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The land of fire and ice certainly has a tumultuous history. Since becoming an independent nation in 1830, Ecuador has gone through nearly 100 changes in government and 20 constitutions – the most recent drafted in 2008. Fueling the Andean nation’s volatility are rivalries both internal (conservative, church-backed Quito versus liberal, secular Guayaquil) and external (border disputes with Peru).

Ecuador’s varied peoples have seen the rise and fall of leaders great and small, who have left a mixed legacy in this Andean nation. For scholars, the unsung heroes of Ecuadorian history are its resilient indigenous groups, descendents of some of the great cultures that once flourished in the Americas.

Early Cultures
Although the majority of indigenous people today live in the highlands and the Oriente, in pre-Spanish (and pre-Inca) times the coastline supported the densest concentration of peoples. The coastal cultures of La Tolita, Bahía, Manta, Valdivia and Machalilla are paramount to Ecuadorian identity, their importance in many ways even eclipsing the Inca, who didn’t arrive in present-day Ecuador until a half century before the Spanish.

It’s now generally accepted that Ecuador was populated by people migrating west from Brazil, who were drawn to the habitable landscapes along the shore. Ecuador’s first permanent sedentary culture was the Valdivia, which developed along the Santa Elena Peninsula more than 5500 years ago. One of the oldest settled cultures in the Americas, the Valdivia are famous for their finely wrought pottery, particularly the ‘Venus of Valdivia.’ These were feminine ceramic figurines with exaggerated breasts and genitalia, depicted in various stages of pregnancy and childbirth. They were likely used in fertility rituals.

While the Valdivia was the first of Ecuador’s settled cultures, the Chorrera was the most widespread and influential of the groups that appeared during this so-called Formative Period (4000 BC to 300 BC). Both the Chorrera and the Machalilla culture (which inhabited southern Manabí and the Santa Elena Peninsula from 1500 BC to 800 BC) are known for the practice of skull deformation. As a form of status, they used stones to slowly elongate and flatten their craniums, and they often removed two front teeth to further enhance their appearance.

Beginning sometime around 600 BC, societies became more stratified: they were ruled by an elite caste of shamans and merchants who conducted highly valued long-distance trade. These included the Bahía, Jama-Coaque, Guangala and La Tolita cultures on the coast and the Panzaleo in the highlands. It is likely the Panzaleo was the first culture to practice the technique of tzantza (shrinking heads) for which the Shuar of the southern Oriente are much more famous (they practiced it until the mid-20th century).

Slowly, beginning probably around AD 800, cultures became integrated into larger, more hierarchical societies. These included the Manteños, the Huancavilcas and the Caras on the coast; the Quitus (from which the city of Quito takes its name) of the northern highlands; the Puruhá of the central highlands; and the Cañari of the area around present-day Cuenca. Around the end of the 1st century AD, the expansionist Caras of the coast conquered the peaceful Quitus of the highlands and the combined cultures became collectively known as the Quitu-Caras, or the Shyris. They were the dominant force in the Ecuadorian highlands until about the 1300s, when the Puruhá of the central highlands became increasingly powerful. The third important culture was the Cañari, further south. These were the cultures the Inca encountered when it began its expansion into the north.

The Inca Empire
Until the early 15th century, the Inca Empire was concentrated around Cuzco in Peru. That changed dramatically during the rule of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, whose expansionist policies set into motion the creation of the vast Inca Empire, Tahuantinsuyo, meaning ‘Land of the Four Quarters’ in Quechua. By the time the Inca reached Ecuador they were under the rule of Tupac Yupanqui, Pachacuti’s successor, and were met with fierce resistance.

The Cañari put up a resolute defense against the Inca, and it took some years for Tupac Yupanqui to subdue them and turn his attention to the north, where he was met with even greater resistance. At one point, the Cañari drove the invading army all the way back to Saraguro. When they were finally overcome, the Inca massacred thousands of Caras and dumped them into a lake near Otavalo, which supposedly turned the waters red and gave the lake its name, Laguna Yaguarcocha (Lake of Blood). The subjugation of the north took many years, during which the Inca Tupac fathered a son with a Cañari princess. The son, Huayna Capac, grew up in Ecuador and succeeded his father to the Inca throne. He spent years traveling throughout his empire, from Bolivia to Ecuador, constantly suppressing uprisings from all sides. Wherever possible, he strengthened his position by marriage and in the process produced two sons: Atahualpa, who grew up in Quito, and Huáscar, who was raised in Cuzco.

