Muisca refers to a nation of the Chibchan Culture that formed the Muisca Confederation encountered by the Spanish at the time of the conquest of what is now part of central Colombia in 1537. The Muisca were comprised of two confederations: the Hunza, whose sovereign was the Zaque and the Bacatá, whose sovereign was the Zipa. Both confederations were located in the highlands of modern-day Cundinamarca and Boyacá (Altiplano Cundiboyacense) in the central area of Colombia's Eastern Range.
The territory of the Muisca spanned an area of 46,972 km² (a region slightly larger than Switzerland) from the North of Boyacá to the Sumapaz Páramo and from the summits of the Eastern Range to the Magdalena Valley. It bordered the territories of the Panches and Pijaos tribes.
It had a large population during the Spanish Conquest, but the actual number of inhabitants is unknown. The languages of the Muisca were Chibchan, Muysca and Mosca which belong to the Chibchan-Paezan linguistic family. The economy was based on agriculture, metalworking and manufacturing.
The Muisca people were organized in a Confederation that was the union of states, which kept their own sovereignty within the greater political body. The Confederation was not a kingdom, as there was no absolute monarch, nor was it an Empire because it did not dominate other ethnic groups or peoples. Accordingly, the Muisca Confederation cannot be compared with other American civilizations such as the Aztec Empire or the Inca Empire. The Muisca Confederation was, however, one of the biggest and best organized confederations of tribes on the continent.
Every tribe within the confederation was ruled by its chief or cacique. The tribe had its autonomy and it was a cell of the confederation. The bulk of the tribes belonged to the same Muisca ethnic group, sharing the same language and culture and relating through trade. They united in the face of a common enemy and for this reason the army was the full responsibility of the Zipa or Zaque. The army was made by the güeches, the honoured traditional ancient warriors of the Muisca people.
The Muisca people were in fact organized into two confederations. The southern confederation, headed by the Zipa, had its capital at Bacatá (today Bogotá). This southern polity included the majority of the Muisca population and held greater economic power. The northern confederation was ruled by the Zaque, and had its capital at Hunza, known today as Tunja. Although both confederations had common political relations and affinities and belonged to the same nation, there were still rivalries between them. Among the confederations there were four chiefdoms: Bacatá, Hunza, Duitama and Sogamoso. The chiefdom was composed by localities. The tribes were divided in Capitanías (ruled by a Capitan and there were two kinds: Great Capitania (sybyn) and Minor Capitania (uta). The status of Capitan was inherited by maternal lineage.
Confederation (Zipa or Zaque) -->Priests (Iraca)color> --> Chiefdoms (Cacique)color> --> Capitanía (Capitan)color> --> Sybyncolor> --> Utacolor>
The Muisca legislation was consuetudinary, it is to say, their rule of law was determined by long-extant customs with the approval of the Zipa or Zaque. This kind of legislation was suitable to a confederation system and it was actually a well-organized one in an admirable way of administration. The natural resources could not be privatized: woods, lakes, bleak plateaus, rivers and others were common good.
To an administrative organization as the one of the Muisca people belongs a solid economy that was considered one of the most powerful of the American Post-Classic stage. When the Spaniards conquerors came into the territory of the Confederation, they found a rich state that stimulated their ambitions. The Muisca Confederation was mining the following products:
The market was a very meaningful place for the economy of the confederation due to barter. In that place they used to exchange all they needed, from products of first necessity to luxury. The abundance of salt, emeralds and coal converted those minerals into a de facto currency. As an agrarian society they had a complete system of irrigation. Other economic activity was weaving. To this regard Paul Bahn said that "the Andean cultures mastered almost every method of textile weaving or decoration now known, and their products were often finer tha those of today".
See main article: Chibcha.
Chibchan, also known as muysca, mosca or muska kubun, belongs to the linguistic family of Paezan languages , or Macro-Chibcha that includes some regions of Central America and the north of South America. The Tayrona Culture and the U'wa, related also to the Muisca Culture, could speak similar languages and it helped develop their market exchange. Many Chibcha words came into Colombian Spanish:
The Muisca people were an agrarian and ceramic society belonging to the Andes of the north of South America. The political and administrative organization above described did of them a compact cultural unity with great discipline. The contribution of the Muisca Culture to the national Colombian identity is a fact and its study is necessary to understand Colombia today.
