Muisca Tribe: Marvelous Colombia Indigenous Treasures

Muisca Tribe: Marvelous Colombia Indigenous Treasures

The Musica civilization, also known as the Chibchas, flourished in ancient Colombia between the first and sixteenth centuries. Their territory encompassed what is now Bogotá and its environs, including Tunja. Specifically, they were found in the Altiplano Cundiboyacense. This is a plateau in the Colombian Andes Mountains at a 2,500m/8,000’ to 4,000m/13,000’ elevation.

It is estimated that there were about 500,000 Muisca at their society’s peak. While now greatly diminished in number, there are a little over 10,000 in Colombia today.

Gaining everlasting fame as the origin of the El Dorado legend, the Muisca have left a significant artistic legacy with their superb gold work, much of it unrivaled by any other culture.

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The Musica lived in scattered settlements spread across the valleys of the high Andean plains in the east of modern-day Colombia. Important annual ceremonies related to religion and agriculture involved large numbers of participants and included singing, incense burning and music with trumpets, drums, bells and ocarinas (bulbous ceramic flutes).

Founded by the legendary figure Bochica, who came from the east and taught morality, law and arts and crafts, the Muisca were ruled by chieftains aided by spiritual leaders. The Muisca controlled and defended their territory enthusiastically and had weapons such as clubs, spear-throwers, arrows and lances.

Warriors also had protective helmets, armored breastplates and shields. The Muisca took trophy heads from their defeated enemies and they sometimes sacrificed captives to appease their gods. However, warfare was highly ritualized and likely small-scale.

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Musica society was based on an economy featuring intensive agriculture, a variety of crafts and considerable trade. Weekly markets in the larger villages facilitated the exchange of farm produce, pottery and cotton cloth and trade with neighboring peoples provided the gold that was used extensively for ornaments and offerings.

Also, there is abundant evidence that commodities such as gold, shells, feathers, animal skins, tobacco, salt, coca leaves and other foodstuffs were traded with neighboring Colombian cultures such as the Tolima and Quimbaya. Precious goods would have been reserved for the Muisca elite, as was hunting and meat.

Idolizing the sun, the Muisca also had a special reverence for sacred objects and certain places such as rocks, caves, rivers and lakes. At these sites, they would leave votive offerings (tunjos) as they were considered a portal to other worlds.

The most important Muisca gods were Zue, the sun god and Chie, the moon goddess. Also, there was Chibchacum, the benefactor of metalworkers and merchants. The most common type of offerings to the gods was foodstuffs along with typical tunjos (offerings) of snakes and animal figures rendered in gold alloy, which were placed at sacred sites.

Exclusive members of society were also buried in such religiously significant places, first being dried and then wrapped with many layers of fine textiles. Finally, they were arranged in a tomb placed on their seat of office, a small stool or tianga, surrounded by the precious goods they had enjoyed in life.

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The Muisca today are most famous for the legend of El Dorado, The Gilded One. A Muisca ceremony held at Lake Guatavita involved a ruler being covered in gold dust. He was then taken on a raft to the center of the lake, where he leaped into the waters in ritual cleansing and renewal. The Muisca community would then throw precious objects into the lake during the ceremony, not only gold but also other valuables, including emeralds.

The Spanish, on hearing this fable, allowed their imagination and lust for gold to run wild. Soon a legend arose of a magnificent city built of gold. Naturally, as it never existed in the first place, the city was never found. Despite several costly attempts over the centuries, even the lake has stubbornly refused to reveal its secrets.

In recent years, it inspired actor John Wayne’s Western movie El Dorado in 1966 and Dreamwork’s animated The Road to El Dorado in 2000.

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Figures in Muisca art are often transformational, for instance, a man with elements of a bird which may represent the hallucinatory visions of shamans, induced by the consumption of coca leaves or yopo. Animals such as bats, felines, snakes, alligators, and amphibians were also popular subjects.

The Muisca did not restrict their artistic output to just gold but also created fine textiles which were of wool or cotton, the latter of which could also be painted.

Typical Muisca designs include spirals and other geometric, interlocking forms. Also produced were ceramics and carved semi-precious stones. The Muisca women were not only capable weavers of cloth but were equally skilled in basket-weaving and feather-work. Most examples have been discovered in tombs and so escaped the avarice of the European invaders in the early 16th century and later tomb bandits.

For the Muisca, gold was the material of choice as it was valued for its lustrous and transformational properties and its association with the sun. It was not used as a means of exchange, but rather as an artistic medium.

Gold was mined from exposed veins and panned from mountain rivers. Gold and its alloy tumbaga (a mix of gold and copper with traces of silver) were used to make tunjos (offerings) such as figures and masks, coca containers (poporos) with lime diapers, and also exquisite jewelry, including pectorals, earrings, and nose studs.

The Muisca goldsmiths employed a wide range of techniques in their work such as lost-wax casting, depletion gilding which gives a two-tone finish, repoussage, soldering, granulation and filigree. Gold was also made into thin sheets by hammering on round stone anvils or carved stone molds using an oval hammer of stone or metal

Perhaps one of the finest of all Muisca pieces, and solid evidence of the El Dorado ceremony, is a gold alloy raft on which stand figures, one of whom is larger and wearing a headdress and is undoubtedly the Gilded One. It was discovered in a cave near Bogotá and was a tunjo (offering). The piece is 10 x 20 cm with the main figure being 10 cm high and it now resides, along with many of the finest surviving Muisca pieces, in Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá.

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