When Huayna Capac died in 1526 he left his empire not to one son, as was traditional, but to two. Thus the Inca Empire was divided for the first time – an event that fatefully coincided with the mystifying appearance of a group of bearded men on horseback in present-day Esmeraldas province. They were the first Spaniards in Ecuador, led south by the pilot Bartolomé Ruiz de Andrade on an exploratory mission for Francisco Pizarro, who remained, for the time being, further north.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between Huayna Capac’s two sons worsened, and the Inca nation broke into civil war. After several years of fighting, Atahualpa finally defeated Huáscar near Ambato and was thus the sole ruler of the weakened and still-divided Inca Empire when Pizarro arrived in 1532 with plans to conquer the Incas.

The Spanish Conquest
Pizarro’s advance was rapid and dramatic. His horseback-riding, armorwearing, cannon-firing conquistadors were believed to be godlike, and although they were few in number, they spread terror among the local people. In late 1532, a summit meeting was arranged between Pizarro and Atahualpa. Although Atahualpa was prepared to negotiate with the Spaniards, Pizarro had other ideas. When the Inca arrived at the prearranged meeting place (Cajamarca, in Peru) on November 16, the conquistadors captured him and massacred most of his poorly armed guards.

Atahualpa was held for ransom, and incalculable quantities of gold, silver and other valuables poured into Cajamarca. Instead of being released when the ransom was paid, however, the Inca was put through a sham trial and sentenced to death. Atahualpa was charged with incest (marrying one’s sister was traditional in the Inca culture), polygamy, worship of false gods and crimes against the king, and he was executed on August 29, 1533. His death effectively brought the Inca Empire to an end.

When Atahualpa was executed, his war-general Rumiñahui was supposedly on his way to Cajamarca with large quantities of gold and treasure as ransom for the Inca. Legend has it that, upon hearing of Atahualpa’s death, Rumiñahui stashed the treasure in the impenetrable mountains of present-day Parque Nacional Llanganates; it has never been found.

Rumiñahui then continued to fight against the Spaniards for two more years. The general was so fierce that according to legend he dealt with a Spanish collaborator (and possible heir to Atahualpa’s throne) by murdering him, breaking all the bones in his body to bits, extracting them through a hole, and stretching the body – with head and appendages intact – into a drum. By the time Pizarro’s lieutenant, Sebastián de Benalcázar, had finally battled his way to Quito in late 1534, he found the city razed to the ground by Rumiñahui, who preferred to destroy the city rather than leave it in the hands of the conquistadors. Quito was refounded on December 6, 1534, and Rumiñahui was finally captured, tortured and executed in January 1535.

Despite the Inca’s short presence in Ecuador ( just over 100 years), they left a indelible mark on the country. Quechua (now Quichua in Ecuador) was imposed on the population and is still spoken today by a quarter of all Ecuadorians. The Inca built a vast system of roads that connected Cuzco in the south with Quito in the north, and part of the ‘royal highway’ – the Inca trail to Ingapirca – can still be hiked today. Ingapirca itself is Ecuador’s most important Inca archelogical site and has splendid examples of the Inca’s mortarless stonework.

The Colonial Era
From 1535, the colonial era proceeded with no major uprisings by indigenous Ecuadorians. Francisco Pizarro made his brother Gonzalo the governor of Quito in 1540.

During the first centuries of colonial rule, Lima, Peru, was the seat of Ecuador’s political administration. Originally a gobernación (province), in 1563 Ecuador became the Audiencia de Quito (a more important political division), which in 1739 was transferred from the viceroyalty of Peru to the viceroyalty of Colombia (then known as Nueva Grenada).

