Early History

Human presence in the Andes region dates perhaps as far back as 20,000 B.C. -- making South America the last continent on earth, with the exception of Antarctica, to be inhabited. Evidence of the first hunter-gatherer societies in Ecuador dates back to 10,000 B.C., and methods of crop cultivation began to develop around 3600 B.C.

Though its partial influence began to spread from what is now Peru around A.D. 1200, the Inca Empire only held uncontested dominion over the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. In Quichua it was known as Tawantin Suyu, or the "land of the four regions." At its height, it encompassed an estimated 15 million people belonging to roughly 100 ethnic or linguistic communities; it covered an area of over 6,000 sq. km (2,317 sq. miles), within which were more than 25,000km (15,534 miles) of roads.

Inca warrior Pachacuti and his son Topa Yupanqui, descendants of the first Sapa Inca, Manco Capac, began to extend the empire into what is now Ecuador, in 1463. The 11th Sapa Inca, Huayna Capac, completed the conquest of Ecuador, extended the empire into present-day Chile and Argentina, and took a special interest in the city of Quito, which his father, Tupac Yupanqui, rebuilt. When Huayna Capac died of either smallpox or malaria during a military campaign in 1527, a war of succession began between his sons, Huáscar and Atahualpa.

Shortly after his father's death, Huáscar seized control of Cusco and captured Atahualpa. As legend has it, the crafty Atahualpa escaped with the help of a little girl, returned to Quito, and began recruiting his father's best generals to serve alongside him. Atahualpa's forces were eventually victorious, but the triumph was short-lived: While he was resting in hot springs near Cajamarca, a former swineherd from western Spain named Francisco Pizarro stopped by for a visit.

Spanish Conquest

At the end of 1531, Francisco Pizarro set out from Panama with fewer than 200 men and arrived on the coast of Ecuador. He spent some months gathering precious stones and gold in order to finance reinforcements, and then he led his expedition inland.

On November 16, 1532, 168 Spaniards, led by Pizarro, attacked the imperial army of the Incas at Cajamarca, almost 80,000 soldiers strong. Despite reports of having felt quite scared the night before, the Spaniards slaughtered over 7,000 Incas and captured the emperor, Atahualpa. The supposed justification for the attack was Atahualpa's rejection of Christianity (a Spanish friar had presented him with a Bible, but the emperor said he could not hear what the book said and tossed it to the floor).

The Spaniards considered Atahualpa useful for subduing the rest of the population and kept him alive, though imprisoned. While under their watch, he learned to speak some Spanish and play chess. But after receiving over 20 tons of gold and silver, Atahualpa's captors garroted him.

Quito fell to the Spanish in mid-1534, effectively ending resistance from the Inca armies. The conquistadors continued to loot, pillage, kill, and torture the indigenous population as they swept across the continent, though they were not able to implement a unified system of colonial rule until more than 20 years after capturing Atahualpa. Once established, Spanish dominion was largely peaceful, though in no way just.

More Like Dogs Than Like Gods -- Conventional wisdom holds that the Incas believed the Spaniards were gods, and capitulated to the invaders out of holy fear. This may have been true in some cases. Not so for Atahualpa. The Sapa Inca heard of these strange visitors who had wool on their faces, like an alpaca or a sheep, and considered them subhuman, akin to animals. They must have been fairly stupid, thought Atahualpa, if they walked around wearing metal pots on their heads -- and they never even used the pots for cooking. It was the Inca's lack of fear, rather than his excess of it, that clouded his judgment, initially leading him to greet the Spaniards with dancers rather than with soldiers.

Colonial Rule

When Spanish colonial rule began in 1544, Ecuador was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. It joined the new Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada in 1720. Quito became an audiencia real in 1563, allowing for direct relations with the Spanish crown and circumventing the regional government in Lima. ("Quito" referred not just to the city but encompassed all of present-day Ecuador, reaching into northern Peru and southern Colombia.)

In Spanish colonial society, racial divisions were enshrined in law. Peninsulares (Spaniards living in the New World who were born in Spain) occupied the top of the economic and political pyramid, followed by criollos (descendants of Spaniards born in the New World), mestizos (those of mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry), mulatos (those of mixed Spanish and African ancestry), Amerindians, zambos (those of mixed Amerindian and African ancestry), and finally blacks. Individuals from the latter three groups were often enslaved outright. In Ecuador, the population soon became heavily mestizo, with less indigenous predominance than in Peru or Bolivia but significantly more than in Argentina or Chile.

