Formative Period

The first known man footprints in Ecuadorian lands came from several millennia before the Christian era. These first hunters and gatherers made every day utensils and tools in which color was an important feature of their manufacture. This Paleoindian Pre-Ceramic period was followed by the Formative Period between 3500 to 800-500 BC., which included the Valdivia, Machalilla, Chorrera and Narrío cultures. By then, these peoples practiced agriculture and lead a sedentary life, while peoples inhabiting the seashore relied heavily on fishing. These first cultures worshiped fertility evidenced in the numerous anthropomorphic representations, especially of female characters.

Left: Ceramic female figurine from the Valdivia Culture, 2600-1500 BC. (Brooklyn Museum). Center Top: Anthropomorphic bottle with a stirrup handle from the Machalilla Culture (Ecuador), 1600-700 BC. Center Bottom: Pre-Columbian seals from the Chorrera Culture. Right: Zoomorphic whistling spout effigy bottle, Chorerra Culture (Museum zu Allerheiligen, Switzerland).

The Valdivia culture was located in the coast of the provinces of Guayas and Oro. Its pottery is of remarkable antiquity and of high technical development being considered the central focus from where the ceramics in America spread out. The most beautiful expression of its art are the numerous female figurines; they are characterized by the enormous headdresses that frame their beautifully expressive faces and they show changes of style in line with the cultural evolution of Valdivia. It seems that they had ceremonial centers and a matriarchal-based religion.

The Machalilla culture coexisted with the last stages of the Valdivia culture and outlived it. Its ceramics presents several innovations: painted decoration consisting of lines drawn with thick paint, forms different from traditional ones, bottles with a “stirrup handle ” and completely anthropomorphic forms.

The Chorrera culture was broadly spread reaching from the coast inland, penetrating the Andes and the Amazonian territory. Their settlements were located preferably along the rivers which constituted their natural route of expansion. It is considered as the core of the Ecuadorian nationality. Their ceramic is fine with very thin walls obtained by a detailed selection of clay and a controlled firing technique. In this ceramic, the Chorrera man represented his world: their housing, food products, wildlife, both wild and domestic. The anthropomorphic figurines were of greater proportions than in previous cultures and were generally hollow; they replaced the bottle with a “stirrup handle” by the whistle, prevailing zoomorphic representations, and used iridescent paint of metallic origin which involved cultural links with Guatemala. The Chorrera ceramics was also influenced by the Chavín ceramics of Peru. The Chorrera also made the first “seals” and used obsidian to manufacture cutting instruments. They were  also noted for their lapidary art working in rock crystal, lapis lazuli and shells to make necklaces.

The Narrío culture developed in the inter-Andean valleys and is contemporaneous with that of Chorrera. Throughout its extensive aesthetic production it showed an intimate relationship between man and nature. They worked stone, clay, shell, bone and finally metals, mainly to produce objects for personal adornment. Its thin-walled ceramic showed great mastery. They stood out as notable craftsmen of shell and cultivated the art of the miniature.


Period of Regional Development

It covers ca. 800 BC. to 500 AD. and includes several cultures that flourished along the coast (Bahía, Guangala, Jambelí, Jama-Coaque, La Tolita), and in the Sierra (Tuncahuán and Panzaleo) reaching great artistic splendor. They mastered several techniques -casting, lost wax casting, forging, embossing, amalgaming, welding, gilding, laminating-, they also polished stone, used metals (copper and gold), had deep knowledge of sailing, and it seems they had an urban system with places of worship and burial mounds and a remarkable ceramics production. Their religion involved complicated ceremonies and eroticism played an important role in their beliefs linking it to fertility.

Various features of several of their cultural elements -raspers, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines, the “negative” painting in their ceramic decorations- showed connections with Mesoamerica, probably of a commercial nature.

From left to right: Clay head of a priest or shaman, ca. 500 AD, Cerro Narrío Culture; Seated figure, 1st century BC.-1st century AD., Tolita Culture; Standing gold figure, 1st century BC. – 1st century AD., Tolita Culture; Large terra-cotta amphora with painted decoration, 600-800 AD., Tuncahuán Culture.


