Muisca people

Muisca people
Muisca raft Legend of El Dorado Offerings of gold.jpg
Muisca raft (1200–1500 BC), representation of the initiation of the new Zipa in the lake of Guatavita
Regions with significant populations




Related ethnic groups


Muisca was the Chibcha-speaking tribe that formed the Muisca Confederation of the central highlands of present-day Colombia. They were encountered by the Spanish Empire in 1537, at the time of the conquest. The Muisca comprised two confederations: the Hunza (Tunja) of the northern area, whose sovereign was the Zaque; and the Bacatá of the southern area, whose sovereign was the Zipa. Both confederations were located in the highlands[clarification needed] 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 square kilometres (18,136 sq mi) (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.

At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the area had a large population, but the precise number of inhabitants is unknown. The languages of the Muisca were dialects of Chibcha, also called Muysca and Mosca, which belong to the Chibchan language family. The economy was based on agriculture, metalworking and manufacturing.


Political and administrative organization

Location of the Muisca Confederation territory in modern-Colombia

The Muisca people were organized in a confederation that was a loose union of states that each retained sovereignty. 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. The Muisca Confederation cannot be compared with other American civilizations such as the Aztec or the Inca empires. The Muisca Confederation was one of the biggest and best-organized confederations of tribes on the South American continent.[citation needed]

Every tribe within the confederation was ruled by a chief or cacique. Most of the tribes were part of the Muisca ethnic group, sharing the same language and culture, and relating through trade. They united in the face of a common enemy. The army was the responsibility of the Zipa or Zaque. The army was made up of the güeches, the traditional ancient warriors of the Muisca people.

The Muisca people were organized into two confederations. The southern confederation, headed by the Zipa, had its capital at Bacatá (now 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 tribal 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.[1] The tribes were divided into Capitanías (ruled by a Capitan. There were two kinds: Great Capitania (sybyn) and Minor Capitania (uta). The status of Capitan was inherited by maternal lineage.[2]

Confederation (Zipa or Zaque)
               --> Priests (Iraca)
                     --> Chiefdoms (Cacique)
                                  --> Capitanía (Capitan)
                                               --> Sybyn
                                                     --> Uta
  • Territories of the Zipa:
  1. Bacatá District: Teusaquillo, Tenjo, Subachoque, Facatativá, Tabio, Cota, Chía, Usaquén, Engativá, Suba, Sopó, Usme, and Zipacón
  2. Fusagasugá District: Fusagasugá, Pasca, and Tibacuy
  3. Zipaquirá District: Nemocón, Susa, Lenguazaque, Ubaté, Simijaca, and Chocontá
  4. Gachetá District: Gachetá, Guatavita, and Suesca

The Muisca legislation was consuetudinary, that 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 a well-organized one. The natural resources could not be privatized: woods, lakes, plateaus, rivers and other natural resources were common goods.


The Muisca people had an economy and society that was considered one of the most powerful of the American Post-Classic stage. When the Spaniards came into the territory, they found a rich state. The Muisca Confederation was mining the following products:

  • emeralds: Colombia was the first producer of emeralds of the world.
  • copper
  • coal: The coal mines still operate today at Zipaquirá and other sites. Colombia has some of the main coal reserves of the planet.[3]
  • salt: There were mines in production at Nemocón, Zipaquirá, and Tausa.
  • gold: Gold was imported from other regions, but it was so abundant that it became a preferred material for Muisca handicrafts. The many handicraft works in gold and the Zipa tradition of offering gold to the goddess Guatavita contributed to the legend of El Dorado.

The Muisca traded their goods at local and regional markets by a system of barter. Items traded ranged from those of basic necessity to luxury. The abundance of salt, emeralds, and coal made those commodities serve as a de facto currency.

Having developed an agrarian society, the people used terrace farming and irrigation in the highlands.

Another major economic activity was weaving. The people made a wide variety of complex textiles. The scholar Paul Bahn said, "the Andean cultures mastered almost every method of textile weaving or decoration now known, and their products were often finer than those of today."[4]


Chibchan, also known as muysca, mosca, or muska kubun, belongs to the language family of Paezan languages,[5] or Macro-Chibcha. It was spoken across several regions of Central America and the north of South America. The Tayrona Culture and the U'wa, related to the Muisca Culture, spoke similar languages, which encouraged trade.

