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Tairona refers to a diverse archaeological complex distributed on the northern and northwestern faces of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. The term is also used to refer to an ancient indigenous ethnic group from a territory (provincia) located near the upper Don Diego and Buritaca rivers. Tairona also refers to a cultural area (cultura Tairona) characterized by a style of pre-Hispanic gold, pottery, and architectural remains dating from 1000 ce until the Spanish conquest. Three periods of development are recognized for the archaeological complex.

The Early Tairona period is divided into two phases. The first phase dates from 500 bce to 600 ce and is characterized by small fishing and farming populations that lived in independent hamlets on the coast. An archaeological site example is Puerto Gaira. The second phase dates between 600 ce and 900 ce and is characterized by the development of inland settlements with more emphasis on agricultural production and larger populations that led to the colonization of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. A chiefdom society developed, accompanied by the use of stone in construction of dwellings and pathways connecting the town of the chief with the neighboring hamlets. More variation in the burial practices within and between regions is observed in this period. Burial offerings include gold, pottery, staffs, beads, and other artifacts of stone. Archaeological site examples of this phase are Mamoró n, Nahuanjue, and Cinto.

The second period is the Middle, or Classic, Tairona (1000–1501). This period is characterized by the consolidation of the colonized regions, the development of towns, stone road systems, irrigation and agricultural terrace systems, complex chiefdom hierarchies, strong microvertical trade, and an increase in the regional specialization of food and artifact production (pottery, gold, beads, axes, and other lithic artifacts). Examples of urban sites are Ciudad Perdida and Pueblito. The political divisions of these chiefdoms were mainly religious in character, with a chief and/or priest as a head. The principal chiefdoms that controlled relatively large areas during this period were referred to by the Spanish as the Bondas, Posigueicas, Betomas, and Taironas.

The last period is the Conquest (1501–1600). This period is characterized by a decline in population through disease and intensive warfare with the Spanish; collapse of chiefdom societies; abandonment of villages, towns, and road systems; and creation by the survivors of highland refuge areas. A small number of descendants of the chiefdoms that formed the Tairona complex live today in the highlands of the Sierra Nevada and are known as the Kogy (Kogi) or Kaggaba (Kágaba) Indians.

See alsoArchaeology .


For illustrations of the material culture as well as a general review, see Henning Bischof, "Tairona Archaeology," in Arte de la Tierra: Taironas (1991). For a synthesis of the development of Ciudad Perdida and Pueblito, see Jacques Aprile-Gniset, La ciudad colombiana, vol. 1, Prehispánica, de conquista e indiana (1991). For a perspective on the descendants of the Tairona chiefdoms, see Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo, "Ideology and Structure of Gender Spaces: The Kaggaba Indians," in The Archaeology of Gender, edited by D. Walde and N. D. Willows (1991), pp. 327-335.

Additional Bibliography

Bray, Warwick. "Gold, Stone, and Ideology: Symbols of Power in the Tairona Tradition of Northern Colombia," in Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks, 9 and 10 October 1999, edited by Jeffrey Quilter and John W. Hoopes. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 2003.

Cardale de Schrimpff, Marianne, and Leonor Herrera, eds. Caminos precolombinos: Las vías, los ingenieros y los viajeros. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia: Ministerio de Cultura, 2000.

Legast, Anne. El animal en el mundo mítico tairona. Bogotá: Fundación de Investigaciones Arqueológicas Nacionales, Banco de la República, 1987.

Soto Holguín, Alvaro. La ciudad perdida de los tayrona: Historia de su hallazgo y descubrimiento. Colombia: Neotrópico, 1988.

Wilson, David J. Indigenous South Americans of the Past and Present: An Ecological Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

                                 Augusto Oyuela-Caycedo