Saturday, January 24, 2009

Precolumbian Ecuador

Something has changed about the way Ecuadorians perceive themselves, or at least present themselves. It is easy to think of the biggest empire of South America when one thinks of Ecuador. I  chose to lecture on the Incas and the Conquistadors for the course, because their story was exciting and compelling and accessible. I added the pre-Inca history and cultures this year, and it is interesting that during this trip, I heard from Ecuadorians repeatedly, that the history of Ecuador started over 10,000 years before the Incas ruled for less than a hundred years, that the soul of Ecuador is and was established long before the Inca came. Twice I heard stated with pride and irritation that the Quichua in Ecuador was quite different than the Quechua in Peru, that it was older and more pure in some way and defined a different people. This despite the fact that the Incas established Quechua (or Quichua) as the lingua franca of the empire.

It was exciting reading and learning about the many precolumbian cultures in Ecuador. I had known they existed because I had spent many hours at the museum at the Banco Central in Quito, which has an amazing collection of ceramics and art from prehistory through to the colonial times. Eric and I had also visited Cochasqui on our trip without the students four years ago. But the most astonishing and eye opening experience for me was the first time I took the motorized canoe ride down the Napo River from Coca. Oscar was our guide, and he suggested that we stop on the left side of the river at Pompeia and check out the museum run by the Capuchines. It was raining furiously that day and getting out of the boat along the riverbank was muddy and slippery and I remember feeling that I really did not want to get any wetter or muddier than I already was. We were ushered into a courtyard where beautiful flowers and birds had installed themselves. I was overwhelmed when we entered the 'museum' part. I could not believe that what I saw had been found in the forest by the locals and brought to the religious order. Remarkable ceramics with intricate designs, suggesting a sophisticated and civilized culture, certainly not reflective of the primitive Amazonians I had expected.

The museum was no longer there the next year that I came down the river on the way to Sacha.. Apparently the museum had been moved to Quito. I presumed that everything was in the Banco Central, but when I looked for the pieces I had seen, I did not find them there. I wonder who is studying them and when they will again be on display.

It was my visit to that Capuchine museum in Pompeia which had opened my eyes and my mind to the world before the Incas and the Spaniards. So little is known about the cultures of the Amazonian precolumbians, but clearly they were civilized and had a unique culture and highly developed art. When Orellana and his group floated down the Amazon to the sea, their priest recorded what were considered fantastical descriptions of golden cities and crowds of people along the river. No one ever found the glistening cities, and the people disappeared, probably due to disease. I read that 95% of the Amazonian population died of disease brought by the Spaniards. The tribes that remained retreated further into the jungle.

I paid more attention to the early history of Ecuador this time, and I found that the Ecuadorian guides were focussed more now on highlighting the richness of Ecuadorian history before they were conquered by the Inca and the Spaniards. I wondered if there is a political campaign going on to educate the Ecuadorians about their past and instill pride and a sense of accomplishment. Our visit to the museum at the 'true' Mitad del Mundo was all about the sophistication of the Quitu-Caras and their knowledge about astronomy and mathematical measurements regarding the axis of the earth and the soltices and equinoxes. No word about the conquering Incas, except that they learned all they knew from those who came before them. Essentially all that I had read and presented to the class was reiterated by our Ecuadorian guides.

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