Humboldt Forum
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum / Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss, digitale Reproduktion: Jester Blank GbR


This elaborately fashioned example of the outstanding goldsmith’s craft of the Quimbaya from what is now Colombia probably depicts a high priest. The elevated status of the man portrayed is revealed by his rich jewellery.

For centuries gold has epitomized wealth in the Western world. In many indigenous cultures the relationship to gold was far more differentiated. Thus the shining material was also associated with prosperity, which was primarily reserved for a privileged layer of rulers. High priests (caciques) were responsible for both religious and administrative matters, as these aspects of a community’s life were indissolubly linked.

Noble Burial Object

Amongst the Quimbaya, who produced these objects between CE 600 and 1000 in today’s Colombia, gold was probably used in connection with a sun cult. High-ranking individuals also received gold objects and jewellery as burial objects. The figure in the form of a standing man is depicted holding two lime containers in his hands. A peaked hat as well as rich jewellery indicate his elevated rank. This lime container joined the collection in Berlin in 1873 and is a characteristic example of the Quimbaya’s outstanding skill as goldsmiths.

Harder than Pure Gold

Many of the Quimbayan objects are made not from pure gold but from a gold-copper alloy called tumbaga. As a result of the high copper content this alloy is harder than gold and the melting point is lower. The manufacturing technique is typical for the region, employing the hollow casting technique. First a form is made out of wax which is then covered in clay. When the molten metal is poured in, the wax flows out. As a result, each one of these objects is unique.

Lime and Coca Leaves

Lime is needed when chewing roasted coca leaves in order to release the alkaloid from the leaves and generate the stimulating effect. Coca leaves are chewed, amongst other things, to ward off feelings of hunger, cold or tiredness. Furthermore, they are also effective against altitude sickness and therefore widespread in the Andes. In today’s indigenous societies in Colombia lime containers are still used for chewing coca leaves, but they are now made from gourds.

Cacique in the Humboldt Forum

Hermann Heinrich Meyer, a merchant from Bremen, came from an influential family who imported tobacco and other goods into Germany. He presented the gold figure to the then Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde in 1873, the year it was founded. In future it will be exhibited on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum.

To be seen in the museums on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum.

Exhibition on Museum Island (until 29 September 2019)

Until May 2019, the first Humboldt Forum Highlights were on display in the Pergamonmuseum, Altes Museum and Neues Museum on Museum Island. The exhibtion at Pergamonmuseum and Neues Museum has been extended until the end of September 2019.

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Humboldt Forum Highlights

The first 15 of these Humboldt Forum Highlights were being presented between October 2018 and May 2019 in two formats: in an exhibition as well as during conversations that will be held at various locations in Berlin. The exhibition on Museum Island has been extended until the end of September 2019.

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