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Land of winds > The land > History | Issue 06. Jul.-Ago.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Muisca or Chibcha Culture

Muisca or Chibcha Culture
The Muisca people (from muyska, “person” or “people” in muyskkubun language) were an important pre-Hispanic indigenous society, politically and administratively organized in the “Muisca Confederation”. Their territory was located in the highlands of present-day Boyacá and Cundinamarca departments known as the Altiplano Cundiboyacense, in the central are of Colombia’s Cordillera Oriental. The most ancient settlement of the highlands dates to 1270 BCE and, by 1542, Spanish conquerors put down native resistance: the Confederation was included in a new political division within the Spanish colonies in America and became part of the region named Nuevo Reino de Granada. The Muiscas were linguistically related to native peoples settled in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Kogui, Ika, Wiwa, Kankuamo) and to those based on the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy (U’wa), in Colombia, as well as to other indigenous societies of Central America (i.e the Kuna in Panama).

Muisca or Chibcha Culture
The territory of the Muisca Confederation spanned an area of more than 45,000 square kilometres from the Chicamocha River (to the north of Boyacá department) to the Sumapaz paramo (Cundinamarca department), and from the summits of the Cordillera Oriental to the valley of the Magdalena River. Most of the Muisca tribes were included in the Confederation: their individuals belonged to the same ethnic group, shared the same language and culture, and established sound relationships through trade. However, there were several Muisca groups that never became part of this loose union of independent states. Within the Confederation each state retained its sovereignty and every tribe was socially stratified and ruled by a lord, who was also the head of the army. At the top of the social pyramid were the “señores” psihipkua (lords who could have different titles such as zaque or zipa, depending on the region); immediately below were the “caciques” uzake (chiefs), followed by the “capitanes” sybintiba (captains), and the “capitanes menores” utatiba (minor captains). The religious authority was held by the priests iraca, and the army was made up of warriors güecha.
The main chiefdoms were: Hunza (present-day Tunja; ruled by a zaque), Bacatá (present-day Bogotá; ruled by a zipa), Sugamuxi (present-day Sogamoso; ruled by an iraca, since its capital was a sacred city) and Duitama.

Muisca or Chibcha Culture
Besides being considered one of the biggest and best-organized confederations of tribes on the South American continent, the Muiscas were also one of the most powerful societies and economies of American post-classic stage. When the Spaniards came into their territory they were mining emeralds, copper, coal and salt. Gold was imported from other regions but was so abundant that it became a preferred material for Muisca handicrafts. The Muiscas traded their goods for items from the coastal (fish and conches) and the rainforest regions (fruit, honey, feathers) at the local and regional markets in Bacatá, Chocontá, Pacho and Hunza. They used a system of barter or, sometimes, a medium of exchange such as golden pieces, salt and cotton blankets.
Salt, a highly valued item and one much in demand, was extracted manually from salt mines located in Zipaquirá, Nemocón, Sesquilé and Tausa. Emeralds came from Somondoco, coal from Sogamoso, and copper from Gachalá and Moniquirá.
The Muisca people were an agrarian and ceramic society and their day to day economy was primarily based on subsistence agriculture. They used terrace farming and irrigation channels to grow different crops at different altitudes, exploiting the variety of ecological niches of their territory. They harvested several types of maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, manioc, squash, beans, pineapple, avocado, tobacco, quinoa, cotton and coca leaves. They did neither domesticate animals, nor did hunting and fishing significantly contribute to their subsistence.
Another major economic activity was weaving. The Muiscas mastered different methods of textile production and decoration. Cotton was used for clothing, for wrapping their dead, as a medium of exchange and as a ceremonial gift. They were also excellent pottery manufacturers, and their ceramics included vessels, musical instruments, spindles, melting pots, etc. There is also archaeological evidence of their handicraft works in gold, such as figurines, tiaras, diadems, necklaces, bracelets, masks, nose rings and pectorals. Muisca artisans employed a technique known as lost-wax casting; with its use, they were no longer using pure gold, but a gold and copper alloy known as tumbaga, which is harder than gold and has a redder colour.

