Cuenca's Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes, or Museum of Aboriginal Culture, is not your typical roadside attraction. Despite the fact that it's relatively small and privately owned, many consider it one of Ecuador's best archeology museums.
Operated by La Fundacion Cultural Cordero, the museum displays the private collection of Juan Cordero Iñiguez, historian, professor, former provincial governor and former director of Cuenca's Banco Central Museum.
"My father has researched Ecuador's pre-history all of his life. He taught the subject in universities and has written many books and articles about it," says Cordero's daughter, Carmen Lucia Cordero, who is director of the museum. "This museum is his personal passion and his mission and that is what makes the exhibits so good,"
Located in a modest colonial house on Calle Larga, opposite Iglesia Todo Santos, the museum exhibits more than 7,000 specimens, with thousands more in storage.
The collection is divided into 13 display areas, organized chronologically and by the region where the artifacts were produced.
The first exhibit area includes fossils predating human habitation, providing a record of early vegetation and animal life. The first human artifacts date to 13,000 years ago when the first people took up residence in what is present-day Ecuador. The earliest artifacts include obsidian and flint arrow heads, stone tools, necklaces and mortars and pestles. Some of these are from the area east and north of Cuenca.
Particularly notable is the high quality of the artifacts, many of them intact, and the intricacy of design. Among the artifacts from the early years, produced by the Las Vegas, Valdivia, Machalilla, Narrio, Quitis, Bahia and Cañari cultures, are jewelry, cooking pots and utensils, ceremonial drinking cups, masks and funerary urns.
"This is an extraordinary exhibit, especially considering that it was collected by a private individual," says Sven Hansson, a Swedish archeologist who has conducted excavations in Ecuador and Peru and has visited the museum on several occasions. "The overall condition of the pieces is excellent."
Like others, Hansson is especially impressed by the design and artistry of the artifacts. "Even the oldest pieces show a high degree of creative thought. In the evolution of artifacts, it is accepted among archeologists that function precedes art. This collection and others in the Andes region show that decoration and function seemed to develop almost simultaneously."
Many of the pieces are representations of bird and animal life, while representation of human figures often show a sense of humor. Facial features of many of the human figurines are highly stylized and several bear an uncanny resemblance to cartoon star Bart Simpson.
There were obviously no qualms about representing human sexuality among Ecuador's early artisans and many statues graphically depict human lovemaking. Others show pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing.
According to Hansson, the Cordero collection serves another important mission, dispelling the common notion that the Incans represented the high-water mark of creativity in early Latin American. "What we discover is that the civilizations that preceded the Inca, in both Ecuador and Peru, were highly advanced and that the Incan empire inherited much of what we credit to it."
In addition to the artifacts collection, the museum maintains a library of 36,000 books and manuscripts, which has proven popular with researchers.
If you visit the museum, don't miss the gift shop: It is one of the best in Cuenca, offering an excellent collection of local crafts, books and postcards. Most impressive is the large assortment of replica artifacts in various sizes. Prices for the replicas begin at $6.
Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes is located at Calle Larga 5-24, between Calles Hermano Miguel and Mariano Cueva. Hours: Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tel. 283-9181; email JuanCordero@hotmail.com. Admission is $2. Guided tours are available in Spanish and English.
CUENCA: A history dating back 10,000 years
By David Morrill
According to archeologists, the first humans arrived in the Cuenca area about 10,000 years ago, setting up camp in the Chopshi caves, 18 miles east of the city. The site has yielded a bounty of arrow heads, spear points, pottery and tool shards.
Ecuador's early people were primarily nomadic, but were known to have established temporary settlements, particularly along the Tomebamba, Paute and Jubones Rivers. One of the most concentrated areas of early settlements was Challuabamba, today an eastern suburb of Cuenca. Work by a number of archeologists, including the noted German, Max Uhle, in the 1920s, suggests that the area was a convergence point of major trade routes as early as 5,000 years ago.
The first permanent settlers established communities during the Narrio era, beginning 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. The Narrios had two primary settlements, Tacalshapa, current-day Cuenca and Cashaloma in today's Cañar province.
"The record shows that the Narrio were traders with contacts on the coast and later, as far north as Mexico and as far south as Chile," says Carmen Lucia Cordero, director of Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes in Cuenca. "Archeologists have found alabaster and jade from Mexico and Lapis from Chile."
Archeological evidence also suggests that the Narrios segued into the Cañari nation, 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. The Cañari culture, centered in the Cuenca area, dominated much of southern Ecuador for more than a millennium before falling to the Incas in the 1400s. Known for their sophisticated administrative systems, the Cañaris built irrigation canals and established an extensive system of trade routes.
The Cañaris called Cuenca Guapondeleg and constructed a temple at Pumapungo, the current site of Banco Central and the Pumapungo Museum on Calle Larga.
The Inca built their own temple at Pumapungo and renamed Guapondeleg to Tomebamba. The Inca's plan to make Tomebamba the northern capital of the empire ended with a civil war and the Spanish conquest in the early 1500s.