Many Chibcha words were absorbed or "loaned" into Colombian Spanish:

  • Geography: Many names of localities and regions were kept. In some cases, the Spanish named cities with a combination of Chibchan and Spanish words, such as Santafé de Bogotá. Most of the municipalities of the Boyacá and Cundinamarca departments are derived from Chibchan names: Bogotá, Sogamoso, Zipaquirá, and many others.
  • Fruits, such as curuba and uchuva.
  • Relations: The youngest child is called cuba, or china for a girl; muysca means people.


Ruins of an ancient Muisca temple in the Villa de Leyva near El Infiernito (the little hell)

The Muisca people were an agrarian and ceramic society of the Andes of the north of South America. Their political and administrative organization enabled them to form a compact cultural unity with great discipline.

The contributions of the Muisca culture to the national Colombian identity have been many.


The Muisca Culture had certain sports which were part of their rituals. The turmequé game, also known as tejo, has survived. Also important were matches of wrestling. The winner received a finely woven cotton blanket from the chief and was qualified as a güeche (warrior).


Muisca priests were educated from childhood and led the main religious ceremonies. Only the priests could enter the temples. Besides the religious activities, the priests had much influence in the lives of the people, giving counsel in matters of farming or war. 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 of the practice.

Oral tradition suggests that every family offered a child as sacrifice. The child was treated as sacred and cared for until the age of 15, then offered to Sue, the Sun-god.

Solar cult

Although they did not have a precise calendar, the Muisca people knew exactly the timing of 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 Muisca name of the city, Suamox or Sugamuxi, means The City of the Sun. On the solstice, the Zaque went to Suamox for a major festival. Ritual offerings were made. It was the only day of the year when the Zaque showed his face, as he was considered a descendant of the Sun-god.[citation needed]


A pre-Colombian Muisca pattern appears in the coat of arms of Sopó, Cundinamarca, Colombia.[6]


The Muisca mythology is well documented. Many of the writers who contributed to the Chroniclers of the West Indies were based in Bogotá. They recorded many of the myths, as they were interested in the traditions and culture of the conquered people. The Muisca territory became the seat of the Colonial administration for the Nuevo Reino de Granada.

  • Xué or Sue (The Sun-god): He was the father of the Muisca Olympus. His temple was in Sogamoso, the sacred city of the Sun. He was the most venerated god, especially by the Confederation of the Zaque, who was considered his descendant.
  • Chía goddess (The Moon-goddess): Her temple was in what is today the municipality of Chía. She was widely worshipped by the Confederation of the Zipa, who was considered her son.
  • Bochica: Though not properly a god, he enjoyed the same status as one. He was a chief or hero eternized in the oral tradition. The land was flooded by Huitaca, a beautiful and mean woman, or by Chibchacum, protector of the farmers. Bochica listened to the complains of the Muisca people about floods. With his stick, he broke two rocks at the edge of the Tequendama Falls and all the water came out, forming a waterfall. Bochica punished Huitaca and Chibchacum: He made Huitacaher an owl and made her hold up the sky. Chibchacum was tasked with holding up the earth.
  • Bachué: The mother of the Muisca people. It was said that a beautiful woman with a baby came out of Lake Iguaque. Bachué sat down at the bank of the lagoon and waited for her son to grow up. When he was old enough, they married and had many children, who were the Muisca people. Bachué taught them to hunt, to farm, to respect the laws, and to worship the gods. Bachué was so good and loved that the Muisca people referred to her as Furachoque (Good woman in Chibcha). When they became old, Bachué and her Son-Husband decided to go back to the deep of the lagoon. That day the Muisca people were so sad, but at the same time very happy because they knew their mother was very happy. Other versions of the legend say that after stepping into the lagoon of Iguaque, Bachué ascended to the sky and became Chía; in other versions Chia and Bachué are two different figures.

El Dorado

The origin of the legend of El Dorado may be located in the Muisca Confederation. The Zipa used to offer gold and other treasures to the Guatavita goddess. To do so, the Zipa covered himself with gold (el dorado means the gilded person). This tradition was well-known outside the Confederation, as far as the Caribbean Sea; the Spaniards were attracted by the stories of a "city of gold" that actually did not exist. Indigenous people sometimes got rid of the ambitious Spaniards in that way, pointing them in the direction of other peoples. The Guatavita lagoon was widely explored by the Conquerors, looking for gold offerings from the Zipa to the goddess. The legend grew until the term became a reference to a mythical place that attracts people.


Model of ancient Muisca houses in the Archaeology Museum of Sogamoso

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 materials such 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 the area the name Valles de los Alcázares (valley of the palaces). The houses had small doors and windows, and the dwellings of the higher rank citizens were different. The Muisca people did not use a lot of furniture as they typically sat on the floor.

