Sunday, January 25, 2009


I was struggling with finishing my lecture on the Incas, so Eric suggested that I talk about 'synchretism', the merging of  disparate cultures, and that there are no heroes in the story or the conquest. I talked about sychncretism in the review of pre-Columbian Ecuador too, in an effort to describe the melding of pre-Inca and Inca cultures. During this recent visit to Ecuador, heroes appeared regularly. There is Ruiminahui, the Inca general who refused to surrender to the Spanish and hid the Inca gold so well, it was never found. He razed Quito to prevent the Spaniards from taking the city. I remember when he was immortalized on the 1000 sucre bill, and there are several statues of him, with his proud and grim 'stoneface'. I believe the Ecuadorians remain fiercely proud of his resistance to the Spanish conquest and his success in holding them off in Quito. When he burned Quito to the ground, he also killed all those who chose not to escape with him. The legend is that he hid the gold from Quito somewhere in the Llanganati mountains, and that the gold has never been found.

I was reminded several times that the Incas ruled in Ecuador for less than 100 years, that the cultures that existed before the Incas were sophisticated and in fact had much to offer to the conquering empire. The Quitu-Caras had figured out that they lived at the equator, that the earth was tilted on its axis, and were able to calculate the angle of the tilt. They created complicated lunar and solar calendars to aid with agriculture and religious ceremonies. The huge mounds at Cochasqui were hidden from the Incas and then the Spanish by two metres of dirt and grass.

Many of the tribes in Ecuador resisted the Incas. Unfortunately for them, in their zeal to rid themselves of the Inca, many groups allied themselves with the Spanish. The Canaris, a tribe from the southern part of the Ecuadorian highlands were particularly unhappy with the Inca and eager to help Pizarro and his conquistadors. My understanding is that the Spanish were able to defeat the Inca for several reasons; disease had already devastated significant numbers of the indigenous people, guns and steel overcame arrows and stone weapons, but most significantly, there were large numbers of dissatisfied subjects of the Inca empire, who were eager to help the Spaniards. Recent archeological digs have revealed that most of the Indians killed at the time at the conquest were not victims of Spanish weapons, but of stone maces. It is clear that most of the battles engaged Indian against Indian. The Spaniards succeeded in the conquest because they were able to exploit the divisions in the Inca empire, those between the conquered tribes and the Incas as well as the rival factions supporting Huascar versus Atahualpa.

I used the term synchretism to describe the merging of pre-Inca and Inca cultures. The Inca were skilled at learning what they could from the tribes they conquered, and not necessarily imposing all their beliefs on the conquered. They insisted on worship of their Sun God, but usually allowed those they conquered to worship their own gods too. Sometimes, they agreed to worship the gods of those they absorbed into their empire, such as Pachacamac and Viracocha. 

The Spaniards were quite dismissive of the cultures they conquered and tried to impose their religion and culture on the local people . They were successful in that the local people are all Catholic . But their worship is a combination of Catholic and more ancient beliefs. There is a merging of pre-columbian and Spanish. When we visited the shaman, his chanting was all about Mary and Jesus Christ, but also his ancestors and other more ancient spirits. Ecuador is neither a Spanish country nor a native one, rather it is a combination of indigenous, Spanish, ancient and new.

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