Indigenous Ecuador

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Ecuador is home to one of the largest Indigenous populations in the Americas, and many of their vibrant traditions continue today! photo credit: Eric Martin

In order to understand Ecuador today, we must first look at its long and rich past, much of which falls in an era that archaeologists call prehistory.  Prehistory is the time before the invention of writing, so instead of looking at documents to learn what happened, we must rely on stories told from generation to generation and clues from objects left behind.

The story of Ecuador goes back more than 10,000 years.  During the last Ice Age, a land bridge between Asia and North America allowed for nomadic hunters to cross between the continents, following herds of mastodons.  These hunters inhabited North America first, becoming the Native American tribes of our area, moving down through Central America, and eventually into the area we now call Ecuador.  The descendants of these groups are referred to as indigenous peoples, meaning they are the original inhabitants of the area.

An indigenous Andean woman in Esperanza herding her sheep to the top of the mountain to graze. Though the region is modernizing in some ways, many people here still rely on llamas, alpacas, sheep, and guinea pigs for their livelihood, as they have for thousands of years.

Around 7,000 BCE, these nomadic tribes began to settle down, first along the coast with the Las Vegas and Valdivia peoples, and later in the inland mountains, the Andes.  For thousands of years, these ancient peoples worked to domesticate wild plants and animals of the area by planting and keeping them near their homes and breeding together ones with desirable traits, such as larger fruits or softer wool.  By looking at the ceramic pieces left behind by peoples of that time, we have learned that they domesticated llamas and alpacas for wool and guinea pigs for food as far back as 9,000 years ago. 

Indigenous agriculture of the region has given us many crops (such as potatoes, peppers, quinoa, and more!) that are staples of our diet, as well as many crops used in textiles, from dyes to fibers like cotton. In this image, a Kichwa woman is processing cotton into cloth in the traditional way.
photo credit: Eric Martin

Similar ceramic clues 2,000 years later show the beginning of agriculture, or farming, in the area, which was incredibly successful due to its moisture, sunlight, fertile soil, and lack of winter.  This explosion of agriculture has given humans crops such as potatoes, maize, squash, beans, yams, yucca, aji peppers, quinoa, peanuts, and even indigo and cotton!  Before long, these valuable crops were traded throughout the Americas, becoming staples of many indigenous diets and lifestyles.

While the peoples of coastal Ecuador were the first to create settlements and ceramics, the more favorable environment of the mountains allowed civilizations there to grow much larger and more quickly.  Using terraced farming, irrigation, and meticulous planning of planting by observation of the sun (see Journal 1), the Andean cultures began to have large cities with complex religious and social systems.  Some of the most important of these cultures were the Quitu-Cara and the Cañari, who established large trade routes throughout the region to trade with other mountain peoples, as well as those that lived in the Amazon Basin (such as the head-shrinking Shuar) and coastal areas.

Andean peoples are known for their elaborate and colorful weaving styles, which are now popular and frequently imitated worldwide.
photo credit:  Eric Martin

These many cultures, though sometimes connected through trade, remained mostly unorganized and independent for centuries.  However, in the 1400’s, the growth of a new culture to the south would upset this balance.  The Inca Empire began in present-day Peru, and under its first emperor, Pachacuti, it reached 300,000 sq. miles (about the size of Texas), but by the end of the expansion it would more than double to be closer to 775,000 sq. miles (larger than Mexico), including present-day Ecuador, Peru, Columbia, Bolivia, Chile, and parts of Argentina.  The language of the Inca is called Kichwa, and versions of it and related languages are still spoken throughout the region, making it the most widely spoken indigenous language family in the Americas.

The Inca ruled their massive empire first from Macchu Picchu (seen here) and Cuzco in present-day Peru, but after Huayna Capac annexed Quito, he made it a second capital of the empire.
photo credit: Eric Martin

The Inca expanded the empire through a combination of alliances, sealed through trade, marriage, and military might.  Inca Huayna Capac was the emperor at the time of Ecuador’s annexation, which proved to be one of the more difficult places for the Inca to conquer, as many of the large cultures of the region resisted violently. 

One story tells of the Cayambi warrior-queen Quilago, who held off the Inca forces for years.  Though she was eventually captured in battle, she came up with a plan to use Huayna Capac’s attraction to her to trap him in a covered pit of spikes, possibly leading to the end of the Inca conquest.  However, at the last minute, Huayna Capac figured out her plan and instead threw Quilago into her own trap!

These timelines tell the story of Ecuador’s peoples over time. To compare this story with the whole world’s history, print this image and chart some other famous events in history on this timeline.

Though the Cayambi and many others were subjugated by the Inca, some Amazon Basin peoples, such as the Shuar, were never successfully conquered.  They were even able to maintain this independence through later empires.  The Inca had, however, managed to create a consolidated empire throughout Andean South America, though this empire would crumble as quickly as it formed. 

After his successful expansion of the empire, Huayna Capac named Quito the second capital of the Empire and used it as the base for ruling his kingdom.  In the mid-1520’s, a group of Europeans reportedly landed on the coast and Huayna Capac went to investigate.  Though he never encountered the Spaniards, he soon after contracted an illness many believe to be smallpox and died suddenly.   Huayna Capac’s two sons, Atahualpa (in Quito and the supposed favorite son) and Huascar (the eldest son who was living in the original capital, Cuzco, in what is now Peru), both claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne, and a bitter civil war broke out.

Over the next half decade, the two armies clashed throughout the empire, but Atahualpa’s upbringing amid the clashes of Inca imperial expansion in the north prepared him well and he won nearly every encounter.  After a decisive battle near present-day Riobamba, Atahualpa’s troops marched south and by 1532 took control of the empire at the battle of Cajamarca, executing Huascar soon after.  However, Atahualpa was not able to enjoy his victory for long…

Review the terms in this week’s journal with the following vocab cards:


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