They proved that the designs fly with both simple single-propeller power and jet power.” Source: The Quimbaya RC project

The Quimbaya Flying Jets – History Channel

“Scale replicas of the golden flyer were built five times larger and tested precisely. Results from testing in 1994 proved these ancient mysterious airplane shaped devices were capable of flight, and actually flew very well without any sort of modifications using modern techniques.” Source: The Quimbaya RC project

The resemblance between these ancient artifacts and the designs of modern aeroplanes is striking, implying that the Quimbaya possessed knowledge and understanding of flight principles. Moreover, there is a belief held by many that the Nazca lines were in fact ancient runways, and might have been utilized for the purpose of aircraft operations. This discovery adds further intrigue to the Quimbaya civilization’s potential advancements in aviation technology.


While the decline of the Quimbaya civilization remains shrouded in mystery, their cultural legacy continues to inspire and captivate people today. Archaeologists and historians strive to unravel the complexities of their society, shedding light on the political, economic, and social dynamics that shaped their civilization.

Museum of Gold - Bogota
Gold Museum – Bogota

Today, the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá and the Quimbaya Gold Museum in Armenia serve as important repositories for Quimbaya artifacts, offering visitors an opportunity to witness the brilliance and artistic achievements of this ancient civilization first-hand

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