These racial divisions formed the basis for the economic system, the encomienda. In exchange for defending the territory, Spanish settlers were granted ownership not only of the land but also of the people living on it. The indigenous population, therefore, was forced into slavery on plantations. In 1542, Spanish friar Bartolomé de las Casas convinced the Spanish crown to institute the New Laws, granting some protection to indigenous peoples. But despite these protections, forced labor largely continued.

And no law could protect against the most pernicious Spanish import: disease. The diseases the Europeans brought devastated the Incas and all other indigenous societies in the Western Hemisphere. Some scholars estimate that there were 20 million Native Americans in the New World prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Nearly 95% of them were wiped out after the conquistadors arrived, falling to diseases such as plague, typhoid, and smallpox, to which they had no natural resistance. The Western Hemisphere was essentially emptied of its native population. While the Incas were vanquished militarily, after the imposition of colonial rule the effect of European diseases was severe and far-reaching.


Criollo discontent with the exclusive rule of peninsulares reached a boiling point in the early 19th century, and a mood of reform swept across New Spain. A sharp economic downturn contributed to that mood.

In October 1820, a criollo junta, led by José Joaquín Olmedo, declared Quito independent from Spain and appealed to the independence movements in Venezuela and Argentina for support.

At the time, rebellion was sweeping the Western Hemisphere. Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, defeated a Spanish army at Carabobo in Venezuela on June 24, 1821, clearing the way for the independence of modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Bolivia. On September 15, 1821, Gabino Gaínza, the Spanish captain general of Central America and a rebel sympathizer, signed the Act of Independence, which broke Mexico's and Central America's ties with Spain.

Bolívar sent troops and skilled officers to Olmedo, and an Ecuadorean army led by José de Sucre Alcalá won a decisive victory against the Spanish at Pichincha on May 24, 1822. Hours later, the Quito Audiencia formally surrendered to Sucre.

Ecuador immediately joined the Republic of Greater Colombia, led by Bolívar, but separated from that federation in 1830 following Bolívar's resignation as president. The Republic of Ecuador was born.

The Early Republic

In 1832, Ecuador annexed an archipelago about 970km (603 miles) off its coast -- the Galápagos. Originally used as a prison colony, the islands soon became populated by a group of farmers and artists. In 1835, the British survey ship HMS Beagle sailed by, carrying a young naturalist named Charles Darwin. He published On the Origin of Species, a landmark in human thought, in 1859.

Following independence, Ecuador's political landscape was rocky. It quickly came to be dominated by two parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. Apart from the geographic differences between the two (the Liberals drew their strength from coastal populations, while the Conservatives represented the country's heartland and highlands), one issue defined their rivalry and Ecuadorean politics for more than a century after the creation of the republic: the role of the Roman Catholic Church in society.

With backing from the Church, Conservative politician Gabriel García Moreno rose to power in the 1860s. García Moreno strove to achieve universal literacy among the citizenry, and forged a close relationship with the clergy, granting asylum to exiled Jesuit priests.

Before being assassinated with a machete by a Colombian immigrant, García Moreno inspired deep resentment among the Liberals, who favored secular government, closer ties with the United States, and freer markets.

The political conflict soon became a military one: In 1895, Ecuador erupted in civil war between the Liberals and Conservatives. The Catholic Church urged their loyal members to take up arms against the Liberals, but later declared neutrality in the conflict. By the end of the year, the Liberals were victorious, and formed a government under President Eloy Alfaro.

Intermittently serving until his assassination in 1911, Alfaro was best known for instituting a firm separation of church and state. Whereas religious paintings had adorned the walls of public buildings during García Moreno's term, Alfaro replaced them with secular art. The president's other reforms included the establishment of civil rights such as freedom of speech, the legalization of civil marriage and divorce, the building of the first railroad from Guayaquil to Quito, and the construction of many public schools. Today he is remembered as a national hero.

A Rocky Century

All the while, Ecuador's economy was changing. By the early 20th century, cocoa had taken over as the dominant crop, responding to a worldwide boom in demand. But over-reliance on the crop led to trouble. In 1925, the cocoa market plummeted, and a bloodless political coup removed the Liberals from power. Contemporary observers might think today's political climate in Ecuador is volatile, but the 1930s were much worse: 14 chief executives served during the depressed decade.

The end of World War II and a global banana boom heralded a brighter future for Ecuador. Between 1948 and 1952, exports of the golden fruit grew from $2 million to $20 million. The political climate was relatively mild in the years following the war's end, with three freely elected presidents completing their terms between 1948 and 1960.

