Growing populations continue to live in hierarchically organized chiefdoms or small kingdoms. Class distinctions are between chiefs and their families, chiefs of lower rank, and commoners. Specialized artisans, religious specialists, merchants, and warriors form a separate class. Professional merchants are very active, traveling hundreds of miles to exchange cotton, tropical fruits, salt, gold, and copper. The wealthiest chiefdoms, and consequently the most important trading centers in Colombia, are in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the far north (Tairona peoples), the Sinú River area in the northwest (Zenú peoples), the highlands of the eastern Andes (Muisca peoples), and the middle Cauca River (Anserma, Quimbaya, Arma peoples) and upper Cauca River (Popayán, Pasto peoples). In Ecuador, the coastal Manteño peoples control long-distance sea trade. The Inca of Peru extend their empire into Ecuador, establishing administrative centers in the highlands, but do not succeed in conquering the coast. Decorated ceramics for ritual use and burial continue to be made by many groups. Large quantities of ceramic spindle whorls, and flat and cylinder stamps with delicate incised or carved designs, are evidence of widespread textile production. Tumbaga, a gold-copper alloy, and semi-precious stones are widely used for the manufacture of ornaments and luxury items.
After 1500, the Spaniards, sailing the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Colombia, establish the coastal towns of Santa Marta and Cartagena. Anticipating prodigious amounts of gold and other treasures, expeditions to the interior begin, with immediate and systematic looting of burials. The conquest of Colombia and Ecuador is accomplished swiftly due to the devastating effects of European diseases on native populations. Relatively few battles take place. The indigenous population of the coastal regions is reduced by as much as 90 percent. Highland peoples resist Spanish domination and survive in small numbers for decades, most eventually dying out. Colonial rule and forced conversion to Catholicism abruptly cut off indigenous traditions. Newly established art schools—usually part of monasteries—instruct native artists in European aesthetics and culture. Indigenous painters and sculptors alike work from European models such as imported prints. New native interpretations include details of local flora, fauna, landscape, and dress.
Tuza/Cuasmal ceramic artists in the high Andes between Colombia and Ecuador abandon resist decoration (also called negative decoration) for painted brown or red designs on a light cream-colored background.
The Tairona people in the far north of Colombia build large ceremonial houses. Accessed by paved causeways, they have multiple entrances, stairways, columns, and stone benches. Sacred offerings are buried in vessels or pits in temples. The caches include ritual stone staffs, ceramic whistles, quartz beads, and polished winged sound plaques (placas sonajeras) also of stone.
The Zenú peoples’ vast territory in northwestern Colombia is divided into three chiefdoms: Finzenú, Panzenú, and Zenufana. Chiefs are related by blood or marriage. Finzenú province is ruled by a woman.
The fertile plains west of the Andes in central Ecuador are densely dotted with Milagro-phase villages. Urn burials are placed in artificial mounds (tolas), usually accompanied by several ceramic vessels and small amounts of copper: knives, beads, and nose rings.
The Inca of Peru, led by Topa Inca, invade southern Ecuador. Fiercely resisted by local chiefdoms, they eventually gain control of the highlands. Tomebamba (outside the modern town of Cuenca) becomes an important Inca administrative center.
Among the Chibcha-speaking Muisca peoples—the most homogeneous ethnic group in all of Colombia—entire villages and small towns specialize in craft production: they make ceramics, gold objects, textiles, and stone carvings, among other objects. Local and long-distance trade networks exist.
Peoples of Ecuador’s Pacific coast produce textiles decorated with designs using the ikat process.
Huayna Capac consolidates Inca power in Ecuador, extending the empire as far north as southern Colombia. The imperial highway runs from Cuzco to Quito, which is declared the second capital of the Inca empire. Small fortresses, rest stops, and administrative centers are built throughout the highlands.
The Pasto peoples of the Nariño region of southern Colombia maintain closer cultural and commercial ties with peoples to the south in Ecuador. Metalworkers produce handsome nose ornaments of sheet gold with bicolored surfaces.
Spanish exploration and conquest of Colombia and Ecuador begin. The Caribbean coast of Colombia is explored by Spaniards Rodrigo de Bastidas (ca. 1460–1527) and Juan de la Cosa (1460–1510). They trade with Zenú chiefs and collect large amounts of gold.
King Ferdinand II of Spain (1452–1516) authorizes Spanish settlements on the tierra firme (mainland) of South America to facilitate the search for gold mines.
