The Iconography and Heritage of Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples

The Iconography and Heritage of Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples


Ecuador is a small country whose ethnic diversity belies its small geographic size – about that of Wyoming. Some 20 different languages are heard, and about 25 percent of the 14.5 million population count themselves among the more than 12 distinct indigenous groups. Another 65 percent are of mixed indigenous and Spanish European heritage.

Almost every one of the many museums in the charming capital, Quito, includes areas devoted to the culture, iconography and heritage of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. Some focus on the period before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. Others demonstrate the vitality of contemporary indigenous cultures, many of which live much the same lifestyle as their ancient ancestors. Unless otherwise noted, photography is allowed in the museums. Quito itself dates to the first millennium and takes its name from the Quitu tribe who lived and traded from the area. The conquering Incas arrived in the mid 1400s, followed a century later by the Spanish.

The largest collection of pre-Columbian artifacts is housed in the Museo del Banco Central del Ecuador. Two of this museum’s exhibitions salons feature pre-Hispanic artifacts. Beginning with the Sala Arqueología (Archeological Gallery), visitors experience astounding ceramic, furniture, tools and other items dating from 11,000 BC. The traditions, beliefs and lifestyle of dozens of indigenous tribes is detailed in both Spanish and English, with tours in several languages given daily. The Sala de Oro (Gold Gallery) displays extraordinary masks, figurines, jewelry and religious items from the Incan period in Ecuador’s history. Local tribes demonstrated their worship of animal deities and devotion to the sun. In fact, a golden ceremonial solar mask is the symbol of the Museum.

A short drive or bus ride from the city center is the Museo Etnográfico Mitad del Mundo (Ethnographic Museum at the Middle of the World City). This complex of restaurants, souvenir stores and educational exhibits surrounds the official 30-meter-tall equator monument. Built in 1979 as a replica of the 1936 equatorial marker, the monument commemorates the 1736 French mission to map the point where the equator passes through the country. The edifice houses an excellent multi-story museum about the indigenous peoples of Ecuador.

Visitors pay a small fee to enter the complex, and another admission to experience the panorama from the top of the monument, walking down through the museum displays, photographs and dioramas of the clothing, musical instruments, lifestyle activities and food of each of the different ethnic groups, regions and tribes of Ecuador. Sorry, no photography is allowed in this museum. On weekends, the complex features dance and musical performances from these groups. This excellent overview of the diversity of the country is well worth the small additional admission.

Back in Quito, travelers brave the steep hills of the Bellavista neighborhood (taxi recommended for the hike up) to the Museo Guayasamin (Guayasamin Museum.) The former home of Oswaldo Guayasamin who died in 1999 and a champion of Ecuador’s native peoples, the museum’s several buildings contain the largest collection of the prolific, indigenous artist’s own work, a Spanish Colonial collection, an art school, and a library of art books. A small structure houses the 3000 piece collection of pre-Columbian artifacts he amassed over 50 years.

Arranged by theme rather than chronologically, this exhibition’s rooms highlight about half of the museum’s fertility figures, bowls, burial masks and tools. This museum is worth the trek off the usual path, as the intimate setting is likely among the most artful of Quito’s museums, and the grounds afford breathtaking views of the city.

Our final stop, located in the tourist area of La Mariscal, was the Mindalae Museo Etnografico de Artesania de Ecuador (Ethnographic and Artisanal Museum of Ecuador). This modern space displays reproductions of ancient handicrafts, artwork, clothing and other items of each of the indigenous peoples of the country. Begin at the top of the multi-story building with two rooms outlining the cosmological and shamanistic belief systems of the groups, explained by a guide in several languages. Those familiar with the traditional religious practices of North American indigenous peoples will identify similarities between the various cultures, especially reverence for the natural world. A “solar eye” funnels sunlight through the entire, multi-story building, and an oval staircase takes one from top to bottom in a similar journey. During the solstices, the light filters straight down through the original opening to the bottom floor.

The museum’s displays include explanations in Spanish, French and English. A fair trade shop offers the wares of contemporary indigenous artisans - replicas of ancient artifacts and modern interpretations that incorporate long-established themes into contemporary designs.

Museum information:

Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador

Avenida Patria y 6 de Diciembre

Tel: (593 2) 2221116

Museo Etnográfico Mitad del Mundo

15 kilometers north of Quito

Museo Guayasamin

Calle José Bosmediano 543

Tel. (593 2) 2446455

Mindalae Museo Etnografico de Artesania de Ecuador

Reina Victoria and La Niña

Tel. (593 2) 223-0609

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