Ecuador remained a peaceful colony throughout this period, and agriculture and the arts flourished. New products such as cattle and bananas were introduced from Europe, which remain important in Ecuador today. Churches and monasteries were constructed atop every sacred indigenous site and were decorated with unique carvings and paintings that blended Spanish and indigenous artistic influences. This so-called Escuela Quiteña (Quito School of Art), still admired by visitors today, left an indelible stamp on the colonial buildings of the time and Ecuador’s unique art history.

Life was comfortable for the ruling colonialists, but the indigenous people (and later the mestizos, people of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent) were treated abysmally under their rule. A system of forced labor was not only tolerated but encouraged, and by the 18th century there were several indigenous uprisings against the Spanish ruling classes. Social unrest, as well as the introduction of cocoa and sugar plantations in the northwest, prompted landowners to import African slave laborers. Much of the rich Afro-Ecuadorian culture found in Esmeraldas province today is a legacy of this period.

The first serious attempt to liberate Ecuador from Spanish rule was by a partisan group led by Juan Pío Montúfar on August 10, 1809. The group managed to take Quito and install a government, which lasted only 24 days before royalist troops (loyal to Spain) regained control.

Independence was finally achieved by Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan liberator who marched southward from Caracas, freed Colombia in 1819 and supported the people of Guayaquil when they claimed independence on October 9, 1820. It took almost two years before Ecuador was entirely liberated from Spanish rule. The decisive battle was fought on May 24, 1822, when one of Bolívar’s finest officers, Mariscal (Field Marshal) Antonio José de Sucre, defeated the royalists at the Battle of Pichincha and took Quito. This battle is commemorated at a stunningly situated monument on the flanks of Volcán Pichincha, overlooking the capital.

Bolívar’s idealistic dream was to form a united South America, and he began by amalgamating Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador into the independent nation of Gran Colombia. This lasted only eight years, with Ecuador becoming fully independent in 1830. In the same year, a treaty was signed with Peru, drawing up a boundary between the two nations; this boundary is the one shown on all Ecuadorian maps prior to 1999. The border had been redrawn in 1942 after a war between Ecuador and Peru, but was not officially acknowledged by Ecuadorian authorities until a peace treaty was signed with Peru in late 1998.

Political Development
Following independence from Spain, Ecuador’s history unfolded with unbridled political warfare between liberals and conservatives. The turmoil frequently escalated to violence. In 1875, the church-backed, conservative dictator President García Moreno (who attempted to make Catholicism a requisite for citizenship) was hacked to death with a machete outside Quito’s presidential palace. In 1912 liberal President Eloy Alfaro, who attempted to undo much of García Moreno’s legacy, was murdered and burned by a conservative mob in Quito. Rivalries between these factions continue to this day, albeit less violently. Quito remains the main center for the church-backed conservatives, while Guayaquil stands, as it has for centuries, on the side of more liberal and sometimes socialist beliefs.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Ecuador’s political sphere remained volatile, though the country never experienced the bloodshed or brutal military dictatorships suffered by other Latin American countries. That’s not to say the military never took the reins of power, with the 20th century seeing almost as many periods of military rule as civilian rule. One president, José María Velasco Ibarra, was elected five times between 1934 and 1972 and was ousted by the military before he could complete any one of his terms. Ibarra wasn’t alone: in the 10 years between 1930 and 1940, 17 different presidents took a shot at leading Ecuador, not one of whom completed a term.

Yellow Gold to Black Gold
Until the 1970s, Ecuador was the archetypal ‘banana republic,’ and the fruit was the country’s single most important export. In fact, Ecuador exported more bananas than any country in the world. Although bananas are a staple of the country’s economy today, they ceased being Ecuador’s sole export after the discovery of oil in the Oriente in 1967. By 1973, oil exports had risen to first place, and by the early 1980s they accounted for well over half of total export earnings. Oil undoubtedly boosted the economy, though politicians from the left, allied with indigenous-rights groups, say much of the largesse remained in the hands of a few controlling interests with little benefit to the many. The statistics support this claim, with the majority of the rural population at an equal – or lower – living standard than they experienced in the 1970s.

