How Was The Economy Of The Taironas?

The economy of the Taironas was characterized by being self-sufficient and operating independently of trade. The geographical location of the Taironas in the mountains, allowed them to work the land and obtain products from it in different thermal levels.

The Taironas were a pre-Columbian tribe located in the mountains of northeast Colombia. Its history can be traced back to more than 2000 years ago and a large part of its territory is known today as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Burgos, 2016).

economy of the taironas

The geographical location of the Taironas in the mountains, allowed the realization of agricultural activities, mainly the sowing of corn. Being located at different levels from the coast to the top of the mountains, they could take resources from both the sea and the mountains. In this way, some Taironas could dedicate themselves to planting and others to fishing.

The economy of the Taironas reached high levels of development. This allowed them to evolve as one of the most technified pre-Columbian civilizations in America. Guided by a vertical model of settlement construction at different heights of the mountains with paved roads and suspension bridges to move from one place to another.

The descendants of the Taironas today are known as the Wiwa, the Arhuacos, the Kankuamo and the Kogui. These tribes still preserve some vestiges of the economic system of their ancestors, although extensive changes were introduced with the arrival of the Spanish in America in the 15th century (Davis & Ferry, 2004).

Article index

  • one

    Economic model

    • 1.1

      Stage 1: Upward Economy

    • 1.2

       Stage 2: descending economy

  • two

    Business activities and subsistence

    • 2.1

      Daily use objects

    • 2.2

      Trade exchange

    • 23

      Division of labour

  • 3


Economic model

The economic model of the Taironas was vertical, following the principles of the pre-Inca civilizations south of the Andes Mountains.

This model is characterized by having a central population located in the highest part of the mountains and several smaller settlements dispersed in different productive zones. Each settlement specialized in a specific productive area.

The Tairona elite were in control of the resources. In this sense, the elite would manage the resources dispersed in the different populations surrounding the main city, mainly in the coastal areas.

The administration of the different resources, resulting from the productive specialization of the settlements, allowed the development of a more complex socio-political structure, with the presence of a Supreme Chief in each community.

In the case of the Taironas, there are two possible scenarios or stages of economic organization that explain how they could achieve a high level of productive specialization in fields such as agriculture, pottery and metallurgy (Dever, 2007).

Stage 1: Upward Economy

The productive specialization and the economic model of the Taironas, initially depended on a social structure of decentralized power.

Tasks such as planting and harvesting crops, pottery, metallurgy, weaving, among others, were carried out thanks to the presence of a collective feeling in the communities. These communities were usually made up of members of the same family and had a horizontal power structure.

The orientation towards a common objective, allowed the development of productive activities and the ethnic similarity and affinity in needs, led to a distribution of what was produced among the members of the community and surrounding settlements. This pattern of economic development gradually led to the growth of settlements and villages.

Each village was responsible for meeting the needs of the members of its community and neighboring communities. In this way, each village specialized in the production of specific goods that would later be exchanged with members of other communities through an economic model alien to hierarchical structures (Langebaek, 2005).

This bottom-up economy model was born from the domestic economy, where an administrator or boss was not necessary to carry out an efficient distribution of resources.

However, this economic model where each town specialized in the production of specific goods, would lead to dependency between towns, and the centralization of power headed by a chief administrator.

 Stage 2: descending economy

Once the dependency relationships between towns were created, it became essential to elect leaders from each town in charge of managing the commercial relationships.

These leaders became the elite that would later evolve to centralize control of resources at the head of a Supreme Chief. In this case, the economy would lose its upward tint and take a downward pattern.

The appearance of the supreme chiefs was due in large part to the economic inequality existing between different Tairona tribes. In this way, each chief would be in charge of dominating a territory and having control over several communities at the same time, gaining control over a vast sector of the economy and resources.

The logic of the descending economy suggests that the chief will have the ability to manage the production of the communities under his charge, and benefit their members with what is produced.

The essence of this model would lead to the subsequent development of more complex economic relationships, resulting from the interaction between centralized powers and the hierarchization of societies.

Business activities and subsistence

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Taironas communities would build cultivable terraces and rock walls to protect crops. Some of these constructions can be seen today in the territory of the Koguis.

For the Taironas, the cultivation of basic foods such as corn was fundamental to their economy, however, the hardness of this food led the Taironas to develop cooking techniques that allowed them to soften it, knead it and eat it in a softer state.

With the passing of the centuries and the appearance of Creole peasants after the arrival of the Spanish, the cultivation of foods such as bananas, squash and fruit trees was introduced. In this way, the Tairona economy was modified and its crops were displaced to higher parts of the mountains (Quilter & Hoopes, 2003).

Daily use objects

The material culture of the Taironas was quite simple, for this reason, objects of daily use such as clothing, kitchen utensils, amphorae and containers, and even hammocks, were quite simple and were not given greater importance. Therefore, these objects did not occupy a representative place within the Tairona economy (Minahan, 2013).

Trade exchange

Commercial exchange relations existed for centuries within the Taironas tribes. The exchange of primitive sugar and bricks with peasants from other lands and even Creole peasants after the arrival of the Spanish, allowed the Taironas to spread the use of various specialized products such as iron tools, salts and sun-dried foods.

Division of labour

Within the Tairona economy, both men and women worked the land, helping with construction tasks and making clothing and utensils.

However, there was a marked gender difference, where men were the only ones who could engage in pottery activities, coca plantations, and maintenance of infrastructure, and women had to carry water, cook and wash clothes. (City, 2016)


  1. Burgos, AB (May 12, 2016). Colombia a small country COLOSSAL HISTORY . Obtained from The Taironas:
  2. City, TL (2016). The Lost City . Obtained from The Tayrona People:
  3. Davis, W., & Ferry, S. (2004). National Geographic . Retrieved from Keepers Of The World:
  4. Dever, A. (2007). The Tairona Economy. In A. Dever, SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF A SPECIALIZED COMMUNITY IN CHENGUE (pp. 16-18). Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg.
  5. Langebaek, CH (2005). Background: The archaeological sequence. In CH Langebaek, The Pre-Hispanic Population of the Santa Marta Bays (p. 8). Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg.
  6. Minahan, JB (2013). Arawaks. In JB Minahan, Ethnic Groups of the Americas: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia (pp. 36-38). Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio.
  7. Quilter, J., & Hoopes, JW (2003). The Political Economy of Pre-Columbian Gold Work: Four Examples from Northern South America. In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia (pp. 259-262). Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button