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|The Precolumbian Past of Ecuador
America and Australia were the last continental masses of
our planet where man stepped on. Probably the American continent
was reached for the first time from Asia through the Bering
Strait. Several theories, not thoroughly confirmed, explain
the means of conveyance used to cross this narrow passage.
The most accepted proposal holds that man walked through the
strait during a period where its bottom dried out because
the levels of the sea had descended. Such phenomenon occurred
several times during the last two million years as a result
of the glaciation in the Pleistocene, which produced the accumulation
of considerably large masses of water so as to form huge layers
of ice that covered vast areas in the north sections of America,
Europe and Asia.
According to the most recent findings in some rocky shelters
located in eastern Brazil, the presence of man in South American
dates from approximately thirty thousand years ago. As a result
of the global cooling of our planet, this subcontinent may
have had a drier though less warm climate. Excepting small
areas of dense forest, the Amazon Basin was covered most likely
with a canopy of dry forest, a fact that fostered the expansion
of man, who was still not adapted to the tropical forest.
As to the present Ecuadorian territory, the Sierra (Highlands)
may have been one of the last areas in South America to be
inhabited by man, owing to the high altitude of the Andean
summits and the effects of glacial eras. An intense volcanism
would have made nearly impossible to live in the Cordilleras
and the Andean tablelands or plateaus. Difficult conditions
prevailed in savannas, dry forests and mangrooves in the lowlands
along the Pacific coast. Other human groups have lately adapted
to the equatorial rain forest ecosystem characteristic of
the eastern and northwestern lowlands. In the present territory
of Ecuador archaeologists have found undeniable evidence proving
that man already inhabited this land eleven thousand years
The first inhabitants of the Sierra were hunting-and-gathering
Paleoindians grouped in small bands comprised of fifteen or
twenty related individuals. Adult men practiced the hunting
of deer and Andean camelidae.
Women, elders and children gathered vegetable food, snails,
beetles, insect larvae, birds, eggs and small reptiles. Using
a complex technique, these early South American inhabitants
manufactured hunting weapons and other artifacts of different
solid stones such as basalt, flint, quartzite, chalcedony
and riolite. Obsidian, the most use full stone, was obtained
from the extensive lava formations at Quiscatola and Mullumica
in the Province of Pichincha. The early occurrence of these
artifacts throughout the Highland evidences the existence
of a primitive network of long-distance exchanges.
At the same time several archaic hunting-and-gathering group
settled the Pacific shores, establishing the culture known
as Las Vegas. Vestiges of their settlements have been found
at Las Vegas and other sites in the Peninsula of Santa Elena.
Beside game and wild plants, their diet was largely comprised
of fish and sea molluscs. Since 6000 B.C. these groups probably
practiced a rudimentary cultivation of some edible plants.
Although they were not sedentary people, their habit was to
return to their settlements on a periodical basis. There they
lived during a certain season of the year. The site "80"
at Las Vegas was occupied recursively by man during four thousand
years. The lithic technology of the people from Las Vegas
was more rudimentary than Paleoindian technology from the
Sierra, but the fact that they made axes of polished stone
and artifacts of seashells distinguishes the former.
Some outstanding features show that the culture of Las Vegas
is a direct antecedent of the complex societies belonging
to the Formative Period. Such features are: recursive seasonal
settling of the same base camp, including solid and permanent
shelters; a communitary ceremonialism reflected on complex
funeral practices and a communal permanent cementery; rudimentary
cultivation of edible plants and such fibers as cotton; finally,
the manufacture and use of utensils made of polished stone.
About six thousand years ago the first permanent and organized
settlements were established in the present territory of Ecuador.
It is the beginning of the so-called Formative Period (4000
- 600 B.C.). In the case of Valdivia culture, archaeologists
have found permanent villages consisting of large oval houses
arranged around extensive squares which function as ceremonial
places for the community. The building of other ritual structures
found at different sites belonging to this culture had a ceremonial
purpose as well. This time witnessed the beginning of domestic
and ceremonial pottery whose artistic and technologic levels
are outstanding in the case of chorrera culture. At this time
the cultures from Cerro Narrío and Cotocollao underwent
a development in the Highlands while the culture of Pastaza,
Upano, and Cotundo appeared in the Upper Amazon basin. All
the abovementioned peoples were sedentary and practiced an
exchange of goods and ideas among them and with the cultures
from the Coast.
