Ecuador’s history packs a dramatic punch. It’s marked by periods of radical change, brought about suddenly by charismatic strongmen. First the conquistadores arrived, and pillaged without consequence. Inca kings defied the new rulers, no matter what the cost. Revolution then came to Ecuador, and a subsequent lineup of despots dominated the political stage.
Although Ecuador’s economy has seen massive improvement in recent decades, it’s unclear if the centuries of drama are coming to an end. At the very least, the 21st century has brought recognition of the necessity to protect natural resources and national culture.
Paleoindian Period: 11,000 B.C. – 4,000 B.C.
Ecuador’s coast has served as a fertile home for humans for thousands of years. Archeologists have uncovered the oldest examples of figurines from the Americas in the coastal town of Valdivia.
Valdivians lived during the Paleoindian period, from 11,000 B.C. – 4,000 B.C. Small figurines, with prominent breasts and stippled bodies, represent some of the earliest artistic endeavors in Ecuador.
Around 6,000 B.C., the cultivation of corn began on Ecuador’s Santa Elena peninsula. This agricultural progress paved the way for a multitude of tribes on Ecuador’s coast.
Formative Period: 4,000 B.C. – 300 B.C.
Large colonies started to emerge in the Amazon jungle during the Formative period. Ancient tribes relied heavily on the cultivation of a starchy plant known as manioc, which is still consumed in Ecuador today. Archeologists have discovered pottery in the jungle dating back to 4,000 B.C. It’s difficult to know what kind of civilizations flourished at the time, because so much has been buried under dense jungle growth.
Regional Development: 500 B.C. – 500 A.D.
The La Tola people made art and elaborate jewelry from platinum and gold. It’s especially significant that they worked with platinum, since this form of metalwork did not exist in Europe until the mid-19th century. Around the same time, the Bahía culture developed in the modern-day Manabí Province, and left behind an abundance of ceramics and statues.
Evidence of trade and travel between ancient Ecuadorian cultures has also emerged. Based on ceramics, we know that the Huancavilca people would sail balsa rafts to Mexico for trading.
Following in the Bahía’s footsteps, the Manta culture rose to power in the coastal area of Manabí. Ceramics found in the Galápagos resemble those produced by the Manta. Although there is no definite historical consensus, there is a good chance the Manta knew about the Galápagos and traded there.
Pre-Hispanic Integration and the Inca: 500 A.D. – 1,500 A.D.
Ecuador’s Andean civilizations are a source of cultural pride because of their strong-willed resistance to the Inca invaders. Some of these groups still existed when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Living under the subjugation of the Inca, some Andean groups were eager to join forces with the Spanish to mete out revenge on their captors.
One such people were the Cañari. They occupied much of the southern Andean lowlands, including modern day Cañar. The Inca captured the Cañari capital and made it into their Ecuadorian capital, naming it Tomebamba. After the Spanish arrived, Tomebamba became Cuenca.
The Cara civilization formed around 900 A.D. They worshipped the sun and built astronomical observatories. Eventually the Cara people joined the Quitu kingdom. Modern-day Otovoleños are descendants of the Quitu. The last Ecuadorian Inca king, Atahualpa, was the son of an Inca king and a Quitu princess.
The Inca migrated to Ecuador from Peru, beginning in 1463. They Battled the Cara and the Cañari people for around 17 years. Under Inca leader Tupac Yupanqui, the Cara and the Cañari were finally conquered. The Inca brought strong administrative leadership, and through their organized (albeit oppressive) system of labor, they established roads and united various kingdoms through comprehensive military control. The most impressive road the Inca built connected Quito with Cuenca. It was made of stone and shaded by trees.
The Inca introduced the concept of mita. Mita meant that native Ecuadorians performed labor for their Inca overlords instead of paying taxes. The Inca also developed a record-keeping system called quipus. Quipus consisted of knotted strings hanging from a cord. Using different knots and colors of string, Inca administrators could keep track of various resources.
In 1532, Atahualpa defeated his Peruvian rival, and the heir to the Inca throne, his half-brother Huayna. These battles left the Inca kingdom ill prepared for the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Once Pizarro arrived, he asked Atahualpa to convert to Catholicism, and accept Spanish rule. Atahualpa declined, and it supposedly took the Spanish two hours to slay 7,000 Inca soldiers, with an army of only 180 men and 27 horses. These numbers may sound outlandish, but the Spanish had canons and horses at their disposal, which gave them a significant advantage.
Atahualpa offered a huge ransom of precious metal in exchange for his life. The Spanish accepted, and then executed him in 1533.
Colonial Period: 1544–1720
In 1534, conquistador Simón de Belalcázar arrived in Quito, only to find most of it in ashes. The Inca lord Rumiñahui had burned the city to the ground when he heard of the imminent arrival of the Spanish.
By 1549, tens of thousands of natives had died at the hands of the conquistadores. Aside from their horses and weaponry, the Spanish also brought diseases – most notably, smallpox and measles – from which natives had no immunity.
Francisco Pizarro spent a long time looking for gold, specifically the legendary site of El Dorado. Ecuador does have gold mines, some of which are still being excavated. The Spanish did not find the abundance they were seeking, although their quest did lead them to travel nearly the entire length of the Amazon.
