British Museum blog

Exploring the lost kingdoms of South America

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970sLeonora Duncan and Jago Cooper, British Museum

South America has witnessed the emergence of some of the most intriguing and diverse ancient cultures in the world.

Four of these dynamic and fascinating cultures are being explored in a BBC Four series, Lost Kingdoms of South America, which starts broadcasting on Monday 14 January at 21.00. The series explores the different pathways to social complexity taken in four cultural regions of South America long before Europeans arrived over the horizon.

Here at the British Museum, the South American collection includes over 50,000 objects collected over the past 350 years. These treasures reveal some fascinating stories about the diverse cultures that existed for over 12,000 years before the arrival of Columbus and many of which continue to thrive today.

Tunjo, Muisca, AD 600-1600

Tunjo, Muisca, AD 600-1600

We wanted to draw attention to some of the amazing objects in the collection that can help tell the stories of the four cultures featured in the BBC Four series. New thematic content on the Museum website takes a look at how the Chachapoya, Tiwanaku, Muisca/Tairona, and Chimu lived in completely different environments, from the Amazon to the Andes, from desert to the Caribbean coast and yet all had in common the highest of cultural achievements.

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970s

Tortora reed boat, Lake Titicaca, 1970s

However, what is particularly interesting is that they all took different routes to developing social complexity building on trade, agriculture, craftsmanship and warfare respectively. Each of the objects we’ve chosen contributes its own individual story to this narrative revealing in all their wonderment the truth behind the rise of the Lost Kingdoms of South America.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Explore the featured kingdoms and related objects in the British Museum collection, or for more information contact Leonora Duncan or Jago Cooper in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas

Lost Kingdoms of South America is on BBC Four at 21.00 on Mondays from 14 January

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, What's on, , ,

8 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Earlier this week in the article “El Dorado: The truth behind the myth” by By Dr Jago Cooper
    published by BBC Magazine ( ) with collaboration of Leonora Duncan, there’s a short time line with information related to South America in which you wrote “1772 Scientist Alexander von Humboldt and botanist Aimé Bonpland travel to South America to once and for all prove or dispel the myth of El Dorado. They return to Europe and spread widely their believed conclusion that El Dorado had been nothing but a dream of the early conquistadors” We all know Herr Humboldt was a man that from a young age took great interest in science and exploration…but he was 3 years old! He and Mr Bonpland started their famous voyage in 1799.
    Need I remind you you are working in one of the most prestigious cultural institutions of the world!


    • Thank you so much for your eagle-eyed observation of the erroneous date in the sidebar of the recent article on El Dorado on the BBC website, I shall be sure to forward the correct date to the BBC editor to see if they can make the change.

      Jago Cooper, British Museum


      • Philip Seely says:

        Dear Dr Cooper

        I visited the fascinating archaeological site of Guayabo in the central volcanic highlands of Costa Rica a couple of years ago. When I saw your programme about Colombia I was rather struck by the similarities between Guayabo and La Ciudad Perdida. Guayabo too has circular building platforms, plazas and processional ways – and it is in a magnificent jungle setting too.
        In the capital, San Jose, there are two very interesting museums – the Jade Museum and the Gold Museum. The former shows jade artefacts that show the influence of Mesoamerican (indeed Mayan) cultural influences, both in the style and choice of material. In the Gold Museum, by contrast, the artefacts strongly resemble the gold Tairona objects you showed us in your programme.
        Costa Rica clearly was a kind of ethno-cultural border region between the jade-loving cultures of Mesoamerica to the north, and the gold-loving cultures of Colombia to the south.
        I think the archaeology of Costa Rica is not as appreciated internationally as it deserves to be – and indeed probably deserves more consideration locally too. I would love to see you do a programme on the subject. Any chance of the BBC sending you that way some time for more ‘Lost Kingdoms’?

        Philip Seely
        London NW3


      • LizzyH says:

        Dear Jago
        It was absolutely brilliant seeing the images of Bogotá, La Laguna de Guatavita and Villa de Leiva the other week. I lived in Colombia for nearly 4 years and have worked and travelled in Chile, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador. It’s giving me serious wander lust again….ho hum maybe when the kids are older. PS hablas muy bien el español. Dónde lo aprendiste?


  2. alina says:

    i saw recently on History Chanel a documentary about ancient aliens, they portrait a interesting theory, the tuinja musca reminds me of an ancient astronaut found sculpture found on the Aztec empire.


  3. Diana lambton says:

    Dear Jago,
    I inherited some stones, which i have been told are either pre-mexican or polynesean but as to date i have been unable to find out their exact origins, can i send you some pictures of them please
    Kind Regards


  4. Christina says:

    Dear Jago
    Your recent series brings back a lot of memories from our time spent in Bolivia and Peru in 2008-9. It was a wonderful series, we learned so much (we had visited a lot of the places featured and thought we were pretty clued up, but it turns out we were not!). Please please do more as soon as possible! We love South America and we loved your tv series!


  5. Ricky Fairs says:

    Dear Jago,
    It seemed to me the very interesting program about the culture at Tiwanaku was somewhat coy about the ritual snuffing of hallucinogenics as compared to ritual drinking of beer. Was that because we dont know what they were snuffing?


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