As all the peoples of any place and time, the Muisca Culture gave much importance to sport. To prove this fact there is a survival of the turmequé game tejo. It was also very important the tournament of wrestling. The winner received from the chief a fine cotton blanket and was able to become güeche (warrior).
Muisca priests were educated from childhood and led the main religious ceremonies. No one else was allowed inside the temples. The religion originally included human sacrifice, but the practice may have been extinct by the time of the Spanish conquest, as there are no first-hand Spanish accounts from the time. Oral tradition suggests that every family offered a child to the priests, who was treated as sacred and cared for until the age of 15, then offered to Sue, the Sun-god. Besides the religious activities, the priests had much influence in the lives of the people, giving counsel in matters of farming or war.
Although they did not have a precise calendar, the Muisca people knew exactly the Solstice (June 21). It was then the Day of Sue, the Sun-god. The Sue temple was in Sogamoso, the sacred city of the Sun-god and the seat of the Iraca (priest). The name of the city, Suamox or Sugamuxi means "The City of the Sun". Then the Zaque came that day to the sacred city of Sue and it became a carnival for the nation. Offerings were made and it was the only day of the year that the people could see the face of the Zaque, who was considered a descendant of the Sun-god.
See main article: Muisca mythology.
The Muisca Mythology is well documented. It is due to some factors: the most important is that the Muisca territory became also the seat of the Colonial administration for the Nuevo Reino de Granada. Therefore, it allowed to have many of the Cronists of Western Indias in Bogotá and they got interests for the traditions and culture of the conquered people.
See main article: El Dorado.
In 2000 Bonne Radford produced a film (comics) with the title The Road to El Dorado. In the film two young Spaniard adventurers take a trip to find out the City of God. The film gathered elements from the Aztec, Maya and Inca cultures and even Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of México has his part in the story. The film was good as a production, but it has no real connection with the origins of El Dorado legend. The origin of the legend must be located in the Muisca Confederation. The Zipa used to offer to the Guatavita goddess gold and other treasures. To do so, the Zipa covered himself with gold. This tradition was well-known outside the Confederation, as far as the Caribbean Sea and the Spaniards were attracted by the fascinating stories of a city of gold that actually did not exist. Much of the times the aborigenes wanted to get rid of the ambitious Spaniards in that way, pointing out other peoples. The Guatavita lagoon was widely explored by the Conquerors looking for the old offerings of the Zipa to the goddess. From this came many other routes to the Gold City out of the Muisca context and the term became a reference to a mythical place that attracts people.
The Muisca people did not make big stone structures. They did not use the abundant rock to leave monumental ruins as has happened with other American cultures. Their houses were built with simple materials as clay, canes and wood. The houses had a conical form most of them to the point that Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, founder of Bogotá, gave it the name of Valles de los Alcázares. The constructions had small doors and windows and the houses of the high rank men were different. The Muisca people did not use a lot furniture as they used to sit down on the floor, for example similar to many Asian peoples today.
Until 1450 events are said in a mythologic context, but it is thanks to the Cronists of the Western Indias that it is possible to know the last periods of the Muisca history before the Spaniard conqueros came.
Excavations in the Altiplano Cundiboyacense (the highlands of Cundinamarca and Boyacá departments) show evidences of a great human activity in those territories since the Archaic stage that is the same at the beginning of the Holocene era. It ended a theory that was stated during the 19th Century that the Altiplano Cundiboyacense was inhabited before the Muisca people arrived. Colombia has also one of the most ancient archaeological sites of America: El Abra, which age can be calculated to even 13 thousand years ago. Other archaeological traces in the region of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense have conducted the scholars to talk about an El Abra Culture: In Tibitó, tools and other litic artifacts dated since BC 9740; in the Bogotá Plain, especially the Tequendama Falls other litic tools dated since a millennium later belonging to specialized hunters. Among other findings the most precious are entire human skeletons dated 5000 BC. The analysis demonstrated that those persons of the El Abra Culture were other etnia different to that of the Muisca people and for this reason it is possible to say that the Muisca tribes did not occupy an empty land.
