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Land of winds > The land > History | Issue 03. Jan.-Feb.2011
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Pre-Hispanic Ecuadorian Andes

Pre-Hispanic Ecuadorian Andes
Human history in the Sierra of Ecuador started 13,000 years ago, when first gatherers and hunters of megafauna (saber-toothed cat, paleo-llamas and mastodons) settled down in places such as El Inga (near Quito, Pichincha province), the black cave of Chobshi or Sigsig (Azuay province) and the moor of Cubilán (Loja province).

El Inga, in Museos del Ecuador [es].
Crónica indiana del Ecuador antiguo (Indian Chronicle of Ancient Ecuador). C. Borchart de Moreno, S. Moreno Yáñez [es].
History of Ecuador, in Wikipedia.

Among the early agricultural-pottery societies that inhabited the Ecuadorian Andes during the Formative period we can name the following cultures: Cotocollao (in what is now Quito and the surrounding valleys, plus Cotopaxi, Pichincha and Tungurahua provinces, 1,500-500 B.C.), Cerro Narrío (Cañar and Azuay provinces, 2,000 B.C.-600 A.D.) and Catamayo (Loja province, 1700-500 B.C.). These cultures began to cultivate cereals (maize and quinoa), tubers (potato and oca) and leguminous plants such as beans. They set up trading routes with both the coastal peoples (i.e Valdivia and Chorrera cultures, who exchanged fish, conches and shells) and the eastern tropical region peoples (who exchanged coca leaves, cotton and ají pepper) to offer trading goods such as obsidian, turquoise, alabaster and quartz. Their ability to create ceramic artwork was remarkable as well as the necklaces they made of mother-of-pearl shell combined with Spondylus shell and the horns made of Strombus conch.

Cotocallao Indians, in Wikipedia.

During the Regional Development period a number of chiefdoms sprang up in this region: La Chimba (Imbabura province), Cerro Narrío and Catamayo (continuation of preceding Formative Stage cultures). At that time, the most important societies were located on the coastline of Ecuador (Jama-Coaque, La Tolita, Bahía, Guangala, Jambelí). However, Cerro Narrío built ceremonial and housing sites as well as local markets where, on the one hand, artisans could exchange their products (ceramics, copper, quartz, shells), and on the other, transactions between the sea and the Amazon forest were channelled through. Trade made it possible for people to diversify their diets with custard apples, sweet potatoes and pacay (also known as ice-cream bean, Inga feuilleei). In addition, llama and alpaca herding was introduced, providing not only a great opportunity for people to eat their meat, but a privileged means of transport (and beast of burden) for merchants and a source of wool for an incipient textile industry.
During the Integration period, ethnic dominions were constituted and confederations formed. From north to south, along the Andean range, they were: the Pasto people, the Caranqui Confederation (including the Caranqui, the Otavalo and the Cayambe peoples), the Quito (known as the Chaupicruz culture), the Panzaleo, peoples of the “Hoya del Patate”, the Puruhá, the Cañari, the Palta, the Yumbo, the Sigcho and Angamarca, and the Chimbo peoples.
At the Spaniards’ arrival, these cultures still existed (under Inca rule) and their names and distinctive features appeared in early Hispanic chronicles such as the “Chrónica del Perú” (The chronicle of Peru) by Pedro Cieza de León and the many “Relaciones Geográficas de Indias” (Geographic Relations of the Indies).
The Caranqui Confederation (Imbabura and Pichincha provinces) was the most powerful and extended across a broad region that included several distinct ecological floors such as moors, hillocks, warm and hot valleys. For this reason their agricultural production was much more varied. They gathered twigs and grasses from the moors to build thatched roofs, they grew potato, quinoa, ulluco, and oca in lowlands, maize, beans and horse-eye-beans (ormosias) in warm valleys and coca, cotton and ají pepper in hotter ones.
Archaeological research has confirmed that the ancient mounds (today known as “tolas”) found throughout this region would have been the location of a burial site, or served as the base for a pyramidal temple or for the house of an important person, depending on the remnants present. These peoples also left different agricultural patterns such as planting beds, furrows, ditches and terraces, indicating their knowledge and experience. Ceramic findings, however, suggest that pottery production was not a significant activity during this period, though this did not prevent them from elaborating curious items such as culinary “shoe-pots” and “tripod pots” with both long and short legs. In addition, “mindaláes” commonly appear on painted or carved vessels representing the merchants that travelled from west to east (and the opposite) with their caravans of llamas.
As it was the case with their Aztec colleagues (famous pochtecah), mindaláes were much more than simple merchants: they also officiated as ambassadors and even spies when their lords (and employers) requested so. At this time goods production and exchange was a central activity of Andean societies, with growing complexity and a hierarchical social structure based on the grouping of ayllus (an ayllu being essentially an extended family group with a common ancestor).
They were the Caranqui who started the tradition of naming Mount Imbabura and Mount Cotacahi as “taita” (father) and “mama” (mother) respectively, and considering certain geographical features as sacred (i.e. springs or pugyios, waterfalls or facchas, volcanoes and mounts, and lakes such as the present-day Lake San Pablo).
The power of the Caranqui Confederation was so great that they even resisted the Inca army for a decade before being finally conquered. Inqa Wayna Qhapaq was who, around the year 1500, and tricking them into doing something that they normally wouldn’t do, took their main fortress. Its population (with the exception of children) was massacred in a nearby lake, nowadays known as Yahuarcocha (Quechua for “lake of blood”).
North to the Confederation border, Pasto territory extended far into present day south-western Colombia. This people is famous for their ceramic figures representing men chewing coca leaves (known as “coqueros”), their cotton ponchos, and different items made of gold and shells found in their burial sites.
The Yumbo settled down on the western slopes of Pichincha volcano and became sort of trading facilitators between the Coast, the Sierra and the Amazon Forest.
The Quito domain included the eastern slopes of Pichincha and the plateau of Quito. They were skilful basket makers who mastered the use of the bundled dried totora plant reeds.
The ethnic and linguistic diversity that once characterized the Ecuadorian Sierra was assimilated into a much more homogenous reality after Inca conquest, when those territories were added to north-western Chinchaysuyu (one of the four regions or suyu the Inca Empire or Tawantinsuyu was separated into). The conquest of Ecuador began around 1463 under the leadership of the ninth Inqa, Pachakutiq. His son, Tupaq Yupanki, defeated the Cañari and founded the city of Tomebamba, present-day Cuenca. It would be his successor who would complete the conquest beating the Caranqui, the Quito and the Pasto.

Inca rule lasted only about half century, until the Spanish conquerors arrived. Land ownership, social structure, language and agricultural production suffered a sharp transformation, though a number of other aspects, such as the conquered peoples’ religion, remained untouched. The fall of inka Atahuallpa –born in present-day Ecuadorian territory- under Francisco Pizarro’s orders brought the pre-Hispanic history of Ecuador to an end. A history that still remains alive in many parts of the country.

Historia del Reino de Quito (History of the Kingdom of Quito), in Ayacucho Digital Library [es].
Selected archaeological pieces in the National Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador [es].
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