History of the Muisca people

Until 1450 events are said in a mythologic context, but thanks to the Cronists of the Western Indias it is possible to know the last period of the Muisca history before the Spaniard conquerors came.


Excavations in the Altiplano Cundiboyacense (the highlands of Cundinamarca and Boyacá departments) show evidence of human activity since the Archaic stage at the beginning of the Holocene era. Colombia has one of the most ancient archaeological sites of the Americas: El Abra, which is calculated to be from 13,000 years ago. Other archaeological traces in the region of the Altiplano Cundiboyacense have led the scholars to talk about an El Abra Culture: In Tibitó, tools and other lithic artifacts date to 9740 BCE; in the Bogotá Plain, especially at Tequendama Falls, other litic tools dated a millennium later were found that belonged to specialized hunters.Human skeletons were found that date to 5000 BCE. Analysis demonstrated that the people were members of the El Abra Culture, a group different from the Muisca people. For this reason it is possible to say that the Muisca tribes did not occupy an empty land.

Muisca era

Scholars agree that the group identified as Muisca migrated to the Altiplano Cundiboyacense in the Formative stage (between 5500 and 1000 BCE), as shown by evidence found at Aguazuque and Soacha. Like the other formative-stage cultures of America, the Muiscas were in a transition between being hunters and being agrarians. Around 1500 BCE, groups of agrarians with ceramic traditions came to the region from the lowlands. They had permanent housing and stationary camps, and worked the salty water to extract salt. In Zipacón there is evidence of agriculture and ceramics. The most ancient settlement of the highlands dates to 1270 BCE. Between 500 BCE and 800 BCE, a second wave of migrants came to the highlands. Their presence is identified by multicolor ceramics, housing, and farms. These groups were still in residence upon the arrival of the Spaniard Conquerors. They left abundant traces of their occupation that have been studied since the 16th century, and allow scientists to reconstruct their way of life. It is possible that the Muisca people integrated with more ancient inhabitants, but the Muisca people were the ones who molded 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 (ruled 1470 to 1490) was in a constant war against aggressive tribes such as the Sutagos, the Fusagasugaes and, especially, the Panches, who would also make difficulties also for his successors, Nemequene and Tisquesusa. The Caribs were also a permanent threat as rivals of the Zaque of Hunza, especially for the possession of the salt mines.

The Spanish Conquest

Rivalries between the Zaque and the Zipa were taken advantage of by the Spaniards as they conquered the heart of what would be Colombia. Some of them, such as Sebastián de Belalcázar, Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, and Nicolás de Federman, interested in locating El Dorado, discovered the rich plains of Cundinamarca and Boyacá. The presence of the Spaniards 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 little to change the destiny of the Confederations. In 1542 Gonzalo Suaréz Rendón finally put down the last resistance and the territories of the Confederations were shared by Belalcazar, Federmann, and Quesada. Later the Spaniard Crown would elect Quesada as the man in charge, with the title adelantado de los cabildos de Santa Fe y Tunja.

Last Muisca sovereigns

  • Zipas of Bacatá:
    • Meicuchuca (1450–1470)
    • Saguamanchica (1470–1490)
    • Nemequene (1490–1514)
    • Tisquesusa (1514–1537)
    • Sagipa (1537–1538)
  • Zaques of Hunza:
    • Michuá (until 1490)
    • Quemuenchatocha (1490–1537)
    • Aquiminzaque (1537–1541)

Under the colonial regime

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 the Spaniard colonies in America. The territory of the Muisca people, located in a fertile plain of the Colombian Andes that contributed to make one of the most advanced South American civilizations, became part of the region named Nuevo Reino de Granada. The priests and nobility of the Muisca people were eliminated. Only the Capitanias remained. Much information about the Muisca Culture was gathered by the Spanish administration. The Spaniards created indigenous areas to keep the survivors, who were obligated to work the land for them in what were called encomiendas. The Colonial era contributed to the importance of Bogotá, and people from the area would play an important role in the fights for independence and republican consolidation. The wars of independence of three nations (Colombia with Panamá, Venezuela, and Ecuador) were led by the descendants of the Conquerors. Aboriginal, African, and mixed race people were soldiers, no less important a role.

20th century

After independence in 1810, the new state dissolved many of the indigenous reservations. The one in Tocancipá was dissolved in 1940.[7] The one in Sesquilé was reduced to 10% of its original size. Tenjo was reduced to 54% of its original size after 1934. The Reservation of Cota was re-established on 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 in 2006.