It is noteworthy that a series of formal and technical characteristics
of Chorrera culture are reflected on the artistic styles (particularly
in ceramic) of other contemporary cultures from the Highland
(e.g. Cerro-Narrío and al Chimba) and the Amazon basin
(e.g. the culture identified from the findings at the site
Cueva de los Tayos or "Cave of Tayos"). Also, later
cultures from the Coast such as La Tolita, Jama-Coaque and
Bahía have their origin in local Chorrera features.
This fact suggest, a faraway antecedent of a territorially
want of exotic goods used both to perform ceremonies and to
show personal prestige fostered the emergence of exchange
networks connecting distant societies that settled various
ecologies with different natural resources. As time passed,
this trade together with the exploitation and manufacture
of goods became major activities in the economic and politic
development of primitive societies. This fact probably simulated
the emergence of a "caste" consisting of socially
outstanding individuals, the so-called merchant-travellers
or mindaláes. The first artistic representation of
these individuals seems to correspond to the social type known
as basketman, which occurs for the first time at the end of
the Formative Period.
Among the raw materials which exerted the largest influence
to make the present territory of Ecuador the principal nucleus
of an extensive network of trade along the American coast
of the Pacific Ocean, the colored and brilliant seashells
from tropical regions are undoubtedly the most determinant.
Large seashells served as trumpets (pututos or quipas) played
during religious ceremonies. An important symbol of male fertility,
these instruments were also offerings to the native gods.
Other shells were sought after for their brilliance and color,
becoming the raw material to manufacture highly valued personal
ornaments and various objects of worship. For pre-Columbian
peoples a spiny shell of the species Spondylus princeps (mullu,
in Quichua) was the most important because of its characteristics:
it was identified with a vulva by its beautifull blood-red
color, its brightness and special shape, thus being considered
as an element with which people could propitiate fertility,
rains, water for irrigation, and the reproduction of men,
animal and plants. By its great symbolic value, this shell
was considered as the food preferred by gods, which could
not be absent from the worship places. Like the deities, both
men and women adorned themselves with objects manufactured
of this material. All these characteristics made spondylus
not only a major staple of trade but also a measure of value
and a unit wealth accumulation.
The Spondylus princeps is found only in the warn
waters of the Pacific Ocean, from Ecuador to Mexico Accordingly,
the most accessible source where the Andean peoples could
obtain this shell was the Ecuadorian coastal strip, a fact
which promoted the emergence of a flourishing industry of
exploitation and manufacture, whose produce was exported to
all the corners of the Andes.
The Period of Regional Development began about 300 B.C. and
lasted approximately nine hundred years up to 600 A.D. In
this period, society became stratified. The commercial exchange
and the public religious worship were monopolized by a specialized
caste which rapidly attained social prestige. Apparently we
cannot confirm the existence of an established political power,
but the emergence of an economically powerful and oligarchic
dominant group that exerted a decisive influence on society
Great ceremonial centers were built. They were comprised
of numerous tolas (earth pyramids) that formed the foundations
of "temples" or worship buildings. Crowds of people
resorted to these places in order to worship their gods, bury
their dead, and participate in collective religious ceremonies.
But the temples were production centers as well, where ceremonial
and funeral ornaments were manufactured as symbols of social
rank and economic power. To this end, people worked different
metals such as gold, silver, platinum and copper, of which
a series of alloys were obtained by means of enriching techniques.
As to ceramic, it is worth saying that, beside the luxurious
jars used in ceremonies and the domestic vessels, the potter
produced artistical representations of persons, animals, fruits
and mythical beings. Of the latter, some large representations
served as worship figures, although most of them were used
as votive offerings and symbols of benefits requested to and
received from a deity. Often archaeologists find these objects
as part of the funeral apparel of the dead. Noteworthy is
also the plastic representation of individuals covered with
a profusely adorned ceremonial attire that seems to reflect
their high social position and wealth. This is the case specially
in Bahía and Jama-Coaque culture. The fact that the
figures were standing or sitting individuals, not chiefs on
"power seats", points out that, despite their high
social rank, these individuals did not possessed a legally
established authority, that is, they were not exactly caciques
but "influencing persons". Often the objects (oars
and bags) represented as being held by the figures, or those
characteristic of their attire (shells, cacao beans?, objects
of gold and other precious metals), seemingly suggest the
origins and foundations of their social pre-eminence. Thus,
they could be imagined as outstanding "merchant-travellers"
or mindadaláes whose high social status they owned
to the success of their commercial activities.
