Ecuador's cultue and history mirrors the diversity of its landscape. Like much of South America, Ecuadorian culture blends the influences of Spanish colonialism with the resilient traditions of pre-Columbian peoples. Archaeologists trace the first inhabitants as far back as 10,000 BC, when hunters and gatherers established settlements on the southern coast and in the central highlands. By 3,200 BC three distinct agricultural-based civilizations had emerged, producing some of the hemisphere's oldest known pottery. They developed trade routes with nearby Peru, Brazil, and Amazonian tribes. Culture continued to thrive and diversify, and by 500 BC large cities had been established along the coast. Their inhabitants had sophisticated metalworking and navigational skills and they traded with Mexico's Maya. In 1460 AD, when the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui invaded from the south, three major tribes in Ecuador were powerful enough to give him a fight: the Canari, the Quitu, and the Caras.
The Inca were a dynamic, rapidly advancing society. They originated in a pocket of Peru, but established a vast empire within a century. It dominated Peru and extended as far as Bolivia and central Chile. The Inca constructed massive, monumental cities. To communicate across their empire they laid wide, stone-paved highways thousands of kilometers long and sent chains of messengers along them. These mailmen passed each other records of the empire's status, which were coded in system of knots along a rope. A winded runner could even rest in the shade of trees planted along both sides of the road. Remarkably, the Canari, Quitu, and Caras were able to hold back Tupac-Yupanqui, though they proved less successful against his son, Huayna Capac. After conquering Ecuador, Huayna Capac indoctrinated the tribes to Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is still widely spoken in Ecuador.
In celebration of his victory, Huayna Capac ordered a great city to be built at Tomebamba, near Cuenca. Its size and influence rivaled the capital of Cuzco in Peru--a rivalry that would mature with posterity. When he died in 1526, Huayna Capac divided the empire between his two sons, Atahualpa and Huascar. Atahualpa ruled the northern reaches from Tombebamba, while Huascar held court over the south from Cuzco. The split inheritance was an unconventional and fateful move, as the first Spaniards arrived in the same year. On the eve of Pizarro's expedition into the empire, the brothers entered into a civil war for complete control.
Francisco Pizarro landed in Ecuador in 1532, accompanied by 180 fully armed men and an equally strong lust for gold. Several years earlier, Pizarro had made a peaceful visit to the coast, where he heard rumors of inland cities of incredible wealth. This time, he intended to conquer the Incas just as Hernando Cortez had crushed Mexico's Aztecs--and he couldn't have picked a better time. Atahualpa had only