Tairona history to the time of the Spanish Invasion

The Circum-Caribbean tribes which Steward placed at the top of a cultural hierarchy existent at the time of the Conquest included those Chibcha speaking groups which inhabited the northern part of South America, and extended into Central America. The Tairona civilization belonged to this Chibcha group.

The Chibchas

The Chibchas were one of successive waves of migrating groups. The Mesoamericans (Indians originally inhabiting Central America),who arrived in approximately 1200 B.C., introduced the cultivation of corn, and were followed by a second wave in 500 B.C. Between 400 and 300 B.C., the Chibchas travelled from Nicaragua and Honduras and reached Colombia shortly before the Arawaks arrived from the south (Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay). Near the end of the first millennium A.D., the warlike Caribs migrated from the Caribbean, supplanting the Chibchas in the lowlands and forcing them to move to higher elevations. By the 1500's, the Chibchas, were divided into two principal groups: the Muisca, located in the plateaus of Cundinamarca and Boyacá , and the Tairona, who settled along the northern spur of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the present-day La Guajira Department. The Tairona formed a confederation of two groups, one in the Caribbean lowlands and the other in the highlands of contemporary Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The lowlands Tairona fished and produced salt, which they traded for cotton cloth and blankets with their highlands counterparts. Both groups lived in numerous, well-organized towns connected by stone roads. image

The Taironas

Steward's view that the Tairona, as Circum-Caribbeans, were at the pinnacle of American cultural development at the time of the Spanish Invasion, is endorsed by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff who described them as '... a native tribe which had reached a level of cultural complexity equal, if not superior, to the Muisca culture of the Andean highlands of the interior.' (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1974: 290). (Reichel-Dolmatoff (1912-1994) will be quoted extensively in these pages. An Austrian emigré to Colombia, he and his wife Alicia did anthropological and archaeological fieldwork all over Colombia. He started doing fieldwork in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the 1940's and continued through to the 1970's. His work was largely published by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), both in English and Spanish, and his ethnographies of the Kogi are the definitive work about them. Prior to his work, Preuss had studied the Kogi at the turn of the century, but for only a short period, for most of which he was ill. Reichel-Dolmatoff can lay claim to being the founding father of Colombian anthropology.) At the time of Invasion, they possessed most of the Circum-Caribbean features mentioned in the previous document, to which can be added goldsmithing ability which still arouses the admiration of contemporary goldsmiths who try, unsuccessfully, to replicate the refinement of their original pieces. image
In general, the Circum-Caribbeans 'suffered from the European Conquest perhaps more drastically than any other American Indians. They became ethnographically, if not biologically, extinct, in the Antilles, Venezuela and much of Colombia. Only fragments survive in isolated areas of Colombia and of Central America. Many of the survivors retain a predominantly Indian culture, but it lacks all essential features of the native Circum-Caribbean culture and presents an interesting case of deculturation. The Spanish Conquest dislodged the tribes from their native habitat, especially on the coasts and the more favored highland areas, and threw them back into submarginal lands where subsistence could not support large population clusters or special classes of artisans, priests, warriors, and nobles. At the same time, the Spanish government seized political controls from the native nobles, and Spanish military power put an end to warfare, thus destroying the class structure... The distinguishing socio-religious factors were thus destroyed, and the more elaborate craft products in weaving, metallurgy, ceramics, building arts, and the like lost meaning, for they had been designed largely for the native upper classes. There remained only a simple folk culture: simple farming people, an unstratified society , shamanism, and unelaborate textiles, ceramics, and other craft products made for home consumption. The surviving tribes retain a native culture which resembles that of the Tropical Forest peoples who have also simple technologies and a simple socio-religious pattern.' (Steward in Lyon 1974: 14).
The Taironas experience of Conquest was in some ways peculiar to the general scenario described above and is the subject of the next document.