A variety of linguistically and culturally diverse peoples occupied Colombia at the time of European contact. Their many languages were related to three linguistic families: Arawak, from eastern South America; Carib, from the Caribbean; and Chibcha, from Central America. Peoples who spoke languages from each family lived throughout the region.
Hunter-gatherer societies prevailed in the vast, sparsely populated lowlands of eastern Colombia, as well as on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and in the tropical river valleys of the mountainous west. Some of these societies also engaged in agriculture. These were relatively egalitarian societies, and they fiercely resisted Spanish colonization.
In the densely populated temperate highlands of western Colombia, intensive cultivation of corn and potatoes gave rise to complex agricultural societies. Highly stratified and hierarchical, these societies were composed of agricultural workers, skilled artisans, merchants, priests, and warriors. Many of these societies appear to have engaged in frequent warfare with their neighbors, and most seem to have practiced human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism. Their funerary practices, including mummification, reveal great differences in the wealth and power of social groups. Many of these peoples produced exquisite gold artifacts. The most numerous of Colombia’s indigenous peoples were the Chibcha (Muisca), who occupied the high intermontane basins of the easternmost branch of the Andes.
Numbering perhaps 1 million people at the time of the Spanish conquest (estimates vary widely), the Chibcha had not evolved a full-fledged state on the order of the Aztec Empire of Mexico or the Inca Empire of Peru. But they were organized in large-scale political confederations, practiced a diverse and highly productive agriculture, and traded pottery, cotton cloth, coca, salt, gold, and emeralds over a wide area. A separate but highly sophisticated branch of Chibcha-speaking people, the Tairona, occupied the lands around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a large volcano near the Caribbean coast. "Colombia" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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