Ecuador offers little archeological evidence of its preHispanic civilizations. Nonetheless, its most ancient artifacts-- remnants of the Valdivia culture found along the coast north of the modern city of Santa Elena in Guayas Province--date from as early as 3500 B.C.. Other major coastal archaeological sites are found in the provinces of Manabí and Esmeraldas; major sites in the Sierra are found in Carchi and Imbabura provinces in the north, Tungurahua and Chimborazo provinces in the middle of the Andean highlands, and Cañar, Azuay, and Loja provinces in the south. Nearly all of these sites are dated in the last 2,000 years. Large parts of Ecuador, including almost all of the Oriente, however, remain unknown territory to archaeologists.
Knowledge of Ecuador before the Spanish conquest is limited also by the absence of recorded history within either the Inca or pre-Inca cultures as well as by the lack of interest taken in Ecuador by the Spanish chroniclers. Before the Inca conquest of the area that comprises modern-day Ecuador, the region was populated by a number of distinct tribes that spoke mutually unintelligible languages and were often at war with one another. Four culturally related Indian groups, known as the Esmeralda, the Manta, the Huancavilca, and the Puná, occupied the coastal lowlands in that order from north to south. They were hunters, fishermen, agriculturalists, and traders. Trade was especially important among different coastal groups, who seem to have developed considerable oceanic travel, but the lowland cultures also traded with the peoples of the Sierra, exchanging fish for salt.
The Sierra was populated by elements, from north to south, of the Pasto, the Cara, the Panzaleo, the Puruhá, the Cañari, and the Palta cultures. These people lived mostly on mountainsides and in widely dispersed villages located in the fertile valleys between the Cordillera Occidental (Western Chain) and the Cordillera Oriental (Eastern Chain) of the Andes. The Sierra natives were a sedentary, agricultural people, cultivating maize, quinoa, beans, and many varieties of potatoes and squashes. The use of irrigation was prevalent, especially among the Cañari. A wide variety of fruits, including pineapples and avocados, was grown in the lower, warmer valleys. Historians believe that political organization centered around local chieftains who collaborated with one another in confederations or were subjected to "kings." Such local chiefs had considerable authority; they could raise armies, for example, and administer communal lands.
The Inca expansion northward from modern-day Peru during the late fifteenth century met with fierce resistance by several Ecuadorian tribes, particularly the Cañari, in the region around modern-day Cuenca; the Cara in the Sierra north of Quito; and the Quitu, occupants of the site of the modern capital, after whom it was to be named. The conquest of Ecuador began in 1463 under the leadership of the ninth Inca, the great warrior Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. In that year, his son Topa took over command of the army and began his march northward through the Sierra. After defeating the Quitu, he moved southward along the coast, and from there he launched an extensive ocean journey that took him, depending on the account, to the Galápagos Islands or to the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia. Upon his return, he tried unsuccessfully to subdue the populations around the Gulf of Guayaquil and the island of Puná. By 1500 Topa's son, Huayna Capac, overcame the resistance of these populations and that of the Cara, and thus incorporated all of modern-day Ecuador into Tawantinsuyu, as the Inca empire was known.
The influence of these conquerors based in Cuzco (modern-day Peru) was limited to about a half century, or less in some parts of Ecuador. During that period, some aspects of life remained unchanged. Traditional religious beliefs, for example, persisted throughout the period of Inca rule. In other areas, however, such as agriculture, land tenure, and social organization, Inca rule had a profound effect despite its relatively short duration. Farming remained the major form of subsistence, but the Inca introduced a variety of new crops, including yucca, sweet potatoes, coca, and peanuts. The use of llamas and irrigation was expanded considerably. Largely in private hands previously, land became, in theory at least, the property of the Inca emperor. In practice, most land was held collectively by the ayllu, an agrarian community group headed by a curaca, that was the basic social grouping under the Inca. Within the ayllu, each domestic family unit was allotted a small plot of arable land to grow food for its own consumption. The state and the clergy also held a substantial amount of land, which was worked by the emperor's subjects as part of their obligatory public service.
Emperor Huayna Capac became very fond of Quito, making it a secondary capital of Tawantinsuyu and living out his elder years there before his death in about 1527. He preferred to rule through local curacas as long as they were willing to accept the divine authority of the Inca and to pay tribute. When he met opposition, the emperor dispersed large parts of local populations to other areas of the empire and replaced them with colonists who were brought from as far away as Chile. This wholesale movement of populations helped spread Quechua, the language of Cuzco, into Ecuador. A standing army, a large bureaucracy, and a temporally important clergy further enforced the rule of the emperor.
Huayna Capac's sudden death from a strange disease, described by one Spanish chronicler as "probably smallpox or measles," precipitated a bitter power struggle between Huascar, a son borne by Huayna Capac's sister and thus the legitimate heir, and Atahualpa, a son who, although borne by a lesser wife, was reputedly his father's "favorite." This struggle raged during the half-decade before the arrival of Francisco Pizarro's conquering expedition in 1532. The key battle of this civil war was fought on Ecuadorian soil, near Riobamba, where Huascar's northbound troops were met and defeated by Atahualpa's southbound troops. Atahualpa's final victory over Huascar in the days just before the Spanish conquerors arrived resulted in large part from the loyalty of two of Huayna Capac's best generals, who were based in Quito along with Atahualpa. The victory remains a source of national pride to Ecuadorians as a rare case when "Ecuador" forcefully bettered a "neighboring country."
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