Scholars agree that the huma group identify as "Muisca" migrated to the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in a time comprised between 5500 and 1000 BC, it means during the Formative stage due to numberless evidences in places like Aguazuque and Soacha. Like the other Pre-Classic cultures of America, the Muiscas were in a transition among hunters and agrarians. Since 1500 BC came to the region groups of agrarians with ceramic traditions from the lowlands. They had permanent housing and stationary camps and worked the founts of salty water. In Zipacón there are pleny of evidences of agriculture and ceramic of the most ancient settlement of the highlands dated to the 1270 BC. Among the years 500 BC and 800 BC a second wave of migrants came to the highlands, which presence is identified by multicolor ceramic and works of housing and farm. Those were the groups that lasted until the coming of the Spaniard Conquerors and they let abundant traces of their occupation that became object of studies since the 16th Century and allow to reconstruct their way of life. It is possible that the Muisca people integrated the ancient inhabitants, but it was the role of the Muisca people to mold the cultural profile and the social and political organization. Their language, the Chibcha, was very similar to those peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Kogui, Ijka, Wiwa and Kankuamo) and the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy (U'wa).
Zipa Saguamanchica was in a constant war against aggressive tribes of the surroundings like the sutagos, fusagasugaes and, especially, the panches that would make difficulties also for the successors Nemequene and Tisquesusa. The Caribs were also a permanent threat and the rivalries with the Zaque of Hunza, especially for the possession of the salt mines, a precious resource for the Muisca economy.
The rivalries among the Zaque and the Zipa became a good opportunity for the Spaniards to conquer the heart of what would be Colombia. Some of them as Sebastián de Belalcázar, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and Nicolás de Federman, interested for the route to El Dorado, discovered the rich plains of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. The presence of the newcomers gave hope to both sovereigns that, were they to prevail in a war against the Spaniards, could make one Confederation. But the Spaniards prevailed.
The Spaniards killed the last Muisca sovereigns Sagipa and Aquiminzaque. The reaction of the chief leaders and the people did a little to change the destiny of the Confederations. In 1542 Gonzalo Suaréz Rendón finally put down the resistance and the territories of the Confederations were shared by Belalcazar, Federmann and Quesada. Later the Spaniard Crown would elect Quesada as the only man in charge with the title adelantado de los cabildos de Santa Fe y Tunja.
When the Muisca structure disappeared under the Spaniard Conquest, the territory of the Confederations of the Zaque and Zipa were included in a new political division within a big system: the Spaniard colonies in America. The territory of the Muisca people, located in a fertil plain of the Colombian Andes that contributed to make one of the most advance South American civilizations, was chosen by the Spaniards as a head to lead the new region they called "Nuevo Reino de Granada". This fact caused that the high class, the priests and nobility of the Muisca people were eliminated. Only the Capitanias remained. It made also possible that much information about the Muisca Culture were gathered by the new Spaniard administration. The best territories were for the Spaniards and they created the Indigenous Shelters to keep the survivors with the obligation to work the land for them in what they called encomiendas. The Colonial era contributed to give importance to Santafé, the ancient Bacatá, the one that would play an important role in the fights of th independence and the republic consolidation. The war of independence that gathered the common will of what would be three nations (Colombia with Panamá, Venezuela and Ecuador), was led by the Creoles, it is to say, by the descendants of the Conquerors. In such case the participation of aborigen, African and cross-breed people was as soldiers, no less important role as they were those who fight in the front against the skillful royal Spaniard army.
After the independence in 1810 the new Creole state intended to dissolve the Indigenous Reservations keeping only one in Tocancipá. This one was dissolved in 1940 leaving only the one in Sesquilé, which was reduced to 10% of its original size. Tenjo was reduced to 54 ha after 1934. The Reservation of Cota was re-established in a land bought by the community in 1916, and then recognized by the 1991 constitution; the recognition was withdrawn in 1998 by the state and restored back 2006.
In 1948 the state forbade the production of chicha, a maize based alcoholic drink. This was a blow to the culture and the economy of the Muisca as they lost a source of income which added to the lost of previous traditions and land. The ban remained until 1991. Since then, the "Festival of the chicha, maize, life and joy" is celebrated every year in Barrio La Perseverancia, where most of the Chicha is produced in Bogotá.
