Indications that hunter-gatherer societies lived in Colombia in around 1200 BC has been discovered near Bogota (at El Arbra and Tequendama) however evidence of human habitation of South America has been dated as far back as 43, 000 BC. The earliest known inhabitants of Colombia were Mesoamericans who migrated from the north and later Arawak people arrived from the south.
The Inca Empire arose in the early 13th century and by the early 14th century had incorporated some parts of modern day Colombia. In the first millennium AD the cacicazgo political system was developed in which Amerindian groups organized themselves into pyramidal power structures each headed by a cacique or chieftain. The most prominent groups of indigenous people were the Chibchan nations.
Of the Chibchan groups the Muiscas and the Tairona had the most intricate and advanced societies. The Muiscas occupied the central highlands of the Eastern Range and the area around present day Bogota. The Taironas occupied the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and la Guajira until around 1000 AD when war-like Caribs arrived in the region and forced them further into the Sierra.
Evidence of other cultures such as the Guane permeates modern Colombia even though the people who left these marks have disappeared. The Guane mixed heavily with Spanish conquerors and lost prominence as a culture even though their descendants are among the mestizo population.
The modern day descendents of the Taironas are the Kogi people who occupy the high-lands of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Their relative isolation in this location is thought to have contributed to their well preserved customs and traditions. Around the Sierra’s mid-lands the Arhuaco people, also descended from the Tairona, can be found. The Wiwa people live in the north-eastern part of the mountain. The low-land areas are occupied by the Kankuamo who have integrated extensively with the general population.
Colombia has over eighty distinct indigenous cultures within its borders although many of these groups are threatened and struggling to preserve their land and way of life. A notable ethnic group in Colombia are the Wayuu Indians in La Guajira Peninsula who are descended from the Arawk people. The Wayuu fought extensively with invading Spanish and were never conquered. The Wayuu led a large movement against the Spanish, the Guajira rebellion, by which they regained control of captured territories and avoided assimilation.