Introduction to Tairona people

 by Ruxandra Pătrașcu Maian

1st part  – Historical Contextualization


Some years ago, anthropologist Elman Service came up with four types of social and political organizations: band, tribe, chiefdom and state. A chiefdom is defined as “ a form of sociopolitical organization that is intermediate between the tribe and the state, is kin-based, but it has differential access to resources and a permanent political structure”.

The chiefdom of Tairona people, part of the Chibchas group, were inhabitants of Colombia, in the regions of Cesar, Magdalena and La Guajira, better known nowadays as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta zone. Their activity in these areas started 2000 years ago, but human activity in the region  can be tracked 6000 years ago. Also, they are derived from Mongoloid expansion.

The predecessors of the Chibchas were the Circum Caribbean tribes. These tribes activities involved: “ intensive farming, dense population; stable settlements, usually dispersed around religious centres; a class system in which status was according to priests; governance was based on the kin group; religious mounds, altars, offertories and shrines; cloth garments(cotton-domestic); armour; painted, negative- painted, incised and   treatment of pottery, feather work and feather masks; sandals, batik, tie, dyeing, coiled and perhaps woven baskets metates; the beginning of multi-village states, federation or realms; special privileges accorded to the chief”- the majority of these criteria apply to the Tairona as well. The Circum-Caribbean tribes, at the time of the Spanish invasion included “those Chibcha speaking groups which inhabited in the northern part of South America”.

The Chibchas travelled from Nicaragua and Honduras between 400-300 BC. By the 15th and 16th century the Chibchas were divided into two groups because of the Spanish invasion: the Muisca and the Tairona. Tensions between them forced the chiefdom to move into the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The location turned out to be quite difficult to be colonised and the Tairona escaped the invasion so far. Tairona divided into two groups, one in the Caribbean lowlands and the other in the highlands of contemporary Siena Nevada de Santa Marta. The lowlanders went fishing and also produced salt, which they would trade with their northern neighbours for cotton cloth and blankets.


Exploration of South America began from Hispaniola, known today as Haiti and Dominican Republic. The west area, of the Caribbean Colombia was explored only after “nine years after Columbus’s first landfall in the New World”. Rodrigo Bastidas(a Seville merchant) started the construction of the city of Santa Marta in 1525. Bastidas presented a terrifying future for the natives: “ I assure you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you, and I will make war on you in every place and in every way that I can, and I will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the church and their highness, and I will take your persons and your women and children, and I will make them slaves, and as such I will sell them, and dispose of them as their highness command; I will take your goods, and I will do you all the evils and harms which I can, just as to vassals who do not obey and do not want to receive their lord, resist him and and contradict him. And I declare that the deaths and harms which arise from this will be your fault, and not that of their highnesses, nor mine, nor of the gentlemen who have come with me here.”

Trades among the Spanish and the Indians started in 1529, under the expedition of Pedro de Lerma who offered Taironas “agricultural tools of iron and also many beads, knives and scissors, doublets, coloured caps, hats and shirts finely worked at the neck”. Another list dated in 1536 included “shirts, doublets, coloured caps, axes, spades and hoes”. Until 1572 the requests of the Indians increased, became more “modern”, and a Tairona chief started asking for “arquebuses, gunpowder and shot”. Valuable European products were usually offered as funeral gifts.

Spanish requests also increased “the Spanish settled on the coast and used Indians to work their farms. They demanded gold and the Indians gave it. And when the Indians ran away and went up to the Mamas in the mountain to escape, the Mamas gave them more gold and said “give it to the Spanish and go back to work. Because without the fish and salt that you send from the coast, the rest of Sierra cannot live”.


In 1600 an uprising was provoked by a new governor in Santa Marta “It was the arrival of the Catholic fathers after the initial conquest which sparked off the rebellion, because they forbade the continuance of the religious rites of the Indians”. In 1599 Cuchacique, the Tairona leader was confronted by the Governor Juan Guiral Velon which started a resistance from the natives which was followed by “war and introduced disease, retreated into the heights of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.” A Kogi(descendants of Tairona people) Mama, also called Mama Valencia is responsible for remembering the history. He gave a moving description on how the natives were affected by the conquest “People used to live in peace, all over this land. We, the Older Brother(the natives), had no problem with the Younger Brother(the foreigner) at all. Always in peace, in peace, in peace. That’s how it was. And then he arrived. Younger Brother arrived, and he started to kill us, and to destroy. They set dog on us. We were terrified and the people panicked and didn’t know that to do and just ran wherever they could. That’s how it was. Things fell from our bags as we ran and scattered everywhere. Falling. Scattered. Our finest things. And when we stopped and we looked – hey – everything was gone. Nothing left.” After extracting sufficient gols Spanish presence diminished and the indigenes left behind had to less in order to reconstruct. In 1875 was the first attempt, after the Spanish invasion, to colonise the area again.

In order to underline the gravity of the situation a quote from a letter, dated 20 May 1541, send by the bishop of the province to His Majesty the King is mandatory: “ I submit, sacred Caesar, that the remedy for the ills that beset this territory is that Your Majesty remove from positions of authority the cruel usurpers presently in control and entrust it to someone who will love and care for it as he would his own offspring and will treat is properly as it deserves, and that Your Majesty attend to this as a matter of highest priority. If nothing is done, I am certain that the whole territory will very soon simply disappear from the face of the earth, given the ways in which the cruel usurpers now maltreat and belabour it. It will be clear to Your Majesty from this how vital it is that those who presently govern these regions be stripped of their stewardship, so that the cruel yoke may be removed from the whole republic. If this is not done, I can see no remedy for the ills that now beset it. Your Majesty will also now perceive that here there are no Christians but only devils; no servants of God and the Crown but only traitors to His laws and Yours. It is my considered opinion that the greatest obstacle that stands in the way of the pacification of the New World, and with it the conversion of the people to Christ, is the harshness and cruelty of the treatment meted out by “Christians” to those who surrender. This has been so harsh and so brutal that nothing is more odious nor more terrifying to the people than the name “Christian”, a word for which they use in their language the term yares, which means “demons”. In his letters, the bishop divides the natives as follows: those who “continue to struggle” and those “who surrender”. The first category refers to the people who managed to escape and went to the hills and mountains(highland) and by the “surrenderers” he refers to those who have survived the slaughter and the cruel treatments of the Spanish, but now are under demonic slaverism. The natives response to such treatment was resembling to “I give up. You are evil and wicked. I cannot go on any longer. Kill me now. I do not want to live another moment.”

Illustration of Indians having their hands severed because they did not accomplish the requirements, of the invaders, for gold:


“Power is the ability to exercise one’s will over others. Authority is the socially approved use of power.”

Works Cited

1. “Bartolomé De Las Casas and His Defence of the Indians.” Bartolomé De Las Casas and His Defence of the Indians. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <>.

2. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity. New York: Random House, 1974. Print.

3. “South American Indigenous History to Invasion.” South American Indigenous History to Invasion. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <>.

4. “The Spanish Invasion of South America.” The Spanish Invasion of South America. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <>.

5. “The Tayrona People.” La Ciudad Perdida RSS. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <>.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s