Indigenous peoples in Ecuador

Indigenous peoples in Ecuador

Infobox Ethnic group
group =Indigenous peoples in Ecuador

popplace = Ecuador;Mainly: Sierra (Andean highlands) and Oriente (Eastern)
poptime=3.4 million
25% of Ecuador's population
langs = Kichwa, Spanish language, Achuar-Shiwiar, Cha’palaachi, Cofán, Tsachila, Cuaiquer, Secoya, Shuar, Siona, Tetete, Waorani
rels = Traditional beliefs, Christianity
related = Indigenous peoples in Peru, Indigenous peoples in Colombia, Indigenous peoples in Bolivia

Indigenous peoples in Ecuador are the groups of people who were present in what became the South American nation of Ecuador when Europeans arrived. The term also includes their descendants from the time of the Spanish conquest to the present. Their history, which encompasses the last 11,000 years,cite journal | last = Salazar
first = Ernesto | title = Les premiers habitants de l'Equateur | journal = Les Dossiers d'archéologie | volume = 214 | pages = 3-85 | publisher = Faton | location = Dijon | date = 1996 | language =French
] reaches into the present; 25 percent of Ecuador's population is of indigenous heritage, while another 65 percent is of mixed indigenous and European heritage. Black people, people of Spanish descent, and others make up the remaining 10 percent. [cite web | title = Ecuador | work = CIA World Factbook | publisher = Central Intelligence Agency | date = 2008-06-19 | url = | format = HTML | accessdate = 2008-07-14]


There are different theories about how the American continents became populated. The prevailing theory, the Land Bridge Theory, holds that the first inhabitants of Americas migrated from Asia across the Beringia. According to this theory, the first inhabitants of South America arrived from North America via the Panamanian isthmus.

Other theories hold that the first humans to reside in the Americas came across the Pacific Ocean from Oceania or across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe.

Archaeological periods

While archaeologists have proposed different temporal models at different times, the schematic currently in use divides prehistoric Ecuador into five major time periods: Lithic, Archaic, Formative, Regional Development, and Integration. These time periods are determined by the cultural development of groups being studied, and are not directly linked to specific dates, eg. through carbon dating.

The Lithic period encompasses the earliest stages of development, beginning with the culture that migrated into the American continents and continuing until the Late Pleistocene or Early Holocene. The people of this culture are known as Paleo-Indians, and the end of their era is marked by the extinction of the megafauna they hunted.

The Archaic period is defined as “the stage of migratory hunting and gathering cultures continuing into the environmental conditions approximating those of the present.”cite book |last=Willey |first=Gordon R. |authorlink=Gordon Willey |coauthors=Philip Phillips |editor=R. Lee Lyman |others=Michael J. O’Brien |title=Method and theory in American archaeology |origdate=1958 |edition=second |series=Classics in Southeastern Archaeology |volume= |date=2001 |publisher=University of Alabama Press |location=Tuscaloosa |isbn=0817310886 |pages=104-139] During this period, hunters began to subsist on a wider variety of smaller game and increased their gathering activities.cite book |last=Marcos |first=Jorge G. |editor=J. Scott Raymond |others=Richard L. Burger|title=Archaeology of Formative Ecuador |format=PDF |date=2003 |publisher=Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University |location=Washington, D.C. |isbn=0884022927|pages=13 |chapter=A Reassessment of the Ecuadorian Formative |chapterurl= |quote=The initial cultivation of corn probably took place around 6000 B.C.1 on the Santa Elena peninsula and at around 4300 B.C.2 at Lake Ayauchi in the southeastern Oriente of Ecuador (Pearsall 1995: 127–128; Piperno 1988: 203–224, 1990, 1995).] They also began domesticating plants such as maize and squash, probably at "dooryard gardens." In the Andean highlands, this period lasted from 3500-7000 BP.

The Formative Period is characterized by “the presence of agriculture, or any other subsistence economy of comparable effectiveness, and by the successful integration of such an economy into well-established, sedentary village life.” In Ecuador, this period is also marked by the establishment of trade networksMarcos, 16] and the spread of different styles of pottery.Marcos, 19] It began in about 3500 and ended around 2200 BP.