After oil was discovered, Ecuador began to borrow money, with the belief that profits from oil exports would enable the country to repay its foreign debts. But this proved impossible in the mid-1980s due to the sharp decline in Ecuador’s oil exports; world oil prices slumped in 1986, and in 1987 a disastrous earthquake wiped out about 40km of oil pipeline, severely damaging both the environment and the economy. The discovery of oil also opened up vast tracts of Ecuador’s Amazon Basin to exploration, affecting both the rainforest and the local indigenous tribes – some of whom had never before encountered outsiders.

Ecuador continues to rely on oil as its economic mainstay, but reserves are not as large as had been anticipated. Overreliance on oil revenues has also wreaked havoc on the economy when the world price of oil collapses (as it did most recently in 2008).

Return to Democracy
The 1980s and early ’90s were a continuing struggle between conservatives and liberals, with a few corruption scandals that weakened public confidence in the ruling elites. The contenders in the 1996 election were two firebrand politicians from Guayaquil, both known for their brashness. The candidate who won, Abdala Bucaram, was nicknamed ‘El Loco’ (The Madman) for his fiery, curse-laden style of oration and his penchant for performing at rock concerts as part of his campaign. Bucaram promised cheap public housing, lower prices for food staples and free medicine; but instead he promptly devalued Ecuador’s currency, the sucre, and increased living costs, and was often spotted carousing in nightclubs by Quito residents.

Within a few months, massive strikes led by trade unions and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (Conaie) paralyzed the country. Congress declared Bucaram ‘mentally unfit’ and terminated his presidency, and Bucaram fled to Panama.

After Bucaram was ousted, his vice president, Rosalía Arteaga, became Ecuador’s first female president, albeit for fewer than two days. Congress voted overwhelmingly to replace her with Fabián Alarcón, the head of congress. He led the government until 1998, when quiteño Jamil Mahuad of the Popular Democracy party was elected president.

Mahuad had his political savvy put to the test. The effects of a nasty El Niño weather pattern and the sagging oil market of 1997–98 sent the economy into a tailspin in 1999, the same year that shrimp exports dropped by 80% following devastating shrimp diseases. When inflation topped 60% – making Ecuador’s the worst in Latin America – the embattled president took drastic measures: he pinned Ecuador’s economic survival on dollarization, a process whereby Ecuador’s unstable national currency would be replaced by the US dollar.

Dollarization has been used successfully in a few other struggling countries, including nearby Panama (where the US dollar is called a balboa), but when President Mahuad declared his plan to dump the national currency, the country erupted in strikes, protests and road closures. On January 21, 2000, marches shut down the capital, and protesters took over the legislative palace, forcing Mahuad to resign.

The protesters were lead by Antonio Vargas, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez and former supreme court president Carlos Solorzano, who then formed a brief ruling triumvirate. Two days later – and largely due to the international pressure that followed Latin America’s first military coup in two decades – the triumvirate turned the presidency over to Vice President Gustavo Noboa.

Noboa went ahead with dollarization, and in September 2000 the US dollar became the official currency. Although only one year earlier 6000 sucres bought one dollar, people were forced to exchange their sucres at the dramatically inflated year 2000 rate of 25,000 to $1. Their losses were severe.

The 21st Century
Along with dollarizing the economy, Noboa also implemented austerity measures to obtain $2 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international lenders. At the end of 2000, gas and cooking-fuel prices sky-rocketed (largely because of dollarization) and the new year saw frequent strikes and protests by unions and indigenous groups. The economy finally stabilized, and Noboa left office on somewhat favorable terms.

After Noboa, former coup leader Lucio Gutiérrez, elected president in 2002, promised a populist agenda but instead implemented IMF austerity measures to finance the country’s massive debt. Protests erupted in the capital, and in 2005 congress voted overwhelmingly to remove Gutiérrez (the third Ecuadorian president ousted in eight years), replacing him with Vice President Alfredo Palacio.

A political newcomer who referred to himself as a ‘simple doctor,’ Palacio soon turned his attention to the social problems his predecessor had abandoned. In order to fund health and education programs and kick-start the economy, Palacio announced he would redirect oil profits earmarked for paying the foreign debt. An essential partner in this endeavor was Rafael Correa, a US-educated economist, whom Palacio appointed as his finance minister and who later carried out even more aggressive social reforms – while also consolidating power – after becoming president in 2006.