Bases of Social Hierarchy in a Muisca Central Village of the Northeastern Highland of Columbia

Ana Maria Boada Rivas

PhD Thesis. 1998

This study made it possible to reconstruct patterns of social organization and the basis of social hierarchy within El Venado, a Muisca central village located in the Valle de Samaca (Colombian Andes) between AD 900 ad 1600. The aim was to examine the interplay between two particular bases of social hierarchy: 1) prestige acquired through mechanisms such as ceremonial exchanges, feasting, performance of ritual ceremonies, manipulation of symbols, prestige goods, etc. and 2) control over resources and wealth. This interplay was studied, through three periods of occupation identified in El Venado's cultural sequence.

Four different lines of archaeological evidence were examined to compare the extent of wealth and activities performed at different residential units from each period. These lines of evidence were ceramics (for which decoration, vessel shapes and imported pottery were examined), faunal remains (which provided different measures of differential distribution of genera between residential units), spindle whorls (whose abundance and shapes likely related to quantity and quality of cotton thread produced across the settlement), and finally, burials (which made it possible to examine differences in wealth and energy expenditure between individuals and the settlement).

Examining these lines of evidence provided information about how the basis of social hierarchy changed through time. The archaeological and ethnohistorical data analyzed indicated that the elite did not rely on a single economic or ideological strategy for building social hierarchy, but instead on an interplay of several different but integrated strategies by which they gained and maintained social prestige and wealth. Strategies more strongly based on feasting and ceremonialism seem to have had more importance during the early period, the Late Herrera, while the creation of wealth through tribute and textile production seem to have been more strongly pursued during the early and late Muisca periods.

This research also contributed to the reconstruction of patterns of social organization. Spatial distribution of residential units delineated barrios separated by vacant zones. Each barrio seems to have functioned as a meaningful social unit, economically independent and self-sufficient.