Colombia's first inhabitants migrated from North and Central America. These peoples included the Chibchas (or Muisca) and the Tairona. These groups formed permanent settlements, which eventually reached a high level of development.

 By the 3rd century A.D., the Chibchas had established a thriving civilization in the central Andes. The Chibchas farmed, mined for salt and emeralds, and traded with other peoples. They were skilled artists who were known for their pottery, gold work and cotton fabrics. 

The Tairona civilization developed in the Caribbean coastal region during the 5th century. The Taironas built great cities. They used stone to build houses, roads and canals. 

The Spanish conquistadores arrived in Colombia in 1499, looking for gold and emeralds. The first Spanish settlement was established on the Caribbean coast and was called Santa Marta. The capital city of Santa Fé de Bogotá  was founded in 1538. In 1550, military rule was replaced by a civil administration. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish brought in many thousands of slaves from Africa to work in mines and on farms.

Did you know? 

Simón Bolívar, known as El Libertador (the Liberator), accomplished a military conquest of about 5 million square kilometres. He had no formal training in military strategy. Experts are still mystified by how he won some battles. 

Spanish domination and slavery led to protests and rebellions. In the early 19th century, several towns declared their independence from Spain. The Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar led the fight against Spain and won a decisive victory on August 7, 1819, at Boyacá. A few months later, Colombia became part of Gran Colombia (a state that included present-day Ecuador and Venezuela) with Bolívar as president. In 1830 the federation was dissolved when Venezuela became a separate country. Slavery was abolished in 1849.

Two major political factions emerged in the 19th century. The conflict between them led to many civil wars. The strife flared up again in 1948, in a bitter struggle called La Violencia, during which about 300,000 Colombians died. Although peace was restored in the 1950s, guerrilla groups hostile to the central government formed in the 1960s and attacked Bogota in 1985. The rise of the cocaine trade and the government's declaration of war on the drug traffickers complicated the turbulence.

 In a 1990 plebiscite, Colombians voted for a constitutional assembly to restore order. A new constitution was proclaimed in 1991, which upheld human rights, ethnic toleration, and the preservation of the environment. Implementing reforms is difficult, however, because of the problems caused by the drug trade.