Cauca department, located in the south-western part of Colombia, was the cradle of many archaeological cultures (Tierradentro, San Agustín, Nariño) which have left a permanent legacy behind, e.g. the famous "Colombian Massif necropolis", especially those within the Tierradentro Archaeological National Park.
During the pre-Hispanic period, Cauca's territory was home to many indigenous societies documented by Spanish chronicles, some of which still inhabit part of their traditional homelands: Paez, Misak (Guambiano), Totoró, Polindara, Paniquitá, Coconuco, Chapanchica, Sindagua, Timba, Jamundí, etc.
Sebastián de Belalcázar was the first Spaniard to set foot in what is today Cauca department, when in 1536, coming from Peru and Ecuador, he crossed the region in search of "El Dorado" accompanied, among others, by Captains Pedro de Añasco and Juan de Ampudia. Belalcázar travelled the valley of the River Patía and sent Añasco and Ampudia to explore the valley of Pubenza; there, Belalcázar founded the town of Popayán in January 1537. Then he set off for the springs of the rivers Cauca and Magdalena and came to the Laguna (lake) del Buey, in the Colombian Massif.
In May 1540 Carlos V granted Belalcázar the government of the province of Popayán with the title of Adelantado, which comprised today's Departments of Nariño and Cauca; in 1541 Popayán's territory was extended from San Juan de Pasto to the Serranía de Abibe. The Kingdom of New Granada (Spanish: Reino de Nueva Granada, within the Viceroyalty of Peru) was founded in 1550, the Royal Audience of Santafé de Bogotá being its capital. The Kingdom of New Granada remained subject to the Viceroyalty of Peru until 1717, when it turned into the Viceroyalty of New Granada.
During the colonial period, and until the first half of the 19th century, Popayán became an important political and economic centre, with large properties for cattle and horses, and several gold mines (and the slave trade associated).
The city saw an enormous growth during that time and evidence of that chapter is the number of mansions and religious temples that were built. After the independence was finally achieved in 1819, the province of Popayán was included in the Department of Cundinamarca, within the Republic of the Great Colombia (that was formed by today's Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador) and later became the centre of the Department of Cauca (1821). Between 1831 and 1857, the region was given again the name of province of Popayán (within the Republic of New Granada). As Cauca State it was part of the Granadina Confederation, and in 1857 became the Sovereign State of Cauca, one of the United States of Colombia. Under the 1886 Constitution, Cauca turned again into a Department, and this condition was ratified by the constitutional reform in 1910.