Colombia Table of Contents

The Pre-Columbian Era

Long before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers, Indian groups had settled in the area of present-day Colombia. The Mesoamericans (Indians originally inhabiting Central America), who arrived in approximately 1200 B.C., introduced the cultivation of corn. They were followed by a second wave of Mesoamericans in 500 B.C. Artifacts from a number of distinct cultures, such as those in the areas around San Agustín (in present-day Huila Department), Tierra Dentro (Cauca Department), and Tumaco (Nariño Department), are believed to date from this period. Between 400 and 300 B.C., the Chibchas traveled from Nicaragua and Honduras and reached Colombia, shortly before the Arawaks arrived from other parts of South America, such as Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Near the end of the first millennium A.D., the Caribs migrated from the Caribbean islands. These warlike newcomers supplanted the Chibchas in the lowlands and forced them to move to higher elevations.

By the 1500s, the most advanced of the indigenous peoples were the Chibchas, who were divided into two principal tribes: the Muisca, located in the plateaus of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, and the Tairona, who settled along the northern spur of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (in present-day La Guajira Department). The Muisca were the more prominent of the two groups and based their economy on agriculture, especially the cultivation of corn and potatoes. The Muisca centered their social organization on the cacicazgo, a hereditary form of leadership following matrilineal succession. Two large Muisca confederations existed at the time of the Spanish conquest: Bacatá/Bogotá and Hunsa/Tunja. A chieftain known as a zipa headed Bacatá/Bogotá, whereas a zaque governed Hunsa/Tunja.

The Tairona formed two groups, one in the Caribbean lowlands and the other in the Andean highlands. The lowlands Tairona fished and produced salt, which they traded for cotton cloth and blankets with their counterparts in the highlands. The Tairona of both groups lived in numerous, well-organized towns connected by stone roads.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress