Watercraft played central roles in the economic, social, and spiritual lives of Ecuador’s prehispanic coastal cultures. Referring to the period of the region’s first civilizations, from 2000 to 200 BCE, Karen Olsen Bruhns states that “Transportation on the coast was … almost entirely by boat, and canoe models are common in the art of the region.”
Artifacts on display at the newly renovated National Museum of Ecuador in Quito demonstrate the importance of watercraft to Ecuador’s prehispanic populations and illustrate some of the ways in which they were used.
|The ceramic canoe paddlers in this and the following image, from the Tolita culture (600 BCE to 400 CE) have been found in significant numbers (see previous post for similar figures of Tolita paddlers), testifying to the importance of the canoeist in daily life. (Click any image to enlarge.)|
|The bulging cheeks show that the paddlers are chewing coca leaves. Since coca is not native to Ecuador’s coast, this suggests regular trade between the coast and the Andes or even the Amazon. And because the medicinal effects of coca at countering altitude sickness are irrelevant on the coast, it may indicate that even common people – not just shamans – used coca for its stimulant/hallucinogenic effects.|
|A model raft in silver from the Bahia culture (500 BCE to 650 CE), manned by two paddlers, a steersman, and an individual of high status.|
|The logs are lashed together with silver wire. The figures are severely flattened sagitally, meant to be viewed only frontally, regardless of their orientation on the raft.|
A fish's-eye depiction of diving for spondylus from a three-log raft using tools like those in the previous photo.
Not explicitly depicted by these artifacts are other activities for which prehispanic coastal Ecuadorians used watercraft, including: fishing for finfish, carrying produce and trade items, and traveling for social purposes and for war. According to Bruhns, “Canoes seem to have been the major means of transport in northern Ecuador, whereas the river rafts appear to have been much used in the huge, meandering rivers of the Guayas Basin [at the mouth of which is Guayaquil, modern Ecuador’s largest city], later being converted to coast-wise transport as well.”
Source: Karen Olsen Bruhns quotations from Ancient South America, Cambridge University Press, 1994 (reprint 1999), pp.148-9