Colombia’s first inhabitants were Amerindian settlers from North and Central America including the Tayrona, Sinu, Muisca, Quimbaya, Tierradentro, and San Agustín. Around 1200 B.C.E. the first wave of Amerindians from Central America arrived in Colombia, bringing with them maize (corn), followed by a second wave in 500, and a third between 400 and 300, shortly before the Arawaks moved into the region from other areas of the continent. By 1000 B.C.E. Amerindians had developed the political system of cacicazgos (in Spanish cacique, in Taino cacike, or in Arawak kassequa, all meaning “chieftain.”) with a pyramidal structure of power, especially the Muisca, or Chibcha people. Next to the Incas theirs was the largest political system of South America. They were farmers, artisans, and skilled goldsmiths; their dwellings were circular, made of wood and thatch. In Chibcha, muisca means “people.” Their sacred sites such as Guatavita and Iguaque Lakes remain, and their cultural artifacts—goldwork, pottery, burial chambers, and rock paintings—can still be seen today. Toward the end of the first millennium C.E. the Caribs moved to the mainland from their island homes, forcing the Chibcha to move into the higher elevations. In 1499 Alonso de Ojeda (1466–1516), a former companion of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), landed on the Guajira Peninsula with his own ships, accompanied by Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). The Indians initially tolerated the Spaniards but rebelled when the Spanish tried to enslave them. When Ojeda returned to Spain in 1500 he sold the captive Amerindians. The Spaniards soon conquered a large part of what was to become Colombia, and Cartagena was founded in 1533. In 1544 the territory became a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, made up of most of the Spanish territories in South America. This changed in 1739 when it was incorporated into the territory of New Granada. In 1819 Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) and his liberation army secured independence for the region, which included Colombia. This was followed by 10 years of confederation with Venezuela and Ecuador. Regional differences among the three, however, finally destroyed the union. A lengthy period of unrest ensued. Two parties were formed: the Conservative and the Liberal. Their rivalry led to no fewer than 50 insurrections and 8 civil wars in the 19th century alone. The 1899–1903 “War of a Thousand Days” led to a period of relative peace. But in 1948 war broke out again, and nearly 300,000 people were killed. After some time the conflict began taking on revolutionary overtones; so the Conservatives and the Liberals agreed to a power-sharing arrangement in 1957. This two-party era came to an end in 1974, although a modified version of the two-party system continued for another 17 years. Resentments over the two parties’ monopoly of power fostered the growth of left-wing guerilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the April 19 Movement (M19). Also growing in power were the drug cartels of Medellín and Cali and the paramilitary death squads they financed. By 1990 escalating violence brought the country to the point of collapse. In 1991 a new constitution came into effect, which strengthened government control. In the same year Pablo Escobar (1949–93), head of the Medellín cartel, surrendered to authorities. He escaped the next year but was killed in December 1993. In 1995, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela (b. 1940), leader of the Cali cartel, was arrested, but this hardly affected the drug trade. In 1998 the conservative Andrés Pastrana (b. 1954), who had led a campaign against politicians’ drug cartel connections, won the elections. In 2002 the moderate-right independent Álvaro Uribe (b. 1952) won a landslide victory. Known for his staunch opposition to guerillas, Uribe had survived 15 assassination attempts even before he became president. In spite of setbacks in the early years of the 21st century he remained popular and continued his efforts to rein in the guerillas and drug cartels.
Colombia is the fourth largest country in South America. The western part of the country is mostly mountainous; a part of the Andes Mountains is located here. This is also the location of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the world’s highest coastal mountain range. Colombia’s tallest mountain is the Pico Cristóbal Colón, at 18,946 feet. The Serranía de la Macarena is an isolated mountain formation rising 3,000 feet from the eastern plains. Over 50 percent of the lands east of the Andes are lowlands or covered by thick rain forest. The jungle of the Pacific coast holds a world record for the highest rainfall.
Colombia has two economies: the legitimate official one and that of the huge underground drug trade, which is apparently linked to the international traffic in women and girls for sexual exploitation and prostitution. The country produces coffee, bananas, rice, tobacco, corn, sugarcane, and cocoa beans. Its coffee is one of the best in the world. Among the industrial goods it produces are textiles, processed foods, beverages, chemicals, and cement. In addition to oil, its mines produce coal, gold, and gems such as emeralds. Prolonged conflicts and weak domestic and foreign demand have hurt Colombia’s economy. Oil and coffee, Colombia’s main exports, face an uncertain future. Existing oil fields are close to depletion, while coffee production and demand are both depressed. On the other hand early 21st-century economic reforms have been well received by international financial institutions, and investor confidence seems to be growing. Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, but much of that aid is earmarked for fighting the drug trade, not for helping the people. Colombia is a major source and transit country for women and girls trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The Colombian government estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 Colombian nationals engage in prostitution overseas, and a majority of them are trafficking victims.
The majority of Colombia’s people are of mixed Spanish, African, and indigenous descent. Spanish is Colombia’s official language. About 65 indigenous languages and nearly 300 dialects are still used, mostly in outlying areas. English remains little known and is rarely spoken. Pre-Columbian art includes sculpture, pottery, and goldwork. Basket making fuses pre-Columbian designs with modern techniques. Inevitably Colombian music features traces of its varied ethnic backgrounds. African rhythms of the Caribbean, the Cuban salsa, and Andean music are all popular. Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel García Márquez (b. 1928) is the greatest figure of Colombian literature, but also prominent are younger writers such as R. H. MorenoDurán (b. 1946). Catholicism remains the dominant religion. In recent years, however, several Protestant denominations such as the Anglican, Lutheran, and Mormon faiths have significantly increased their numbers, as have various smaller religious sects through missionaries.
Chicken, pork, potato, rice, and beans are key ingredients in Colombian cuisine. Ajiaco, a soup made with chicken and potato, is a specialty of the Bogotá region. Santander is famous for hormiga culona, which is made of fried ants. A specialty of Tolima is lechona, a whole suckling pig, which is spitroasted and stuffed with rice and dried peas. Colombian coffee is famous the world over.
To most Colombians the basic Christian rites of baptism, Communion, and marriage mark the turning points in their lives and help to establish their identities as social beings. Among Colombian Catholics, the rite of extreme unction, one of the seven holy sacraments, is commonly administered at death. This involves the priest praying in Latin and touching various parts of the deceased’s body with cotton balls dipped in holy oil. The ritual is intended to prepare the dying person’s soul to leave the world calmly and peacefully.