Regional Development is the period, dating roughly 2200–1300 BP, of the civilizations of the Sierra, described as "localized but interacting states with complex ideologies, symbol systems, and social forms." The people of this period practiced metallurgy, weaving, and ceramics. [cite book | last = Peregrine | first = Peter | title = Outline of Archaeological Traditions | publisher = Human Relations Area Files | date = forthcoming | location = New Haven | pages = | url = | isbn = ]

The Integration Period (1450 BP—450 BP) "is characterized by great cultural uniformity, the development of urban centres, class-based social stratification, and intensive agriculture." [cite encyclopedia | title = Integration Period | encyclopedia = The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology | volume = | pages = | publisher = Oxford University Press | date = 2003 | id = | accessdate = 2008-07-19] The Integration Period ends and the historic era begins with the Incan conquest.


The oldest artifacts discovered in Ecuador are stone implements discovered at 32 "pre-ceramic" (Paleolithic) archaeological sites in the Santa Elena Peninsula. They indicate a hunting and gathering economy, and date from the Late Pleistocene epoch, or about 11,000 years ago. These Paleo-Indians subsisted on the megafauna that inhabited the Americas at the time, which they hunted and processed with stone tools of their own manufacture.

Evidence of Paleoindian hunter-gatherer material culture in other parts of coastal Ecuador is isolated and scattered.cite journal | last = Stothert | first = Karen E. | authorlink = | coauthors = Dolores R. Piperno and Thomas C. Andres | title = Terminal Pleistocene/Early Holocene human adaptation in coastal Ecuador: the Las Vegas evidence | journal = Quaternary International | volume = 109-110 | issue = South America: Long and Winding Roads for the First Americans at the Pleistocene/Holocene Transition | pages = 23-43 | publisher = Center for Archaeological Research, The University of Texas at San Antonio, | location = San Antonio, Texas, USA | date = 2003 | url = | format = PDF | doi = 10.1016/S1040-6182(02)00200-8 | id = | accessdate = ] Such artifacts have been found in the provinces of Carchi, Imbabura, Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Azuay, and Loja.] cite news | last = Salazar | first = Ernesto | coauthors = | title = Los primeros habitantes del Ecuador I: Los primeros habitantes del Ecuador-2 | work = La Hora | pages = | language = Spanish | publisher = | date = 2003 | url = | accessdate = 2008-07-14 |language= Spanish |quote= Puntas de lanza de varios tamaños han sido encontradas en diferentes lugares del país, particularmente, en las provincias del Carchi, Imbabura, Pichincha, Cotopaxi, Azuay y Loja.]

Despite the existence of these early coastal settlements, the majority of human settlement occurred in the Sierra (Andean) region, which was quickly populated.cite news | last = Salazar | first = Ernesto | coauthors = | title = Los primeros habitantes del Ecuador I: Los primeros habitantes-1 | work = La Hora | pages = | language = Spanish | publisher = | date = 2003 | url = | accessdate = 2008-07-14 | quote= Los seres humanos parecen haber ocupado rápidamente el callejón interandino. La Costa, en cambio habría permanecido largamente deshabitada, a juzgar por la relativa escasez de asentamiento precerámicos descubiertos (excepto los numerosos sitios de la península de Santa Elena) en una región que, comparativamente, es una de las más estudiadas del país.] cite book |last=Lynch |first=Thomas F. |editor=Frank Salomon |others=Stuart B. Schwartz |title=South America |url=
accessdate= 2008-07-16 |edition=third edition |series=The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas |volume=III |date=2000 |publisher=Cambridge University Press |location=Cambridge |isbn=0521630754 |chapter=Earliest South American Lifeways |quote=In fact, this region somewhat resembles the African highland zone, in which our species evolved, so it is no wonder it was swiftly and solidly colonized.
] One such settlement, remains of which were found at the archaeological site El Inga, was centered at the eastern base of Mount Ilaló, where two basalt flows are located. Due to agricultural disturbances of archaeological remains, it has been difficult to establish a consistent timeline for this site. The oldest artifacts there discovered, however, date to 9,750 BP.Salazar]

In the South, archaeological discoveries include stone artifacts and animal remains found in the Cave of Chobshi, located in the "cantón" of Sigsig, which date between 10,010 and 7,535 BP. Chobshi also provides evidence of the domestication of the dog. Another site, Cubilán, rests on the border between Azuay and Loja provinces. Scrapers, projectile points, and awls discovered there date between 9,060 and 9,100 BP, while vegetable remains are up to a thousand years older.

