Sets of claims about the geographic, agriculture, political, economic, and social structures of San Basilio de Palenque

  1. Cattle, or ma ngombe in the Palenquero language, has been historically vital to the physical and cultural survival of San Basilio de Palenque and its inhabitants.[1] Though some invariably already possessed cattle-handling skills from their native Africa, they were introduced to cattle ranching during the Spanish colonial era in Colombia, where they were forced to work as slaves on large Spanish plantations.[2] During the 16th century, a series of insurrections by enslaved Africans saw cows taken as part of the plunder gathered from Spanish plantations to their hidden settlements in the mountains. In fact, evidence suggests that these runaway Africans introduced some indigenous groups to cattle when they sought their help during their flight.[3] As an integral part of daily life in San Basilio de Palenque, cattle roam the town’s streets during the day. A job strictly reserved for males, handling cattle is a social obligation through which boys learn their place in society. Starting at 8 years old, young boys are tasked with taking the cows to the corral in the morning for milking and then to the hills for grazing in the afternoon. To Palenqueros, cattle is sacred. It is not just about handling them, but also about caring for them.[4]


  1. Due to its location in the difficult terrain of the María Mountains and proximity to Cartagena de Indias and the Atlantic coast, San Basilio de Palenque has a dry, tropical climate and abundant vegetation which includes several different types of trees. With its high humidity, cool mornings, evenings, and nights, and hot afternoons, Palenqueros have historically enjoyed day temperatures ranging between 30-35°C (86-95°F) during the day, and 23-26°C (73-79°F) during the evening, nights and early mornings. The circumstances of Palenquero physical and cultural survival have largely been defined by their natural environment and access to its resources. Almost as soon as they were forcefully brought to the region as slaves, Africans sought their freedom by escaping Spanish plantations, mines, workshops, etc., and fleeing to the mountains in search of refuge and freedom.[5]


  1. While on the run, the natural environment provided for the basic needs of the Palenqueros – food and shelter were acquired from gathering wild fruits and hunting small animals. Water was procured from swamps or nearby rivers and streams. Their first encampments were small and very rudimentary, made from locally sourced materials, which they still use, and well camouflaged in the forests, making them difficult to find. They also slept on mats which they made then as they do now. In short, they were easy to make, easy to take down and carry, and, if necessary, easy to burn down as they ran away.[6] As their settlements evolved from precarious encampments to stable, more temporary palenques, and finally, to full-fledged villages, its inhabitants continued to use their natural environment to protect themselves and live out their lives. Some built moats around them, covering them with soil, which contained beneath it sharp and poisonous spikes made from local trees. Others used the swamps surrounding them to their advantage, laying obstacles, barricades, and spikes made from local trees to keep outsiders from trespassing.[7] Living so high up in the mountains also gave them an important vantage point from which to see incoming threats.


  1. Unfortunately, their isolation from mainstream society has left them largely out of urban development projects, forcing them to rely on trails they devised over the centuries and to traditional methods of transportation and travel: on foot, or by horse, donkey, or mule.[8] There was more regular contact with mainstream Colombian society since the 1920s, a trend that increased throughout the 20th century. By the 1970s, there was a road and a bus route that provided Palenqueros access to and from Cartagena de Indias, effectively giving them increased access to mainstream Colombian society.


  1. Trails were also used to travel to and from an agricultural field to harvest a crop (yuca root or casava) for consumption. The machete was used to harvest it.Extensively used as a staple food by pre-Columbian Indigenous peoples throughout the region, yuca is a plant native to South America and has been extensively cultivated as an annual crop in tropical and subtropical regions as a carbohydrate-rich, drought resistant plant that can grow on marginal soils, making it an obvious choice for a people constantly on the run. Evidence suggests that yuca was planted and consumed by Palenqueros in early settlements and often burned along with their homes by invading Spanish soldiers as they fled.[9] Yuca continued to be grown during the colonial period and well into the 20th century as a seasonal crop, harvested by men, and sold by women in the city.[10] The machete has also historically served Palenqueros well. It was used as a self-defense weapon and tool by early Palenqueros, who used it to demand their freedom and to harvest food and treat the soil.[11]


  1. San Basilio de Palenque’s physical organization is historically based on the needs on the needs of its inhabitants, whose main objectives were physical survival and freedom; its architectural and urban design mirrored the needs of the warrior society. Thus, they were composed of compact groupings where the most important (major) household was in the middle and all other “minor” households around it, a tactic which contributed to their social organization. They lived close to each other in a framework of interdependence and cooperation, which also reflected cultural practices from Africa, that facilitated the fulfillment of all tasks.[12] The lack of urban development is also indicative of San Basilio de Palenque’s relative isolation from mainstream Colombian society throughout its history. The lack of modern infrastructure is obvious. Instead of paved streets, Palenqueros rely on, “the town’s dusty streets.”[13] The homes also reflect the use of locally sourced materials for their construction, such as palm, mud, and cane. However, there is one utility pole in the middle of the image, in the background. During the 1970s, San Basilio de Palenque experienced a period of accelerated modernization, which brought some urban infrastructure to the town. Electricity arrived in 1974, and so did running water. However, prior to this, Palenqueros lacked such basic systems as an aqueduct and a sewer system.[14]

[1] Collier Jr., John, and Malcolm Collier. Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986), 56.

[2] Ibid., 56-57.

[3] Ibid., 34, 49, 57.

[4] Ibid., 62-66.

[5] Ibid., 35, 42.

[6] Ibid., 42.

[7] Ibid., 44-45.

[8] Ibid., 20.

[9] Ibid., 49.

[10] Ibid., 19, 59-64, and 82.

[11] Ibid., 54 and 61.

[12] Ibid., 43.

[13] Ibid., 56.

[14] Ibid., 20