Muisca refers to Chibcha-language-speaking societies that inhabited the eastern highlands of central Colombia at the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1536. Muisca chiefdoms derived subsistence from intensive agriculture of maize, potatoes, and other plants adapted to high altitudes. Most of the population lived in the high plateaus above 8,250 feet. The Muisca, however, also controlled lands at lower altitudes where cotton and coca were grown.
The basic units of production and consumption were the capitanías. Frequently, several capitanías made up a unit called a pueblo by the Spaniards. The heads of some larger pueblos began a process of expansion by which lesser pueblos were incorporated under their domain. In the early sixteenth century, four chiefs were struggling to achieve regional prominence—those of Bogotá, Duitama, Sogamoso, and Tunja. Instability was a main feature of political centralization. Pueblos incorporated into confederations were able to retain much autonomy. Anytime regional chiefs delegated power, internal strife erupted as lesser chiefs attempted to gain regional power.
The Muisca elite had privileged access to resources. Chiefs were given tribute in goods and helped with the construction of their dwellings, storehouses, and a palisade that surrounded their villages. As the degree of social stratification increased beyond the level of local pueblos, large proportions of surplus were accumulated by regional chiefs. This surplus was invested in the support of chiefly needs and the maintenance of craft specialists. Nonetheless, some portion of the tribute was redistributed to the people at large, mainly in the form of communal feasts.
How the features of social organization that the Spaniards described came to be knowledge remains scant. Research in a portion of the Valle de Fúquene, north of Santa Fe de Bogotá, establishes a sequence of development from 300 bce to ce 1600. The earliest occupation of the area dates from 300 bce to ce 800. Population density was very low and settlement patterns consisted of two small villages twelve acres in size. The Early Muisca period ranges from ce 800 to about ce 1300. Population more than doubled and most of it was concentrated in a large village of about thirty-seven acres that probably dominated the region. The Late Muisca period (ce 1300 to 1600) is characterized by a population increase, evidence of long-distance trade, and the emergence of several large villages (twelve to twenty-five acres in size) in the area. The largest village that predominated during the Early Muisca period increased further in size, reaching some fifty acres.
The importance of the Muisca cannot be ignored. In spite of the fact that the Muisca were conquered by the Spaniards early in the sixteenth century, some of their traditions survive today. Currently, most of the population in the eastern highlands, including that of Santa Fe de Bogotá, Colombia's capital, is of mixed Muisca-Spanish ancestry.
Colombia's 1991 constitutional reforms were favorable to indigenous groups on matters of land rights and autonomy, recognition and protection of cultural and social rights, self-governance, and participation in national politics; Colombia is thought to be the most progressive Latin American nation in its legislative attitude toward indigenous peoples. Regardless of official policy and new legislation, however, the 2,000 Muisca residing near Bogotá continue to struggle to protect their land, revitalize and strengthen language and cultural practices, and to develop small-scale community based businesses.
See alsoIndigenous Peoples .
Descriptions of Muisca social organization may be found in Sylvia M. Broadbent, Los chibchas: Organización sociopolítica. (1964) and Juan Villamarín, "Encomenderos and Indians in the Formation of Colonial Society in the Sabana de Bogotá, 1537–1740." (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1972). Information on Muisca economy is provided by Carl Henrik Langebaek, Mercados, poblamiento e integración étnica entre los muiscas, siglo XVI (1987) and "Highland Centre and Lowland Periphery in 16th Century Eastern Colombia," in Research in Economic Anthropology 13 (1991): 323-337. The basic source for archaeology in the Muisca territory is Marianne Cardale, Las salinas de Zipaquirá: Su explotación indígena (1981). A broad picture of historical developments in the eastern highlands and neighboring areas is found in Carl Henrik Langebaek, Noticias de Caciques muy Mayores: Origen y desarrollo de sociedades complejas en el nororiente de Colombia y norte de Venezuela (1992).
Carl Henrik Langebaek R.