In the Oriente, human settlements have existed since at least 2450 BP.cite book |last=Rostoker |first=Arthur |editor=J. Scott Raymond |others=Richard L. Burger|title=Archaeology of Formative Ecuador |format=PDF |date=2003 |publisher=Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University |location=Washington, D.C. |isbn=0884022927 |pages=541 |chapter=Formative Period Chronology for Eastern Ecuador |chapterurl= |quote=Preceramic and aceramic settlements, as well as later pottery-using societies, likely were already established at some places in the Oriente well before 500 B.C.] Settlements that probably date from this period have been found in the provinces of Napo, Pastaza, Sucumbíos, and Orellana. However, most of the evidence recovered in the Oriente suggest a date of settlement later than in the Sierra or the Coast.

Origins of agriculture

The end of the Ice Age brought about climactic changes that drove much of the large game hunted by Paleo-Indians, such as giant sloth and mammoth, to extinction. Humans adapted to the new conditions by relying more heavily on farming. The adoption of agriculture as the primary mode of subsistence was gradual, taking up most of the Archaic period. It was accompanied by cultural changes in burial practices, art, and tool usage.

The first evidence of agriculture dates anywhere from the Preboreal Holocene (10,000 years ago) to the Atlantic Holocene (6,000 years ago).Salazar]

Some of the first farmers in Ecuador were the Las Vegas culture of the Santa Elena Peninsula, who, in addition to making use of the abundant piscine resources, also contributed to the domestication of several beneficial plant species, including squash.Stothert, 23] They engaged in ritual burial and intensive gardening.

The Valdivia culture, an outgrowth of the Las Vegas culture, was an important early civilization. While archaeological finds in Brazil and elsewhere have supplanted those at Valdivia as the earliest-known ceramics in the Americas, the culture retains its importance due to its formative role in Amerindian civilization in South America, which is analogous to the role of the Olmeca in Mexico.Salazar] Most of the ceramic shards from the Early Valdivia date to about 4,450 BP (although some may be from up to 6,250 BP), with artifacts from the later period of the civilization dating from about 3,750 BP. Ceramics were utilitarian, with the exception of small feminine figures referred to as "Venuses."

The Valdivia people farmed maize, a small bean (now rare) of the Canavalia family, cotton, and "achira", a water-plantain. Indirect evidence suggests that mate, coca, and manioc were also cultivated. They also consumed substantial amounts of fish. Archaeological evidence from the Late Valdivia shows a decline in life expectancy to approximately 21 years. This decline is attributed to an increase in infectious disease, accumulation of waste, water pollution, and a deterioration in diet, all of which are associated with agriculture itself. [cite book | last = Lippi | first = Ronald D. | title = La Primera Revolución Ecuatoriana: El desarrollo de la Vida Agrícola en el Antiguo Ecuador | publisher = Instituto de historia y antropología andinas | date = 1996 | location = Quito | pages = | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = ]

In the Sierra, people cultivated locally-crops developed, including potatoes, quinoa, and tarwi. They also farmed crops that originated in the coastal regions and in the North, including "ají", peanuts, beans, and maize. Animal husbandry kept pace with agricultural development, with the domestication of the local animals llama, alpaca, and the guinea pig, as well as the coastal Muscovy Duck. The domestication of camelids during this period laid the basis for the pastoral tradition that continues to this day.

In the Oriente, evidence of maize cultivation discovered at Lake Ayauchi dates from 6250 BP. In Morona-Santiago province, evidence of Regional Development period culture was discovered at the Upano Valley sites of Faldas de Sangay, also known as the Sangay Complex or Huapula, as well as at other nearby sites. These people created ceramics, farmed, and hunted and gathered. They also built large earthen mounds, the smallest of which were used for agriculture or housing, and the largest of which had ceremonial functions. The hundreds of mounds spread over a twelve square kilometercite journal | last = Erickson | first = Clark | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = Lomas de ocupación en los Llanos de Moxos | journal = Arqueología de las Tierras Bajas | volume = | issue = | pages = 207-226 | publisher = | location = Montevideo | date = 2000 | url = | doi = | id = | accessdate = 2008-07-18] area at Sangay demonstrate that the Oriente was capable of supporting large populations. The lack of evidence of kings or "principal" chiefs and also challenges the notion that cultural creations such as monuments require centralized authority.Citation| last =Roosevelt | first =Anna C. | date =2000 | title =South America | edition =third edition | volume =III | series =The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas | publication-place =Cambridge | publisher =Cambridge University Press | pages =264-349 | page =344 | url = | isbn=0521630754 | chapter= Maritime, Highland, Forest Dynamic | quote = Similarly, cultural elaboration does not turn out to have been linked to social organization as predicted by earlier theories. Elaboration in the form of art and technology and monument building was found in both areas, without evidence of centralized, controlling administrations. | accessdate =2008-07-18]