To this respect, it is worth saying that the "giants"
from Bahía are located by the sea, a fact which suggests
that the principal commercial activities probably were carried
out along the Pacific shores. Moreover, the most important
worship center of this culture was built in the Island of
La Plata, principal area of the spondylus shell.
The great ceremonial center of La Tolita was built in an
island not far from the shore, where important rivers from
the Andes flow into the sea, at the southernmost end of a
network of navigable coastal channels in northern Ecuador.
This location points out that La Tolita was associated with
navigation and trade.
The scarce archaeological findings in the Sierra are located
at strategic points of access to the Andean valleys from the
Coast or the Amazon, they being also important for the inter-regional
commercial exchange: Cumbayá and la Chimba in the Northern
Highlands; Cerro Narrío and Pirincay in the Southern
Highlands. At these sites archaeologists have found pottery
from the Coast and local replicas (LA Tolita and Jama Coaque),
as well as goods of the same origins (spondylus shell and
coca, for example).
Noteworthy in Northern and Central Highlands is the presence
of a high-quality ceramic style. It is a minor though widespread
pottery whose origin would be on the eastern Andean slopes,
Valley of Quijos. This style has been named Panzaleo or Cosanga-Píllaro.
It relates the various cultures from the Highland to different
ceramic traditions. The wide distribution of Panzaleo pottery
hints at the significance of commercial exchanges between
the Highlands and the Amazon basin, particularly concerning
the supply of shamanic items such as coca and other hallucinogenic
During the Period of Integration (600-1534 A.D.) the stratification
of society became rigid and the political power was assumed
only by a single individual, the curaca or Indian chief. A
large part of the surplus produced by the community was appropriated
by this individual, who also held an indisputable control
of all his subjects. The curaca benefited from the harvests
produced by the fields where community had constructed terraces
and ridges (camellones) to improve their fertility. But he
also appropriated the profits from the trade of luxurious
items undertaken by specialized merchants. Archaeologists
have found extensive terraced fields in the valley of the
Guayas River and throughout the Northern Highlands. According
to the rule of reciprocity prevailing in these societies,
the curaca should compensate his subjects on a regular basis
by presenting them with exotic goods and organizing feasts
where they could drink chichi and eat any food lavishly. These
festivals were held in large ceremonial centers, some with
huge earth pyramids whose ruins are found in the northern
Sierra, the inland Coast, and the northwestern slopes of the
Andes, the most representive vestiges being those at Cochasqui.
In this period a considerable demographic development took
place, which promoted the building of important engineering
work on the basic of the existing structure of power. The
result was an increased agricultural production which concentrated
labor on cultivation, exploitation of raw materials, and manufacture
of export goods such as salt, dried fish, cotton, coca, hallucinogenic
plants, hells, seashells, metals, fine fabrics, ornaments
of shell, gold and copper.
The lordships established an important exchange of ideas
and stylistic influences in spite of their well-defined politic
autonomy, their cultural differences, and the frequent wars
conflicts among them. An evident sign of these relations was
the decoration of ceramic with negative painting techniques
and overpainted strips of red or yellow, features which Jacinto
Jijón y Caamaño gave the name of Horizonte Tuncabuán
(Tuncahuan Horizon). The occurrence of this decoration is
evident throughout the Ecuadorian Highlands and some areas
of the Coast, particularly at the sites of Milagro-Quevedo
When the professional traders came under the direct sway
of the curacas, these Indian chiefs became interested in the
commercial activities inside and outside their territory.
Thus, competence and conflicts arose not only among individuals
but also between peoples for the control of trade routes and
centers of exploitation and production of sought-after goods.
The best known case of conflict between lordships is the conquest
of Jama-Coaque region and the commercial port of Atacames
by the lordship Salangone from Manabí. Likewise, similar
causes were the origin of unceasing wars between the lordship
f La Puná and the chiefdom of Tumbes.