In the territory of the Muisca confederation of four powerful chiefdoms—Bacatá, Tunja, Sogamoso, the Duitama—the supreme chiefs are considered to be of divine descent. Political and spiritual leaders, they settle conflicts, wage wars, and receive much tribute, including gold ornaments and fine painted cotton mantles.
Large numbers of the indigenous populations in Tairona chiefdoms and Zenú provinces die from European diseases.
Santa María la Antigua de Darién, on the western shore of the Gulf of Urabá, is the first Spanish town founded in South America.
High-ranking individuals in Milagro society in Ecuador wear broad collars of gold or gilt silver decorated in the center with an embossed human face, feather crowns embellished with narrow feathers in gold and silver, large gold disks, and wide gold bracelets.
Francisco Pizarro (ca. 1475–1541) sails along the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador. He captures a large Ecuadorian trading vessel loaded with merchandise.
A victim of an epidemic disease of European introduction, the Inca ruler Huayna Capac dies in Quito along with an estimated 200,000 of his subjects.
Accounts of the fabulous wealth of the Inca empire to the south reach Caribbean ports. Spanish colonists contemplate a land route south to Peru.
Three Colombian Caribbean towns—Santa María la Antigua de Darién, Santa Marta, and Cartagena—become the major naval and merchant marine bases of the Spanish empire.
In the lagoons and savannas of the wealthy Zenú provinces, the first successful treasure-hunting expedition removes gold objects from burial mounds of Zenú chiefs. The looting of gold offerings from Zenú temples becomes the main occupation of the Spaniards in the region.
Spanish soldiers, led by Sebastián de Belalcázar (1479–1551), defeat the Inca in Quito. They name the town Villa de San Francisco de Quito.
An art school is established in Quito. Focusing on wood carving and painting, it is an important center for religious art throughout the Spanish colonial period.
The port of Guayaquil is founded at the mouth of the Guayaquil River on the Pacific coast of Ecuador.
The Galapagos Islands are discovered by chance when a ship bound from Panama to Peru sails off course. The existence of the islands is documented by one of the passengers, Tomás de Berlanga (ca. 1485–1551), bishop of Panama.
Construction of the first monastery in South America, San Francisco in Quito, begins on the site of an Inca palace.
Accounts of El Dorado (The Gilded Man) reach the Spaniards on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, prompting several expeditions to search for gold.
The Spaniards reach Muisca territory in central Colombia, conquering Bacatá, the main center of a wealthy Muisca chiefdom. Named Santa Fé de Bacatá, the town soon becomes Bogotá.
The Spanish crown divides the newly conquered lands among Spaniards, and establishes local governments. The church becomes a major landowner.
Colombia and Ecuador are part of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
Attempts are made to drain Lake Guatavita north of Santa Fé de Bogotá. Gold offerings had been made there during Muisca ceremonies. A human chain of men with gourd buckets reduces the water level by almost ten feet, exposing the banks of the lake and many gold objects (about 550 ounces).
Santa Fé de Bogotá is the seat of the administrative and judicial tribunal (audiencia). The audiencia is subject to the viceroy of Peru.
The Colegio de San Juan Evangelista is founded in Quito. Renamed Colegio de San Andrés four years later, Franciscan friars instruct Indians in practical trades, Spanish grammar, music, painting, sculpture, and ironworking.
Quito becomes the seat of a royal audiencia.
Artists are organized into guilds. Favoring European and criollo artists (people of European descent born in the Americas), guilds regulate artistic activity, including work supervision and payment to painters, gilders, sculptors, ceramicists, gold- and silversmiths, carpenters, and masons.
Eight thousand Indian workmen are contracted to cut a notch in the mountain range surrounding Lake Guatavita to allow water to run out. Lowering the level by 65 feet, about 1,700 ounces of gold and an emerald the size of an egg are recovered.
Begun in 1557, the Church of San Francisco in Santa Fé de Bogotá is completed. The friars maintain a school for indigenous people in the adjacent monastery.
The Indian painter Andrés Sánchez Galque, a student of the Colegio in Quito, paints the Portrait of the Mulattos of Esmeraldas: Don Francisco de la Robe and His Sons Pedro and Domingo. The mixed-race governor of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, is shown with his sons wearing fine European embroidered robes. Golden nose, ear, and lip ornaments appropriate for people of high social status in indigenous Ecuadorian society are also worn.
After many unsuccessful rebellions, the last of the Tairona chiefs submit to Spanish rule.
“Northern Andes, 1400–1600 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=08®ion=sann (October 2006)