Coastal Cultures

In ceramics, the Chorrera style bottles-whistles evolved acquiring new tonal effects. This art produced a great variety of whistles, flutes and ocarinas*, resembling the human figure, birds and mammals. The traditional dish drifted towards a dish with a higher base called “compotera*“, while others rested on anthropomorphic feet. The negative painting became very important. Small seals or ceramic stamps abounded being more frequent in the northern area. Sculptural pottery produced giant figures -not less than 50 or 60 cm high- representing both men and women. In the north, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines predominated which represented and “extraterrestrial” world, attainable only by the sorcerer or shaman under the effects of some hallucinogenic drug. Ceramists also produced figurines of ceremonial character and small masks.

The culture of La Tolita was very representative. Located in the Esmeraldas province, this advanced culture takes its name from the homonymous island located at the mouth of the Santiago river. The artistic expression of this culture was fully manifested in sculpture producing sharp portraits and vivid representations of whole sequences of vital moments from birth to death. They were also remarkable craftsmen in metallurgy, where they dominated the most diverse techniques using gold, copper and platinum, this last a metal that was worked in Ecuador for the first time in the world. The goldsmiths didn’t melt it but softened it and gave it the desired shapes. They produced objects of personal adornment and ritual use: rings, earmuffs, nose rings, bezotes*, facial nails, necklaces, diadems, pectorals, earrings, which were generally of minimal dimensions. Sometimes they used two metals in the same piece to produce color contrast. They also elaborated hollow sculptures with great attention to detail.


Regional Development in the Sierra

In the mountain ranges, the Ecuadorian cultures evolved without the possibility of intense cultural exchange conditioned by the isolation of the geographical environment. These cultures included Tuncahuán and Panzaleo. Tuncahuán was located in the north of the country, the Carchi entering the department of Nariño in Colombia. It was characterized by its tri-colored ceramic, which was made with creamy white, black (negative painting*) and bright red colors, this last essential in the decoration. In the sculpture they were outstanding for their jars or pots, the “compoteras” and artifacts imitating sea shells masterfully manufactured, all used as decoration or as musical instruments. They worked copper and gold in jewelry for personal use. The fabrics were another important artistic manifestation of this culture.

The Panzaleo culture spread in the central area of the country: Cotopaxi and Tungurahua, with ramifications towards the North. It specialized in the ceramic production, although they also worked metals. Its ceramic was of very thin walls achieved by using mica as degreaser. They gave their pottery various forms, although were very typical the vessels representing mammals, such as lamas, the anthropomorphic pitchers representing characters covered with “ponchos”, or others with the coca ball on the cheek, etc.- and the “compoteras”. The decoration of the ceramic containers generally used themes expressing two different forms.

Top Left: Ceramic jar with polychrome painting representing a man chewing coca leaves, Panzaleo Culture. Top Right: Feline effigy jar, Manteño Culture. Bottom Left: Ceramic figure from the Huancavilca Culture. Bottom Right: Huge pottery urn with abstract human head, Puruhá Culture.



On the coast

It is characterized by the construction of enormous works of ceremonial or economic character, the “tolas*”, which involved the removal of large volumes of soil.

There was a gradual transfer of the agriculture fields up to the highlands by building artificial terraces on the mountain slopes; in this way they took advantage of the humidity brought by the sea winds. There were several human gatherings organized in well-marked settlements. The different ways they worshiped their dead indicate the existence of social and administrative hierarchies.

The cultural territories were the following: 1) Atacames, in the North in the Esmeraldas province coinciding with the area occupied by the cultures of La Tolita and Jama-Coaque; 2) from Jama to the South occupied by the Manteña-Huancavilca culture, and 3) the culture from Milagro-Quevedo located in the Guayas and Los Ríos provinces.

In these areas, the pottery was of inferior quality than the previous described cultures, except for the Manteña with the production of figurines and numerous seals of varied motifs. The jar with a human face carved on the neck of the recipient was typical of this culture. Manteños and Huancavilcas were distinguished by their stone sculptures; their chairs with a U-shaped seat of different sizes are famous. Textiles were very important, as well as metallurgy. They worked the copper, making the “ax-coin”, the giant axes -weighing up to 20 kilos each-, hatches, chisels, small artifacts like needles, fishing hooks, bells, etc. The goldsmithing achieved a high degree of technical development: that of the northern area from Atacames stands out for their miniatures, and the one of the southern area from Milagro-Quevedo by their spiraled and wired motifs.