After subduing the natives, the Spanish formed the Real Audiencia in Quito, the colonial government that enforced a system of labor on the remaining natives.
By the 17th century, encomenderos (upper class landowners) controlled most of the land around the Ecuadorian Andes. The Catholic Church also became quite powerful in Ecuador, and eventually owned large amounts of land through its connection to the Spanish upper class.
Upper-class criollos enslaved the natives and used force to convert them to Christianity. The Spanish forced the natives to work on plantations, known as encomiendas. Some were also forced to work in obreras, which were workshops that produced textiles.
The upper classes were comprised of peninsulares and criollos. Peninsulares were born in Spain, while criollos were of completely Spanish descent, but were born in Ecuador. The middle class mestizos are of mixed Spanish and native Ecuadorian background. The indígenas, full-blooded natives, occupied the bottom rung of society and were forced to work for the Spanish in encomiendas and obreras.
Intellectual Progress in Ecuador
In the late 18th-century, native Ecuadorian writer Eugenio Espejo helped pave the intellectual path toward freedom. He championed humanist philosophy, and satirized the colonial government for their corruption and overall lack of education. Ecuadorian historians credit him with sowing the seeds for revolution against the colonial government.
The German scientist Alexander Von Humboldt visited Ecuador in the early 19th century, and contributed significantly to the study of Ecuador’s biology. The Humboldt Current in the Pacific Ocean is named for him, the same current that draws an abundance of fish to Ecuador’s coastal waters.
When Napoleon took over in Spain, the upheaval sent waves through the political system in Ecuador. In 1809, the upper class in Quito challenged the president of the Audiencia because of his loyalty to Napoleon. This instability made it easy for the country to topple into revolution. Ecuador became one of the many countries that the Venezuelan General Simón Bolívar helped liberate from the Spanish.
In the early 19th century, several major Ecuadorian cities declared themselves independent, leading up to the final battle against the Spanish. Guayaquil declared itself independent in 1820. Cuenca followed later that year. On May 24, 1822 General José de Sucre, a close friend of Bolívar’s, won Quito and secured control of the Audiencia. This battle completed Ecuador’s independence from Spain.
An Unstable Transition to Democracy
Criollo elites struggled to control Ecuador after Spanish independence. From 1845 to 1860, Ecuador endured 11 different governments. Each government collapsed quickly, and sometimes violently. Two of the most influential presidents were assassinated.
From 1860 to 1875, Gabriel García Moreno led a conservative, Catholic government in Ecuador. He built schools that enrolled indigenous people and women. Roads and infrastructure improved, but only practicing Catholics could vote. His oppressive regime did not tolerate free speech or any form of dissent. At the turn of the century, Eloy Alfaro dominated the presidency. He brought a more liberal set of values than Moreno, and ushered in an area of separation between church and state.
Tumultuous 20th Century Ecuador
The 20th century in Ecuador was characterized by political instability. Throughout the 1980s, president Jaime Roldós ushered in an era of modern democracy, and nepotism became a less prominent feature of government. However, falling oil prices and an especially bad El Niño storm undid much of his good work. Later on, presidents Rodrigo Borja (1988–1992) and Sixto Ballén (1992–1996) both worked to create a stable economy and continue to grow international economic support.
President Abdalá Bucaram earned the nickname “El Loco”. He was corrupt, and embezzled millions of dollars from public funds before the Ecuadorian congress ousted him on charges of mental incompetency. Unfortunately, his mismanagement served to undermine the progress Borja and Ballén had achieved.
Under Jamil Mahuad (1998–2000), a long-standing border contest with Peru ended, and the dollar began to replace the Ecuadorian sucre. The dollarization helped bring some stability to the Ecuadorian economy, but only after 7 years of economic turmoil.
Rafael Correa’s Ecuador
The current president of Ecuador is Rafael Correa. He espouses a liberal ideology, but faces the same accusations of corruption and oppression that have dogged Ecuadorian presidents in the past.
Ecuador’s president made international headlines in 2011, when Wikileaks released e-mails in which U.S. government officials impugned Correa’s integrity. In response, Correa offered Julian Assange asylum.
Today, the most hotly debated issues in Ecuador revolve around the Amazon and oil extraction. Correa says he sides with the Amazonian natives, but will continue to allow oil extraction because Ecuador’s economy depends on it.
In 2007, Correa said that if the Ecuadorian government could raise $3.6 billion dollars from international donors, it could suspend its drilling program. They only managed to get $13 million. Correa publicly blames the current drilling on foreign governments and their failure to contribute money to end the drilling.
Most recently, Ecuador auctioned off large swaths of its Amazon rainforest to Chinese companies. They will be drilling in areas that have native populations living in voluntary isolation, with tribes that have resisted the infringements of oil companies for years.
The Future of Ecuadorian Culture
Even as the Amazon continues to lose its cultural isolation, Ecuador is taking action to ensure the future of its cultural treasures. In 2014, Ecuador recovered 4,300 pieces of pre-Columbian pottery from Italian museums, where they had been illegally trafficked. Some parts of Ecuador may still be fighting to keep their way of life, but preservation is increasingly becoming recognized as a priority.