Tribal groups of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the 20th century


‘The retreat from Spanish dominance into the more remote mountainfolds led, in part, to isolation, in part to the meeting and consequently, intermarrying, of ethnic groups which, before the Conquest, seem to have occupied discrete territories.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1987: 77). These descendants of the Tairona civilization exist today as are four indigenous groups speaking Chibchan-related languages, but for all intents and purposes only three are referred to.

They are:-

  The Kogi who call themselves the Kaggaba or Gaggaba (‘The People’). They live on the northern and western sides of the mountain and number 12,000.

  The Arhuaco who call themselves the Ika, and who are variously called the Bintukua or Machaca. They live on the southern and western sides and number 8,000.

  The Assario, also called the Saha, Sanha, or Malayo, live on the north-east of the mountain and number 4,000.

(Figures are estimates. Reichel-Dolmatoff originally estimated 3,000 indigenes in toto, eventually revising his figure upwards to 6,000. The uncertainty signifies that this is still an area which is under-researched.)

Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff defines the relationship between the tribes in the following way:

‘Although these three tribes (the Kogi, Ika and Sanhá or Assario) present marked physical and linguistic differences, they all share many cultural traits which form part of a common tradition, and the Sierra Nevada thus represents a single cultural area. The Ika and Sanhá are considerably more acculturated than the Kogi… and they look with contempt upon the Kogi whose fields, houses, and general subsistence level they consider to be very deficient. However, in everything concerning the religious sphere, the Ika and Sanhá recognise quite openly the superiority of the Kogi. As a matter of fact, the religious system of the Ika and Sanhá is, in essence, a less elaborate variant of Kogi religion and to the former the Kogi are, and always have been, the possessors of a body of esoteric knowledge which is extremely important to all the tribes of the Sierra Nevada. This dependence manifests itself in the fact that the other two tribes will approach the Kogi to consult them on religious matters or to ask them to officiate on a variety of ceremonial occasions.’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff in Lyon 1974: 290).

Languages of the tribes

All indigenous groups on the mountain speak a Chibchan derived language. The original Chibcha language, which would have been spoken at the time of the arrival of the Spanish, is now extinct.

Chibchan derived languages survive today in an area from Costa Rica down through Panama and into Colombia, with two spreading across the borders into Ecuador and Venezuela. ‘The precise extent of the family is controversial, although there is a core group of languages which are generally agreed to be genetically related’. (Bright 1992: 255). Those spoken in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta belong to the Aruak sub-group and are:-

  Chimila - spoken by small number of people in the lowlands near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Also called Caca Weranos, San Jorge, or Shimizya. Language use is vigorous, with limited Spanish. There are two major groups, who live apart as enemies.

  Kogi. Population includes 99% nearly monolingual, and 1% with routine ability in Spanish.

  Ika. Southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

  Malayo. Spoken by the Assario on the southern and eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.