When you think of Indian tribes in South America, the Incas probably come to mind first. Logical too, since the land of Incas once stretched from the southernmost tip of Colombia to the northwestern part of Argentina and Chile, an area no less than 4,000 kilometers long. The Incas also left behind extraordinary structures, of which Machu Picchu is perhaps the most famous. Besides the Incas, we know much less about indigenous peoples in the rest of South America. For example, do you have any idea what Indian tribes Colombia was inhabited by before the Spaniards set foot on land? Read on and discover the Muisca!
Who are the Muisca?
About 300 to 400 years before our era, the Muisca migrated from Central America to Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. Initially the tribe settled on the Atlantic coast, but the arrival of warlike Carib Indians from Brazil and the Caribbean islands drove the Muisca to the upper Andes.
The Muisca founded present-day Bogotá and called it Bacatá. Together with the Tairona Indians, they belong to the Chibcha: once the largest ethnic group in Colombia. The political-social organization of the Muisca is known as the best in South America after that of the Incas.
In 1536, the Chibcha were discovered by European conquistadors, marking the end of the pre-Columbian period (the time and culture before the arrival of Columbus). (source)
Facts about the Muisca (source)
The Muisca built their houses with thatch and mud and made mud walls. The roof was covered with straw. The furniture was simple and consisted mainly of beds made of wicker. Chairs were scarce as Indians preferred to sit on the floor. After the arrival of Europeans, many of their cottages were burned by the Spaniards.
The diet of the Muisca
Corn was the basis of the Muisca’s diet, with additional emphasis on plant proteins such as peanuts and beans, and animal proteins including birds, deer, rabbit caterpillars and ants. So the love of protein seemed to be in the Colombians early on.
Before marriage there was total sexual freedom and virginity was seen as a great misfortune for women. Polygamy was common, but incest was forbidden. Of particular note was the way a man asked his possible future father-in-law for his daughter’s hand. The father was offered goods to approve. If he was not satisfied, he demanded more and this offer could be increased up to three times.
If the father still did not accept the offer the third time, it would never again be possible to marry his daughter. If the offer was accepted, the man would have the woman of his choice in his home for a few days to see if she was indeed to his liking. If so, he married her.
There are accounts of human sacrifices, with each family giving a son to the priest who was then sacrificed at age 15. This was seen as an honor to the family and the victim. However, there is no evidence for these stories. Case of urban legend it seems. Fortunately.
The famous gold of the Muisca
Like many other Colombian peoples, the Muisca are famous for their gold work: they made the most beautiful pieces. In addition, they worked a lot with the so-called tumbaga, an alloy composed mainly of gold and copper. (source) Many pieces from the Muisca and other Chibcha tribes have been well preserved and can be admired in such places as the Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) in Bogotá.
How many Muisca live in Colombia today?
It is estimated that the Muisca tribe had about 1 million inhabitants at its peak, scattered throughout present-day Cundinamarca and Boyacá (particularly north of Bogotá). In 2006, a census showed that(source):
- there are 3 municipalities, namely Cota, Chía and Sesquilé (around Bogotá), where 2318 Muiscas still live;
- there are still 5186 people living in Bogotá who belong to the Muisca.
A fun fact is that in August 2010, a kindergarten was established in Bogotá for Chibcha children, in addition to three other kindergartens in small villages. In these four schools, the customs and ideas of the indigenous peoples are kept alive through weaving, ceramics, jewelry making, dance, music, traditional medicine and the Muisca language. Pretty nice!
Where can you find remains of the Muisca?
There are several places where you can still find remains of the Muisca. Perhaps the most famous is the Gold Museum in Bogotá, which is full of gold figurines and other works of art made by the Muisca and other Indian tribes.
In addition, in the surroundings of Villa de Leyva you’ll find the Estación Astronómica de Muisca: a Stonehenge-like site where Indians determined the seasons.
And of course the famous lake of Guatavita, known for the legend of gold.
Where did you see Muisca sights?