Development of metallurgy

The period from 2450 BP—1450 BP is known as the "Regional Development" period, and is marked by the development of metalworking skills. The artisans of La Tolita, an island in the estuary of the Santiago River, made alloys of platinum and gold, fashioning the material into miniatures and masks. The Jama-Coaque, Bahía, Guangala, and Jambalí also practiced metalwork in other areas of the Ecuadorian coast.cite book |last=Shimada |first=Izumi|coauthors= |editor=Frank Salomon |others=Stuart B. Schwartz |title=South America |url= |accessdate= 2008-07-16 |edition=third |series=The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas |volume=III |date=2000 |publisher=Cambridge University Press |location=Cambridge |isbn=0521630754 |chapter=Evolution of Andean Diversity: Regional Formations (500 B.C.E-C.E. 600)] These goods were traded though mercantile networks.

Pre-Incan era

Prior to the invasion of the Inca, the indigenous societies of Ecuador had complex and diverse social, cultural, and economic systems. The ethnic groups of the central Sierra were generally more advanced in organizing farming and commercial activities, and the peoples of the Coast and the Oriente generally followed their lead, coming to specialize in processing local materials into goods for trade.


The coastal peoples continued the traditions of their predecessors on the Santa Elena peninsula. They include the Machalilla, and later the Chorrera, who refined the ceramicism of the Valdivia culture.


The economy of the peoples of the Oriente was essentially silvicultural, although horticulture was practiced. They extracted dyes from the achiote plant for face paint, and curare poisons for blowgun darts from various other plants. Complex religious systems developed, many of which incorporated (or perhaps originated from) the use of hallucinogenic plants such as "Datura" and "Banisteriopsis". They also made coil ceramics.


In the Sierra, the most important groups were the Pasto, the Caras, the Panzaleo, the Puruhá, the Cañari, and the Palta.cite book | last = Rudolph | first = James D. | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = A Country Study: Ecuador | publisher = Library of Congress | date = 1991 | location = Washington, D.C. | pages = | url = | doi = | id = LCCN F3708.E383 1991 | isbn = ] They lived on hillsides, terrace farming maize, quinoa, beans, potatoes and squash, and developed systems of irrigation. Their political organization was a dual system: one of chieftains, the other, a land-holding system called "curacazgo", that regulated the planting and harvesting of multiple cycles of crops. While some historians have referred to this system as the "Kingdom of Quito," it did not approach the level of political organization of the state.


Using the system of multicyclic agriculture, which allowed them to have year-long harvests of a wide variety of crops by planting at a variety of altitudes and at different times, the Sierra people flourished. Generally, an ethnic group farmed the mountainside nearest to it. Cities began to specialize in the production of goods, agricultural and otherwise. For this reason, the dry valleys, where cotton, coca, "ají" (chili peppers), indigo, and fruits could be grown and where salt could be produced, gained economic importance. Sometimes, tribes farmed lands outside their immediate purview. These goods were then traded in a two-tiered market system.

Free commerce took place in markets called "tianguez"," and was the means by which ordinary individuals fulfilled their need for tubers, maize, and cotton. Directed commerce, however, was undertaken by specialists called "mindala" under the auspices of a "curaca". They also exchanged goods at the "tianguez", but specialized in products that had ceremonial purposes, such as coca, salt, gold, and beads. Seashells were sometimes used as currency in places such as Pimampiro in the far North. Salt was used in other parts of the Sierra, and in other places where salt was abundant, such as Salinas.

In this manner, the Pasto and the Caras undertook their existence in the Chota Valley, the Puruhá in the Chanchán riverbasin, and the Panzaleos in the Patate and Guayallabamba valleys.

In the coastal lowlands, the Esmeralda, the Manta, the Huancavilca, and the Puná were the four major groups. They were seafarers, but also practiced agriculture and trade, both with each other and with peoples of the Sierra. The most important commodity they provided, however, were Spondylus shells, which was a symbol of fertility. In areas such as Guayas and Manabí, small beads called "chiquira" were used as currency.

