Colombia’s Indigenous Marvels: Insights and Discoveries

Colombia’s Indigenous Marvels: Insights and Discoveries

The tribal cultures of South America are so innumerable that they cannot be adequately summarized in a fleeting dialogue. The mosaic is mysterious in its complexity, the cultures have permeated one another as a result of constant migratory movements and through inter-tribal relationships.

The innumerable native tribes differ in their patterns of adaption to their natural environment. Whether they live in the rainforest, in the impenetrable jungle lining the rivers, the arid savannas, or the swamps, they share a common cultural background, often combining hunting, fishing and the gathering of wild plant foods with rudimentary farming.

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Most are relatively settled, while others are nomadic or semi-nomadic. More substantial differences are often found among neighboring groups living in the same forest than between forest and savanna tribes. Indeed, some tribes, when migrating to open areas, maintain to a great extent the forest characteristics of their culture.

On the banks of the great rivers, such as the mighty Amazon and in areas between the forest and the savanna live tribes who gain their subsistence from farming and fishing. Hunters and gatherers, almost all of whom also practice some farming, have settled near the heads of rivers, in open land, or deep in the forests.

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Tribes speaking related languages are scattered over a large part of the country.

A characteristic feature of tropical forest cultures is their combination of farming with hunting, fishing and gathering. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Indians of the tropical forest had no domestic animals. As is typical of most farmer-foragers, these people did not write or erect stone buildings.

Their utensils and instruments were almost all of vegetable or animal origin. There is evidence of metalwork only in the regions near Andean civilizations, although objects of copper and other metals occasionally found their way across the region, likely as a result of trade.

In almost all of the tropical forest areas, the population density was low. Populous centers existed only along the coast and the main rivers, particularly the Amazon. For the most part, however, the Indians were dispersed throughout the vast territory in innumerable tribes.

Most of the tropical forest Indians are neither entirely sedentary nor entirely nomadic. Most wandering groups do not remain in the same place for more than a few days. Farming populations are more or less attached to specific locations, although they do make seasonal moves, especially those in semi-arid regions. The semi-nomadic tribes live in villages during the rainy season and go hunting during dry spells. Most of the villages of the tropical forest farmers are not permanent as after a few years they have to relocate as a result of soil exhaustion.

Most houses are made of rough wood, covered with palm leaves or grass. The great circular malocas (houses) with conical roofs in Colombia merit special consideration for their size and solidity. Although there are no walls in the malocas, the space available is customarily divided according to social distinctions permitting a specific place for each family.

The crops are chiefly bitter manioc as well as other tubers and root vegetables, including sweet potatoes and yams, along with maize.

The forest is cleared by felling and when the brushwood is dry enough, setting it alight. The same area is used for up to six consecutive crops and then left fallow until it is covered by new vegetation and regenerated.

The group must therefore move periodically as the slash-and-burn method does not, except in the more fertile lowlands, permit the growth of dense populations.

The tropical forest Indians are highly inventive. They have developed many types of harpoons, arrows, traps, snares and blowguns. For fishing, they employ a variety of natural medications that stun or kill the fish without making them toxic. The bow and arrow are today used everywhere and are the principal weapons of warfare, although some groups prefer to fight with clubs and lances.

The techniques of weaving have a wealth of variations in different regions. Along with many kinds of baskets and bags, fans, mats and other household articles are made out of palm leaves, local twines and bamboo.

The potter’s wheel was traditionally not used, but coiled ceramics reached a high degree of development. Among nomadic groups pottery is either nonexistent or very rudimentary.

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Weaving though recognized, remains at an elementary level since most tropical forest Indians, instead of wearing clothes prefer to paint the body and embellish it with all sorts of adornments, including gold and feathers.

The land is generally owned by the group occupying or exploiting it and parceled out to families for hunting, fishing, or planting. Cleared land invariably belongs to the family using it.

Weapons and household utensils are the property of individuals however, canoes and other objects used collectively are for communal use.

Commerce contributes significantly toward reducing cultural differences among the tribes, the more so because it is accompanied at times by ceremonial activities through which religious ideas and practices, as well as elements of social organization, are transmitted.

Nature is believed to be frequented by demons and spirits that are beneficial or malevolent, depending on man’s behavior. Besides the soul that gives life to every living creature, many plants and animals have a mother or master.
Ceremonial practices vary, depending on the tribe and its way of life. Some great collective ceremonies have been associated with war.
Ceremonies are often believed to be indispensable for regulating the course of the Sun and the Moon, the sequence of the seasons, the fertility of plants, the procreation of animals and the very continuity of human life. Their objective may also be to communicate with the dead or with mythical ancestors.

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The great majority of the Indian groups are closed societies, despite intense intertribal relations in certain areas. A few indigenous groups have a history of successful interactions with outsiders.
The prohibition of warfare, headhunting, cannibalism, polygamy and other events that have a profound meaning in tribal life, can set in motion a process of social disarray.

In addition, numerous tribes have been extinguished by violent destruction, slavery, the loss of lands required for subsistence, epidemics and even marriage to outsiders.

Contact with outsiders may create a philosophical crisis for tribal leadership. Often the chief of the group is deprived of his authority, since the conditions for realizing the values essential to tribal life no longer exist.

Agricultural tribes are sometimes able to adapt to the new conditions for a time by trading their products. The sale of products such as fur skins, babassu nuts, copaiva oils and others helps in certain cases.
The transformation of the Indian into a laborer has generally led to the rupture of tribal bonds, much misery and the disappearance of the tribes as ethnic entities.

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