A number of indigenous groups have lived in Ecuador long before the arrival of the Spanish. Although there has been Spanish influence in Ecuador for more than 400 years, archeological evidence pertaining to the first indigenous settlements dates back at least 11,000 years in the form of stone tools found on the Santa Elena Peninsula in western coastal Ecuador. In the highlands, tools have been found that are more than 9,000 years old and some archeological sites in southern Ecuador are believed to be more than 10,000 years old.
Over the course of several centuries, various cultures and languages evolved in Ecuador and can be categorized as people that lived in the highlands, tribes from western Ecuador, and Amazonian cultures in the eastern part of the country. Several cultures exist to this day, each with their own language and customs. The following are the principal Ecuadorian indigenous groups in modern times:
The Quichua people live in the high Andes and are the most numerous indigenous group in the country. Although they can be divided into sub-groups such as the Otavalans, Caranqui, Pichincha, Tungurahua, Saraguro, and others, all of the highland peoples in Ecuador share rather similar customs and language. Many of them can be recognized by differences in traditional dress and many of these people still wear traditional outfits to this day, especially in small villages and such towns as Otavalo, Latacunga, and Saraguro.
More than 1,500,000 highland Quichua peoples speak Quichua as a first language and use it on an everyday basis. This language and Quichua culture is related to the highland Quechua cultures of Peru and was heavily influenced by the Incan Empire as a result of Andean Ecuador being conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. Cavy, potatoes, and Quinoa are a few of the common ingredients that are used in Quichua cuisine. Like the majority of Ecuadorians, highland Quichua peoples are Roman Catholic but blend this religion with many traditional and animist beliefs. Some of these beliefs are demonstrated in the in the form of dances, costumes, and the sacrificing of pigs and other animals during parades and various saint festivals.
Western Ecuadorian cultures
Awa: The Awa are believed to an ancient tribe of people who presently live in the wet rainforests of northwestern Ecuador and adjacent Colombia. Although the history of this culture is rather obscure, the language of this group is similar to other cultures from the Pacific coast of Ecuador north to Guatemala. There is also evidence showing that the modern day Awa used to live on the coast but migrated inland to wet, dense rainforests to escape the Spanish colonists. There are around 8,000 Awa people in Ecuador and most or all of them still speak the Awapit language. In Ecuador, the majority of the Awa live on lands known as the Awa Preserve where they hunt, gather plants and fruits from the rainforest, cultivate corn and a few other crops, and raise some domestic animals for food. Rather little is known about the Awa because this indigenous group is known for being rather reserved about their customs.
Chachi: The Chachi are also known as the Cayapas and live by the Cayapas River in the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve, northwestern Ecuador. There are around 5,000 Chachi people and most of them speak a language known as Cayapa. According to Chachi oral history, the group is originally from Imbabura but fled to northwestern Ecuador to escape the Spanish. Most Chachi live off of fishing and subsistence agriculture and reside in houses that are built on stilts. They are sometimes seen selling baskets and other handicrafts in Quito and Esmeraldas.
Tsáchila: This indigenous group was referred to as the “Colorados” (the reddish ones) by the Spanish on account of their custom of using natural red dyes to paint their bodies. This practice may have come from the belief that it would prevent Smallpox. The historic home of the Tsáchila is around Santo Domingo in western Ecuador and there are about 2,000 of this people who still speak the Tsafiki language. Striped black and white skirts are worn by men and ladies wear striped skirts with bright colors.
Various groups live in the foothills and lowland rainforests of the Ecuadorian Amazon and include such groups as the lowland Quichua, the Cofan, Achuar, Shuar, Siona, and the Huaorani. Each group lives in a distinct area, speaks its own language, and most live off of subsistence agriculture, and hunting and gathering in the rainforest.
The Cofan live in northern Ecuador and are around 2,000 in number. In pre-colonial times, the group used to be more numerous but was almost wiped out after Spanish colonization. This culture has been heavily affected by oil exploration and won a lawsuit in Ecuador against Texaco for contamination of their lands.
The Siona and Secoya peoples live along rivers in northeastern Ecuador and have populations of just a few hundred each. The lowland Quichua live along the Napo River and some of its tributaries and tend to more assimilated into Ecuadorian culture than other groups.
The Huaoranilive in the heart of the Ecuadorian Amazon and avoided contact with the rest of Ecuadorian society until a few decades ago. At least two small Huaorani bands still avoid contact with other people and have killed a few people who trespassed onto their remote lands. However, the majority of the 4,000 Huaorani welcome outsiders and even host an eco-lodge on their lands where guests are taught Huaorani customs.
The Shuar and Achuar peoples live in the foothill rainforests of southern Ecuador and are related to indigenous groups in adjacent Peru. There are around 40,000 Shuar and 5,000 Achuar in Ecuador. Historically, these groups were very war-like and were famed for shrinking the heads of vanquished enemies. Thankfully, that practice has long been discontinued.