Also following the lead of the Sierra peoples, the people of the Oriente began congregating around sites where cotton, coca, salt, and beads could be more easily produced for trade. "Tianguez" developed in the Amazon forest, and were visited by "mindala" from the Sierra.

Political organization

The extended family, in which polygyny was common, was the basic unit of society. The extended family group is referred to by the Kichwa word "ayllu"," although this type of organization predates the arrival of Quechua speakers. Two political systems were built on the basis of the "ayllu": the "curacazgo" and the "cacicazgo". Each "curacazgo" is made up of one or more "ayllu". The Ecuadorian "ayllus", unlike in the Southern Andes, were small, made up of only about 200 people, although the larger ones could reach up to 1,200 members. Each "ayllu" had its own authority, although each "curaca" also answered to a chief ("cacique"), who exercised power over the "curacazgo". The "cacique"'s power depended on his ability to mobilize manual labor, and was sustained by his ability to distribute highly-valued goods to the members of his "curaca".


Local beliefs and practices co-existed those practiced regionally, which allowed each ethnic group to maintain its own religious identity while interacting, especially commercially, with neighboring groups. Some regional commonalities were the solar calendar, which marked the solstices and equinoxes, and veneration of the sun, moon, and maize.

Incan conquest

The Incan empire expanded into what later became Ecuador during the reign of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, who began the northward conquest in 1463. He gave his son Topa control of the army, and Topa conquered the Quitu and continued coastward. Upon arriving, he undertook a sea voyage to either the Galápagos or the Marquesas Islands. Upon his return, he was unable to subdue the people of Puná Island and the Guayas coast. His son Huayna Capac, however, was able to subsequently conquer these peoples, consolidating Ecuador into "Tawantinsuyu," the Incan Empire.

One of the Incan tactics included uprooting groups of Quechua-speakers, called "mitimaes", loyal to the empire and resettling them in areas that offered resistance.

Many tribes resisted the imperial encroachment, in particular the Cañari in the South, near modern-day Cuenca, and the Caras and the Quitu in the North. However, the Incan language and social structures came to predominate, particularly in the Sierra.

panish conquest

Sebastián de Benalcázar, Ecuador's first Spanish conquistador arrived in 1534. It is guessed that the indigenous population at this time numbered one million.cite book | last = Gerlach | first = Allen | authorlink = | coauthors = | title = Indians, Oil, and Politics: A Recent History of Ecuador | publisher = Rowman & Littlefield | date = 2002 | location = | pages = | url = | doi = | id = | isbn = 0842051082]

Modern times

Population and demographics

There is debate about the quantities of indigenous currently inhabiting Ecuador. Some elements of society, most famously the former President León Febres Cordero, have insisted that the indigenous make up no more than two million people. Historian Enrique Ayala Mora, too, estimates that the indigenous population is no more that sixteen percent.Gerlach, 8] Other organizations, such as CONAIE, while giving varying estimates in different years, tend to approximate closer to four million. The discrepancy arises from the ways in which they are counted: " [d] oes one consider them such on the basis of physical characteristics or whether they live in the Andean Indian world?""El Comercio", cited in Gerlach, 7]

Approximately 96.4% of Ecuador's are Highland Quichuas living in the valleys of the Sierra region.Gerlach, 8] Primarily consisting of the descendents of Incans, they are Quichua speakers and include the Caranqui, the Otavaleños, the Cayambi, the Pichincha, the Panzaleo, the Chimbuelo, the Salasacan, the Tungurahua, the Tugua, the Waranka, the Puruhá, the Cañari, and the Saraguro. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Salascan and the Saraguro may have be the descendents of Bolivian ethnic groups transplanted to Ecuador as "mitimaes".

Coastal groups, including the Awá, Chachi, and the Tsáchila, make up .24% percent of the indigenous population, while the remaining 3.35 percent live in the Oriente and consist of the Oriente Quichua (the Canelo and the Quijos), the Shuar, the Huaorani, the Siona-Secoya, the Cofán, and the Achuar.


In 1986, indigenous people formed the first "truly" national political.Gerlach, xv] The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) has been the primary political organism ever since, and has been influential in national politics, including the ouster of the presidents Abdalá Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in 2000.


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