Muiscas

MUISCAS 700 A.D. – 1600 A.D.

Maize agricultural society characterized by marked social complexity. Economy based on vertically organized agriculture distributed over various altitudes and on the production of ceramics, goldwork, and textiles. Trade with lowlands.

MUISCAS GOLDWORKING

Pieces cast in the lost wax process, generally of tumbaga. Tunjos or figurative offerings, bird-shaped pendants, nose rings, and pectorals were produced. The use of molds permitted serial production of metal adornments. Guatavita, Pasca, and Ganchancipa stand out as specialized goldworking centers.

 

The Muisca society is part of a group of maize agricultural societies which inhabilited the Eastern Cordillera around the 6th to 7th century of the our era. Other societies that completed the picture include the Chitareros and Guanes from Santander and the Laches from the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy. Previously, hundreds of years before our era, the Cordillera had been occupied by groups of root horticulturists who had based their economy on the cultivation of potatoes and other roots common to the cold highlands, the exploitation of saltwater, hunting, and fishing. With the Muisca period, once again we see many elements that we are accustomed to associating with maize agriculture: an increased number of settlements, which suggests demographic growth, and significant evidence of social stratification as well as notable goldworking developments.

In fact, the Muiscas were the most complex indigenous society encountered by the Spaniards in the territory that constitutes present day Colombia. The basic social unit incorporated “capitanias” (capitancies) or groups of relatives who lived in centralized villages. Various of those groups comprised larger social units denominated “pueblos”. These in turn were organized in confederations under the authority of the more important chiefts. In the 1500’s, after a process which included alliances based on intermarriages and wars of expansion, the greater part of the Muisca population had fallen under the domination of four great confederations: Bogota (which dominated the great Sabana of Bogota and neighboring areas), Tunja, Sogamoso, and Duitama, located in today’s Department of Boyaca .

The Muisca economy was based, as we have described for Tairona and groups of Andes from Nan no, on vertically organized agriculture, which simultaneously employed diverse altitudes. The greater share of the villages were located in the cold valleys, at an average altitude of 2500 meters above sea level, lands whose fertility and average humidity permitted an extraordinary development of maize agriculture and the cultivation of roots common to the higher regions, fundamentally potatoes. Concurrently, the population exercised control over fields located in even colder regions and on the warmer, temperate slopes of the Eastern Cordillera. In this way, each family could, in many cases, have access to fields of coca, cotton, fruit trees, maize, manioc, and potatoes.

Among the Muiscas we find notable development in regional specialization. There were populations, such as Ra quira, whose expertise lay in producing ceramic vessels. Other villages distinguished themselves by producing textiles, stone adornments, basketry, salt, fish or hallucinogenic drugs. All of this triggered the establishment of complex trade networks where the most important chiefs controlled the distribution of regional surpluses. A considerable portion of these surpluses were put into circulation and found their way to distant groups. The Muiscas, in fact, supplied textiles, gold, and emeralds to communities living on the Eastern Plains and, in the Magdalena River Valley.

Muisca goldwork can be divided into two phases of development. The first is represented by a series of objects found on the western flank of the mountain range, which consists of anthropomorphic figures, nose rings, representations of animals with raised tails, and a further series of articles produced in gold or tumbaga very similar to those from the Quimbaya Classic period. Later, after 1000 A.D., Muisca goldwork continued to develop until the arrival of Spaniards in the 1500’s.

Goldwork production from the 1500’s is a good example of the complexity of the distribution and exchange systems developed by the Muiscas. In all likelihood, copper deposits in the territory were mined. Nonetheless, all of the gold worked by the Muiscas came from outside territories, especially from the Magdalena valley. Even so, the Muiscas developed specialized centers to work the metals: places such as
Guatavita, Gachancipa, and Pasca. Necklace beads, pectorals, diadems, ear ornaments, and nose rings usually cast using the lost wax process, the beeswax for which they acquired trading with groups from the Eastern Plains, were produced in many places and in sufficient quantity so as to supply both local and outside demands.

Among the Muiscas, the work of smelting and casting was performed under the supervision of priests or “chuques” who, after consuming narcotic drugs, would offer the pieces to their deities in sanctuaries. Normally, each offering was comprised of a group of pieces, not necessarily made of gold, in which the same basic idea, associated with a specific petition, would be reproduced. Frequently, the offerings were deposited in ceramic vessels made to represent chiefs or shamans. Special petitions referred to agricultural calendar holidays, the installation of new chief’s or ceremonies prior to joining battle with enemy communities.

A large portion of Muisca goldwork production was oriented toward producing tunjos or offerings that represented different aspects of communal life: warriors, priests, chiefs, miniature villages, scenes depicting sacrifices, snakes, felines, miniature vessels, and baskets, among many other items. These pieces are very characteristic of the Muisca territory. A great variety of body ornaments such as bird-shaped pendants (“eagles”), circular shaped embossed pectorals, and diverse types of nose rings appear to be very similar to those made in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the Sinu and Quimbaya areas, and in Central America, in the centuries immediately prior to the 1500’s.