Muisca or Chibcha Culture
According to the writings of Spanish conquerors such as Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, the Muiscas did not use the abundant rock to leave monumental ruins as other American cultures. The typical Muisca houses were circular in plan, with upright posts set in the ground. They had a conical form, small doors and windows. Adobe walls were known as baharaques, and roofs were generally made of wood, straw, cane or palm. Ceremonial structures were sometimes elliptical or cuadrilateral in shape. Houses of the elite tend to be larger and some chief’s dwelling had entrances covered with large plates of hammered gold. The Muisca people did not use a lot of furniture, as they typically sat on the floor covered with rush mats and slept on a sort of cane platform.
Muisca legislation was based on the so-called “Nemequene’s code” (attributed to a zipa of Bacatá after whom it was called), a set of rules of consuetudinary law orally transmitted. Sentences were usually death penalty or repudiation and social exclusion. The acts of incest, sodomy, adultery, robbery, warriors’ cowardice and drunkenness were among the penalized crimes. In addition, the code established the rules of inheritance, behaviour, manners, protocol, obedience, submission and tribute.
The Muisca people raised temples to the glory of Sue (the sun-god) and Chía (the moon-goddess), created legends around the mythical hero Bochica and the Muiscas’ mother Bachué, and a caste of priests was founded on whom, among other duties, fall the establishment of the calendar (necessary to schedule the agrarian and religious activities).
Their language, known as muyskkubun, was spoken in present-day Colombia until 1770, when the king Charles III of Spain banned the use of indigenous languages in America. Fortunately, a few grammars have survived and many words were absorbed into Colombian Spanish. Nowadays, some communities claiming direct descendant of the Muisca people (in towns such as Suba and Bosa in Bogotá Capital district, and in neighbouring municipalities such as Cota, Chía, or Sesquilé) attempt to promote muyskkubun language use.

Muisca or Chibcha Culture
Chroniclers’ accounts of the Spanish conquest mention that the rivalries between the zipa and the zaque were taken advance by the Spaniards as they conquered the territory of the Muisca people, which became part of the region called New Kingdom of Granada (an area corresponding mainly to modern Colombia and parts of Venezuela). It is said that some of those conquerors, such as Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, Sebastián de Belalcázar and Nicolás de Federmann, interested in locating El Dorado, discovered the fertile plains of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, where they encountered the Muiscas in 1537.
The reaction of the chief leaders and the people did little to change the destiny of the Confederation after the Spaniards had killed the last Muisca sovereigns, Sagipa and Aquiminzaque. In 1542 the last resistance was finally put down and survivors were kept and obligated to work the land for the Spaniards in what were called “encomiendas”.
Since 1989, after centuries of acculturation pressure, discrimination and cultural adjustment (they could neither speak their language, nor had they the right to their lands), a process of reconstruction of the indigenous cabildos (councils) is taking place alongside with the “revitalization” of their ancient culture (or, at least, of the little that remains).
The legacy of this pre-Hispanic society is much broader than the small fraction claimed by their direct descendants. From legends such as El Dorado, to heroes like Bochica, and from the stunning motifs that embellish their blankets and jewellery to the words and expressions in muyskkubun, the influence of the Muisca culture in Andean Colombia was and is still remarkable.

Picture 01 | Picture 02 | Picture 03 | Picture 04 | Picture 05

History of Colombia, in Wikipedia.
Muisca Confederation, in Wikipedia [es].
Muisca people, in Wikipedia.
Nemequene’s Code, in Wikipedia [es].
Muisca mythology, in Wikipedia.
Chibcha language, in Wikipedia.
Muisca people [es].
The Muiscas [es].
Book “Así éramos los Muiscas” (What the Muiscas were like), in Digital Library “Luis Ángel Arango” [es].

Picture 01. Chibcha pottery.
Picture 02. Muisca handicraft works in gold 01.
Picture 03. Muisca handicraft works in gold 02.

Video 01. Myths and legends of Colombia: The Muiscas [es].
Video 02. The habits and customs of the Muiscas [es].
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