In 1948 the state forbade the production of chicha, a corn-based alcoholic drink.[8] This was a blow to the culture and economy of the Muisca. The ban remained until 1991. Since then, the "Festival of the chicha, maize, life, and joy" is celebrated every year in Barrio La Perseverancia, a neighborhood in Bogotá where most of the Chicha is produced.

21st century

Since 1989 there has been a process of reconstruction of the indigenous councils by the surviving members of the Muisca Culture. Muisca Councils currnetly working are Suba, Bosa, Cota, Chía, and Sesquilé. The councils had an Assembly in Bosa on 20–22 September, 2002, called 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).[9] They proposed linguistic and cultural recuperation, defense of the territories nowadays occupied by others, and proposed urban and tourist plans. They support the communities of Ubaté, Tocancipá, Soacha, Ráquira, and Tenjo in their efforts to recover their organizational and human rights.

The Muisca people of Suba opposed the drying up of the Tibabuyes Lagoon and wanted to recover the Humedal de Juan Amarillo. They defend the natural reserves like La Conejera Hill that is considered by the Shelter's Council to be communal land. Suati Magazine (The Song of the Sun) is a publication of poetry, literature, and essays about Muisca Culture.

The community of Bosa made important achievements in its project of natural medicine in association with the Paul VI Hospital and the District Secretary of Health of Bogotá. The community of Cota has reintroduced the growing of quinua, and regularly barter their products at market.

Toward the end of 2006 there was a report on the Muisca population:

  • 3 Muisca Councils: Cota, Chía, and Sesquile, with a population of 2,318 persons.
  • In the Capital District 5,186 people are registered as belonging to the Musica ethnic group.
  • In the municipalities of Suba and Bosa, 1,573 people are registered.
  • The report does not include the number of people of the Muisca ethnic group in the entire territory of the ancient Muisca confederations or outside that territory. It does not include Muisca Creole persons, it is to say, those of mixed Muisca ancestry.

Some political perspectives say that the Muisca Culture and even the ethnic group disappeared with the destruction of the political Muisca Confederation at the beginning of the 16th century. Some people even 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; it is a form of cultural denial. 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.

Muisca research

Studies of the Muisca Culture are abundant and 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 of interest in study of the Muisca Culture. White Colombians established the capital of their republic in Bogotá, the former Viceroyal city, which was the capital of the Confederation of the Zipa, and was known as Bacatá. Research shws the place was the cradle of an advanced civilization whose process of consolidation was cut by the Spanish Conquest.[10] This search for an identity resulted in giving 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 that all archeological finds could be attribured solely to the Muisca people. In 1849 President Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera invited 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).[11] 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).[12] An objection to that point of view came from Vicente Restrepo: in his work Los chibchas antes de la conquista española (The Chibcha people before the Spaniard Conquest)[13] showed them as barbarians. Miguel Triana, in his work La Civilización Chibcha (The Chibcha Civilization)[14] suggested that the rock art's symbols merely were writing. Wenceslao Cabrera Ortíz 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)[15] and reports about excavations in El Abra. Those publications opened a new era in the studies of the Pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia.[16]


  1. ^ Londoño, E., El lugar de la religión en la organización social muisca (tr.en The place of religion in the Muisca social organization), Museo del Oro. En Biblioteca Luís Ángel Arango.
  2. ^ Londoño E., op.cit.
  3. ^ Ministerio de Minas y Energia, Proexport Colombia.
  4. ^ P. Bahn, Archaeology, p. 317
  5. ^ Familia lingüística Chibchano-Paezano, op.cit.
  6. ^ Escudo Municipio de Sopó (Spanish)
  7. ^ Decree of August 14, 1940, Republic of Colombia.
  8. ^ Law 34 of 1948, Republic of Colombia.
  9. ^ Abbreviation in Spanish: "Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia"
  10. ^ Arguello G., Pedro María. Historia de la investigación del arte rupestre en Colombia (tr.en. History of the Investigation of the Rock Art in Colombia) In Rupestreweb.
  11. ^ ANCÍZAR, Manuel, Peregrinación Alfa, Bogotá, 1889: Comisión Coreográfica Agustín Codazzi.
  12. ^ URICOECHEA, Ezequiel, Memorias sobre las Antigüedades Neogranadinas, Berlín, 1854.
  13. ^ RESTREPO, Vicente, Los chibchas antes de la conquista española, 1895.
  14. ^ TRIANA, Miguel, La Civilización Chibcha, 1924.
  15. ^ En "Cuaderno primero: Generalidades, Algunos conjuntos pictóricos de Cundinamarca".
  16. ^ o.p. Argüello.


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