The production of goods for export was a major activity in
the coastal societies. According to the historic data, the
Manta region exported primarily cotton blankets and seashells
(esp. spondylus). In southern Manabí archaeologists
have found thousands of spindle whorls beautifully decorated
with incised motives. Such ornaments prove the importance
attained by the spinning of cotton used to weave blankets.
Some major centers of exploitation and shell-working have
been identified as well. The millenary site named Peñón
del Río (River Cliff), a famous commercial settlement,
has been found in the lower section of the Guayas basin, homeland
of the Milagro-Quevedo culture. Rough and worked copper were
the principal goods exchanged in the Period of Integration.
The maritime trade connecting very distant points is evidenced
by historic reports and archaeological findings. The transportation
of a considerable quantity of goods was undertaken with the
aid of large sailing rafts made of logs.
During the first half of the 15th century the Inca ethnic
group from southern Peru initiated a long series of conquests
which allowed its members to build up, in less than a century,
a vast empire, the so-called Tabuantinsuyo. By the early 1500's
the Inca empire included all the Andean Cordilleras and the
Pacific Coast, from the southernmost area of present Colombia
to central Chile and the Andean section of Argentine. Over
then millon souls belonging to hundreds of different ethnic
groups were the populaton of Tabuantinsuyo. A quick and safe
coordination between the central administrative power and
the provincial authorities was possible owing to a great central
route -qhapaq ñan or Great Road-connecting both the
northern and the southern borders and passing through Cuzco.
Numberless military garrisons scattered all over the empire
prevented any uprising against the Inca rulers and their local
The Inca economy was founded upon an efficient control of
production through the monopoly of various activities by the
State: mining, metalworking, gold working, manufacture of
fine fabric, pottery and a large part of the raising of camelidae,
moreover, large storehouses distributed throughout empire
preserved the harvests from extensive areas selected by the
State in every province, the so-called "lands of the
Sun " and "lands of the Inca".
The Inca began to conquest the territory of present Ecuador
around 1460 under the command of Prince Tupac Yupanqui, during
the rule of Emperor Pachacute. They managed to subdue all
the Andean ethnic groups, including those of Quito and Imbabura.
The son of Tupac Yupanqui, Huayna Cápac, born in Tomebamba,
faced a general uprising by the peoples from the Ecuadorian
Andes, their subjection being attained only after many years
of cruel wars.
To control the empire properly, the Incas built a number
of important cities and minor administrative centers. In the
present territory of Ecuador, Tomebamba and Quito, located
in the southern and northern Highlands respectively, were
the largest Inca cities. The famous secondary center of Ingapirca
-formerly Hatun Cañar- is still preserved with its
magnificent Temple of the Sun, named the Castle or Ellipse.
One of the principal reason that explain the Inca conquest
of what now corresponds to present Ecuador is the importance
of commercial activities, an indirect control of this trade
provided the State with goods otherwise impossible to get
directly. This statement is proved by the fact that the principal
economical and political centers in our territory lay where
the central route from the Highlands crossed the routes from
the Coast and, probably, those from the Amazon basin: Tomebamba,
Riobamba, Latacunga, Quito, Otavalo and Caranqui.
The broken Andean landscape, the vast Amazon basin, the warn
El Niño current, the cold Humboldt current, the Torrid
Zone and the unique variety of ecological layers characterize
the present territory of Ecuador as the scenary of continued,
widespread and complex cultural interactions that have lasted
over 10000 years.
A number of groups took in this territory and created a well-defined
cultural identity, of which we are the heirs. The gradual
development of a nation with its particular features is attested
by the territorial expansion and cultural integration of pre-Inca
lordships (Chorrera-Narrío-Cotocollao-Chimba, Chorrera-Bahia-Tolita-Jama-Coaque,
Cosanga-Píllaro or Panzaleo, Milagro-Quevedo and Manteño-Huancavilca),
and by by the general occurrence of such cultural material
as the spondylus shell, pottery, coin-axes and gold objects
with inter-regional zoomorphous designs.
Credit: Antonio Fresco y Catálogo del Museo del Banco
Central del Ecuador Sala de Arqueología.
© Banco Central del Ecuador