These stable conditions did not last, though. The banana boom ended in 1959, bringing a severe economic downturn in its wake. In 1963, a military junta deposed the sitting president, Carlos Julio Arosemena, who himself had pressured sitting president José María Velasco into resigning 2 years earlier. Velasco soon returned to the presidency, assuming dictatorial powers in 1970, only to be overthrown by another military junta in 1972.

Using revenues from Ecuador's newly successful oil export industry, the junta invested in land reform and industrialization. But in the midst of the global oil crisis of 1979, a successor junta allowed for a democratic transition to power. A charismatic young politician from Guayaquil named Jaime Roldós Aguilera won the presidency by a landslide, but his reform efforts were curtailed 2 years later when his plane crashed.

An economic and humanitarian crisis struck the country in 1987 in the form of a devastating earthquake in northeast Ecuador. The disaster interrupted oil exports, crippling the economy.

Though Ecuador's economy intermittently grew and contracted during the 20th century, the country itself followed a single trend: It shrank. Starting in 1904, Ecuador began to lose a substantial amount of its territory in small-scale conflicts with its neighbors. The most serious was the 1941 war with Peru, which resulted in Peru's temporarily occupying two-thirds of Ecuador. Though Peru eventually withdrew after the signing of the Rio de Janeiro Protocol in 1942, the ambiguous border between the two nations remained a point of contention. In 1995, the two countries began the so-called "Cenepa War," prompting shock and outrage from the international community. A ceasefire was quickly established, but a final treaty would not be signed for several more years.

A Revolving Door at the Presidential Palace

Change seems to be a consistent factor in Ecuadorean politics -- since the return to democracy in 1979, no party has captured the presidency through an election more than once -- but the period between 1997 and 2006 was as tumultuous as any during the last century. Seven presidents took office during that 10-year period, intermittently swept in and out of power by the ballot of the people, the vote of the National Congress, or the barrel of a gun.

In 1996, Ecuadoreans elected Abdalá Bucaram, from the Guayaquil-based center-right Ecuadorean Roldosista Party (PRE), to what was supposed to be a 4-year term. He campaigned on promises to institute populist economic policies and check the influence of the nation's oligarchy, but once in office, his administration was widely criticized for corruption. Less than a year into his term, Bucaram was impeached by the National Congress on the grounds that he was mentally incompetent to serve. Fabián Alarcón, at the time the leader of the Congress, was named interim president, which was reinforced by the electorate in a May 1997 referendum.

A year later, the nation went to the polls once more to choose a replacement president to serve a full 4-year term. Quito Mayor Jamil Mahuad, of the Popular Democracy Party, narrowly defeated banana magnate Alvaro Noboa in a runoff election, taking office on August 10, 1998, the same day that a new constitution went into effect. Mahuad was lauded for negotiating a peace treaty with Peru to end the half-century-old border conflict, but his successes ended there. A sharp decline in the price of oil sent Ecuador's economy into a tailspin in 1999, leading Mahuad to propose adopting the U.S. dollar as the country's official currency in order to curtail inflation. Huge demonstrations swept Quito, and on January 21, 2000, protestors stormed the National Congress building, proclaiming a three-person junta to be Ecuador's new ruling body.

Military commanders intervened and negotiated a deal whereby Mahuad would step down to make way for his vice president, Gustavo Noboa, to take office. Mahuad announced his resignation and endorsed his successor in a televised address, and Congress ratified the succession.

Noboa brought little in the way of policy change from his predecessor. He followed through on Mahuad's plan to dollarize the economy, and negotiated a deal for the construction of the country's second major oil pipeline using private financing.

Lucio Gutiérrez, formerly an army colonel and member of the ruling junta of January 21, won the presidential election of 2002 and took office in January of the following year. The conservative fiscal policies he implemented stood in stark contrast to his populist campaign promises, and when demonstrations began to shake the capital, Gutiérrez declared a state of emergency and replaced the Supreme Court. On April 20, 2005, Congress declared that he had "abandoned his post," and stripped him of it. Gutiérrez went into exile, leaving Vice President Alfredo Palacio to take over. He carried out no major reforms during his term.

In 2006, Ecuador went to the polls once more, and elected Rafael Correa, a center-left economist. Despite major changes, including hotly contested national referendums to approve the drafting and subsequent ratification of a new constitution, the first couple of years of the Correa administration have been relatively calm and ordered.

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