The Muisca: Background information when reading Infinite Country

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Infinite Country

by Patricia Engel

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel X
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 208 pages

    Oct 2021, 208 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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The Muisca

This article relates to Infinite Country

Print Review

The Sun Temple of Sogamoso In Patricia Engel's novel Infinite Country, several of the main characters draw inspiration from their Muisca ancestors and legends. The Muisca, also known as the Chibcha, are an indigenous civilization that thrived in present-day Colombia before Europeans colonized the area. Bogotá, Colombia's capital city, is situated on an ancient Muisca settlement known as Bacatá in the Chibcha language.

Traces of human existence dating back more than 12,500 years have been found in caves on the Bogotá savanna, including flint and bone tools, remains of animals such as the mastodon and petroglyphs carved into stone walls. But scholars generally agree that the group known as the Muisca migrated into the area much later, with signs of settled agrarian communities developing around 1500 BCE.

The Muisca devised a complex calendar based on sun and moon cycles. The Sun Temple of Sogamoso, constructed to align with cosmic forces, was destroyed by the Spaniards, but has been reconstructed and is today part of the Museo Arqueológico Eliécer Silva Célis (Eliécer Silva Celis Archaeological Museum) in Sogamoso, about 130 miles northeast of Bogotá. A winter solstice celebration takes place there annually.

For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the Muisca were a largely agrarian society. They cultivated crops—including maize, beans, potatoes, coca, cotton, quinoa and various fruits—that are still important in the region today. A traditional beverage known as chicha, made from maize and usually fermented, continues to be served at festivals.

Muisca golden raft at Museo del Oro Laguna de Guatavita (Lake Guatavita), about 45 miles northeast of Bogotá, is another important Muisca ceremonial site. In a Muisca ritual, the ascendant chief would be covered in gold dust, then plunge into the lake. Legend has it that gold ornaments were thrown in the lake as offerings, accompanied by music, fire and sacred activities. These rites inspired the widespread legend of El Dorado, which led foreign conquistadores to quest for a rumored golden chief and his abundant material riches. Throughout Colombia, gold artifacts—including cast figurines and a golden raft—have been uncovered, and contribute to the reputation of the Muisca as masters of metallurgy and cosmology possessing a complex artistic and spiritual worldview. Much of this ancient heritage is on display at the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá.

The legacy of the Muisca endures today via food, language, music, and agricultural and cultural practices that continue despite industrial and political disruptions. Hopefully it is true, as Mauro in Infinite Country tells his family, that the true gold is the power of the sun, which can be appreciated and held wherever one may live in the world. The power of story also carries Muisca wisdom and heritage forward for future generations.

The reconstructed Muisca Sun Temple in Sogamoso, by Aizquier (CC BY 1.0)
Muisca golden raft at Museo del Oro, by young shanahan (CC BY 2.0)

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Karen Lewis

This "beyond the book article" relates to Infinite Country. It originally ran in March 2021 and has been updated for the October 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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