On the Sierra

These cultures essentially vary in their traditional artistic criteria and the cultures per se didn’t present the cultural connectivity that characterized those from the coast.

In Negativo del Carchi, the architecture was characterized by the presence of “tolas”. The art of this culture is embodied in the clay, stone and metal works. In ceramics they produced utilitarian and ritual objects; the compoteras acquired agility and sometimes replaced the human figure for the feline; the artisans molded the male figures naked, while the female ones, curiously, wearing skirts and clay masks, imparting a particular philosophy. Deep red colors characterized the pottery works of these mountainous cultures.

With metals, artisans made working tools and beautiful jewels using the embossing technique. They adopted very simple forms and the subjects were geometric and represented two forms.

The Cuasmal culture marked the end of the prehistory of the Carchi and developed urban systems located in places close to the agricultural fields. In its ceramic art prevailed the pictorial conception; for that reason they focused on drawing geometric, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs with dark painting that stands out on a light background.

Left: Gold plaques from the Tungurahua-Chimborazo border region, 13-15th century AD., Puruhá Culture. Top Right: Whistle-pot with a human head, Chorrera Culture (Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador, Quito). Bottom Right: Clay vessel from the Cashaloma Culture.

The Puruhá culture was developed in the present province of Chimborazo. Its artistic production was based essentially on the pottery and sometimes on the stone sculpture, which showed a phallic cult amply widespread in the area. They also worked the “tumbaga*” alloy, gold and copper, using various techniques for the manufacturing of personal adornments and weapons.

The Cariari culture bloomed between 500 and 1500 AD in the slopes of the Eastern and Western mountain ranges living of agriculture and hunting. They exploited gold, copper and silver, and developed good metallurgy works. They made beautifully embellished jewels, ritual objects and weapons of rude design. Their ceramic art was notable for their design, standing out among them the anthropomorphic bottles.

The Cashaloma is the culmination of the Cañari culture and lasted until the Inca conquest. Their ceramics was in red and white, decorated by small protuberances forming little heads or zoomorphic stylizations and different new diverse forms; it was characteristic from this culture a head-shaped vessel in which the human head and the horns of an animal were combined and which served for ritual purposes. They also worked metals, bone and stone, emphasizing the nose rings and earmuffs in half-moon shapes and decorated with geometric embossing.

Left: Female representation in clay by the Jama-Coaque culture. The woman was represented with a careful hairstyle, huge earmuffs, a nosepiece, a labret and a big necklace from which perhaps hangs an amulet. Like almost all the female figures represented by the Ecuadorian pre-Columbian cultures, she wears a simple skirt (Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador, Quito). Middle: The Manteña culture used the sculpted stone in the form of stelae in which they possibly represented divinities. In this one we can see his helmet-shaped headdress, the big necklace and a kind of skirt wore over the skirt itself. Right: Seated Coquero, a type of image abundant in the culture of the Negativo del Carchi. It was decorated with negative painting. The artist has expressed with few elements the state of placidity produced by the consumption of the coca leaves. However, at the same time the black paint drips from his eyes like tears giving this man’s face a certain dramatic air (Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador, Quito)
The famous representation of the solar god made in gold by the culture of La Tolita. The man of this culture attributed to this god the generative principle of the universe and life, but humanized it by giving it a human head and long and zigzagging hair (Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador, Quito).


Ocarina: An ancient wind musical instrument, a type of vessel flute. Ocarinas are traditionally made from clay or ceramic.


Compotera: A bowl with an annular, high and frustoconical base, whose interior is usually decorated with designs.


Bezote: A species of earring (or labret) wore in the lower lip used by members of some American Indian groups.

Negative Painting: A pictorial technique that involves applying pigment around a subject to give it definition.


Tola: Ceremonial mounds from the cultures of Pre-Columbian Ecuador.

Tumbaga: An alloy of gold and copper commonly used by pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and South America cultures.