From Arhuaco to Zenu: Indigenous Peoples of Colombia

August 28, 2014

Arhuaco-weavers-colombia-tourThough they comprise just 3.5% of the population, with around 1.5 million people representing 87 different tribes, the indigenous peoples of Colombia have had a major impact on the history and evolution of the country’s cultural heart. Known in Spanish as pueblos indígenas, these tribes are distributed widely across Colombia’s landscape, from Amazonia and the Andean highlands to the Caribbean and Pacific lowlands.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Colombia had well-established hunter-gatherer cultures by the late Pleistocene era, with the earliest human inhabitants concentrated along the Caribbean coast and the Andes. The cave system of the El Abra archeological site, located just north of Bogota, is considered among the very first human settlements in the Americas, with research conducted in the 1960s uncovering ancient petroglyphs and mastodon bones carbon dated to around 11,400 years BCE.

By the time the Spanish arrived in 1509, Colombia’s Amerindian population numbered between 1.5 and 2 million. Most of them evolved from three main cultural groups — the Quimbayas, who inhabited the western slopes of the Cordillera Central; the Chibchas, who were skilled in farming, mining and metal work; and the war-like Caribes, who ultimately migrated to eastern South America and the Caribbean islands. Their social organization and technological advances varied greatly, from class-divided agricultural chiefdoms to nomadic hunter-gatherers.

Here are a few of the more important Colombian tribal cultures, many of which continue to thrive today:

Arhuaco: With a population of 27,000, these Chichan-speaking people are descendents of the ancient Tairona culture. Concentrated in northern Colombia, they believe the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of the world, and that the planet’s well being depends on it. Focused on subsistence agriculture, they also make knapsacks– Arhuaca mochila– that have become a cultural symbol for Colombian identity.

Awá: This ancient tribe of around 32,000 inhabits the forests of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia. The Awa Reserve is in the Chocoanos Forest (located in the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena) region, which is considered among the most biodiverse places on the planet. Though they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, today they also farm livestock and grow a broad variety of vegetables.

Kogi:  Alternately known as the Cogui or Kágaba (which means “Jaguar” in their language), the Kogi have lived in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta since the Pre-Columbian era. Their population of 20,000 still lives in much the same way their Tairona ancestors did, living in stone and thatch huts, worshiping Aluna (a.k.a. Mother Nature), and viewing the Earth as a living being and humanity as its children.

Muisca: One of the great cultures of the pre-Columbian era, the Muisca civilization occupied around 18,000 square miles in Colombia’s Eastern Range before the Spanish conquest. In 2002 they formed the Great Council of the Muiscan People (which number approximately 10,000 now), and have since remained active defenders of the region’s natural resources as well as the rights of its indigenous peoples.

Nukak- Although their numbers are small (around 500 total), this tribe of nomadic hunter-gatherers from the fringe of the Amazon basin became famous as an “uncontacted people” discovered in the early ‘80s. They’re expert hunters, using blowguns and darts coated with curare manyi, a poison made from various plants. Endangered by disease and guerilla encounters, the Nukak are a focus of indigenous rights campaigns by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia.

Wayuú: Easily the nation’s largest indigenous tribe, the Wayuú population numbers around 450,000, with nearly a third of them based in northern Colombia (the rest live in northwest Venezuela). Inhabiting the arid La Guajira Peninsula, the matriarchal Wayuú were among the few tribes never successfully subjugated by the Spanish…and not for lack of trying. Their language, wayuunaiki, is related to the Arawak family of language predominant in the Caribbean, and remains in regular usage today. As do many of their traditional cultural elements, from musical rituals and dances such as the Yonna and Majayura to the rancherias-style settlements typically made up of five or six houses.


Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.