Since 1989 there is a process of reconstruction of the indigenous councils by the survivors of the Muisca Culture. Nowadays the Muisca Councils working are Suba, Bosa, Cota, Chía and Sesquilé. The different councils had an Assembly between 20 and 22 of September, 2002 in Bosa in the First General Congress of the Muisca People. In that Congress they founded the Great Council of the Muisca People, affiliated to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC. The proposed the linguistic and cultural recuperation, the defense of the territorioes nowadays occupied by others and treated by the urban and tourist plans. They support also the communities of Ubaté, Tocancipá, Soacha, Ráquira and Tenjo in order to recover their organization and human rights.
The Muisca people of Suba opposed to the dry up of the Tibabuyes Laggon and they could recover the Humedal de Juan Amarillo. They defend the natural reserves like La Conejera Hill that is considered by the Shelter's Council as land of the community. The Suati Magazine (The Song of the Sun) is a publication of poetry, literature and researches about the Muisca Culture.The community of Bosa could get important achievements with its project of natural medicine in association with the Paul VI Hospital and the District Secretary of Health of Bogotá. The community of Cota reintroduced the growing of quinua and it is doing regularly the market for barker their products.
Toward the end of 2006 it was the report on Muisca population:
Some politic perspectives pretend to say that the Muisca Culture and even etnia disappeared with the destruction of the political Muisca Confederation at the beginning of the 16th Century. Even some persons say that the Chibcha language is a dead language that disappeared totally at the end of the 18th Century. But those perspectives are not objective and it is a cultural denying. On the other hand, the Muisca Culture is alive, it is present in the cultural national identity of Colombia and it is alive in the many farmer groups that have survived the centuries after the destruction of their ancestral state.
The studies on the Muisca Culture are abundant and they have a long tradition. The first sources come from the Cronists of the Western Indias, whose work lasted for three centuries during the existence of the Colonial Nuevo Reino de Granada. After the independence wars in 1810 there was a surge in interest for the study of the Muisca Culture. White Colombians established the capital of their republic in Santafé, the former Viceroyal city, which was at the same time the capital of the Confederation of the Zipa, Bacatá. The political interest was to state that the place was really the cradle of an advanced civilization whose process of consolidation was cut by the Spanish Conquest. This social phenomenon of search for an identity however resulted in giving more emphasis to the Muisca Culture and overlooking other native nations which were seen as wild people. They wrongly concluded that the Muisca Culture inhabited an empty land and everything known was attributed only to the Muisca people. President Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera invited in 1849 the Italian cartographer Agustín Codazzi, who led the Geography Commission with Manuel Ancízar and did descriptives studies of the national territory and an inventory of the archaeological sites. The result of the expedition was published in Bogotá in 1889 as Peregrinación Alfa (Alpha Travels). Argüello García pointed out that the goal of that expedition in the context of the new nation was to underline the Pre-Hispanic civilizations and in that sense they centered in the Muisca Culture as the main model. A similar tendency can be found in the works of Ezequiel Uricoechea Memorias sobre las Antigüedades Neogranadinas (Memoirs of the Ancient Neogranadian Cultures). The objection to that point of view would come from Vicente Restrepo: If they wanted to see the Muisca people as a superior civilization, Restrepo in his work Los chibchas antes de la conquista española (The Chibcha people before the Spaniard Conquest) showed them as barbarians. However, Miguel Triana in his work La Civilización Chibcha (The Chibcha Civilization) suggested, for example, that the rock art's symbols were not other than writing. Wenceslao Cabrera Ortíz, who proposed more interests in the Muisca Culture and other Pre-Hispanic peoples in Colombia, was the one who concluded that the Muisca people were migrants to the Highlands. In 1969 he published Monumentos rupestres de Colombia (Colombian Rock-Art Monuments) and reports of Correal, Hurt and Van Der Hammen about excavations in El Abra. That publication opened a new era in the studies of the Pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia according with Argüello.
A pre-Columbian Muisca pattern appears in the coat of arms of Sopo, Cundinamarca, Colombia. http://www.cundinamarca.gov.co/cundinamarca/plantillastandar.asp?seccion=SEC_DESCOTRSECCMUNI&condicion=752