America, erroneously called the “new” world, has a rich and ancient cultural tradition that is categorized as pre-Columbian.
When Spaniards arrived in Ecuador and the colonization period began, they found ethnic groups (that still inhabit Ecuador today) to be “primitive”. For this reason, they tried to eradicate indigenous beliefs and cultures by imposing Catholicism.
Fortunately, many ethnic groups retain their traditional way of life and belief systems. To this day, even if several indigenous cultures have adopted Catholicism, many maintain their original language, way of dressing and artistic expressions.
Especially in the rainforest, many groups are still isolated and have little contact with Western culture; they have a way of life similar to that of their ancestors from 500 years ago!
In Ecuador, when we speak of mega diversity we are not only making reference to the natural world, we are also speaking of our social community.
Our rich ethnic diversity encompassess native groups that have distinguishing characteristics influenced by the natural environments of the Coast, Highlands and Rainforest.
The Cultures of the Coast
The oldest known cultures in America lived on the Ecuadorian coast (8800 to 3500 B.C.). The cultures that subsist (practically intact) to this day are: the Awá, the Chachis or Cayapas and the Tsachilas or Colorados. They live in the tropical rainforest of the west Andes and possibly settled there after escaping from the Inca invasion coming from Peru (XV C) or from the colonizing Spaniards (XVI C).
The Amazonian Cultures
Many archeologists maintain that some of the oldest cultures (over 10,000 years old) are actually from this tropical humid rainforest, impossible to reach for many centuries. In the “cosmology” of these indigenous groups, the human being is a part of the “Amazanga” (rainforest) and the human spirit wanders in this forest every dawn. The human spirit can enter an eagle or a serpent or a jaguar, each a symbol for their nature, according to their beliefs.
The rainforest provides them with food, medicinal plants, and spiritual richness. To these people, the tropical rainforest is their home, their drugstore, their supermarket, and their church. For this, they have an utmost respect for their environment.
According to modern world economical standards, these native communities are very poor. However, they have a rich spiritual life and live in peace surrounded by their families, taking from nature only what they need for survival and taking time to meditate and enlighten themselves. To share a few days with them is an incredibly enriching experience.
Cultures of the Highlands
The cultures of the highlands are by no means the oldest, but they are the most visited and well known, probably because of their geographical location with easy access by roads and highways. Many communities that live in the highlands still maintain their cultural manifestations through clothing, language (Quichua), and festivities.
Just 62 miles north of Quito you can visit the Otavalo Indigenous Market: a must see for any tourist that comes to Ecuador. This market offers wonderful weavings, tapestry, rugs, bags, artwork and other products made by the indigenous community. Otavaleños are hardworking, skillful, and artistic. They are also very traditional and loyal to their heritage; families work together and then sell their work at the fair. Mostly, they are very proud people who have not lost their cultural identity despite the fact that mestizos and whites inhabit the city of Otavalo. Otavaleños travel all around the world selling their goods!