History

Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest Tours and Cruises

Precolombian History

 

The Napo River Basin is not only a place for biological endemism and a wealth of species, but also a center of cultural diversity.  Many human groups have inhabited the Napo riverbanks and managed their resources here for centuries, even before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.

Archaeological studies along the Napo River have been limited, but they do provide us with some information on ancestral cultures in the area.  Ceramic pottery is currently the best evidence we have, the vast majority of which belong to the Napo Phase (12th-14th Centuries), which fundamentally was represented by the Omagua.  This civilization originated as a Tupi-Guaraní clan that arrived in Amazonia at Marajo Island in Brazil, during the 1st century AD.  It was identified for the first time in the 5th century, (Itacoatiara – Brazil) given the presence of the tricolor black, red and white patterns on their pottery.

This “polychrome tradition" extended gradually to the West from the central Amazon (Gran Aparia) into Ecuador between the 5th and 10th Centuries.  At the beginning of the 11th century, the Omaguas were living on the banks of the Napo, Aguarico, Coca, Tiputini and Yasuni Rivers.  The Omaguas exploited the resources in seasonally flooded varzea forests better than any other human group.  Their homes were located in flood areas close to rivers and lagoons, each homestead consisting of 30 to 40 houses, occupied by very extensive family clans (700 people), forming provinces that were controlled by a central hierarchical figure.

Fishing was most likely the main activity, followed by gathering, depending on the time of year, of caiman and turtle eggs. Hunting, on the other hand, is thought to have been a secondary means of getting food, given the fact that many of the animals remained inside the dense forest, which was otherwise controlled by other groups.  For this reason, the Omaguas created one of the most advanced farming systems in the Amazon, in order to insure food supply in times of adversity.

They took advantage of the relative fertility of the riverbanks, which is the product of the sediment deposits left by the white-water rivers descending from the Andes in times of flooding.  The rest of the forest is toxic, practically nothing can grow in it… but near the rivers, the Omagua could grow small amounts of food. A system of crop rotation, combined with the production of multi-crop farming, and storage systems during times of scarcity, are all evidence to the highly developed production techniques of this ancient civilization. 

The Omaguas made beautiful ornaments out of cotton, which we currently believe was a crop they cultivated, and created anthropormophic funerary urns decorated with naturally derived pigments such as red, black and white, characteristic of their Tupi-Guarani ancestry.  Bones were believed to hold the human soul, and for this reason the Omaguas buried their dead in the funerary urns together with personal possessions. 

The Omaguas disappeared once the European arrived.  For a long time the dominance held by the Omaguas in the Amazonian riverbeds became a disadvantage when faced with the fact that rivers brought diseases, exploitation and eventually, the extinction of many Amazonian cultures.

 

The discovery of the Amazon River

 

Aboard the Manatee we basically tread down the final leg of Francisco de Orellana’s infamous journey to discover the Amazon. Of course, he did it without a clue of where he was going, crazed after a year-long odyssey into the unknown, during which the vast majority of his men and supplies perished. All of that for gold! That was back in 1541, when Pizarro convinced Orellana to set out to the eastern lowlands of Quito in search of El Dorado, a magnanimous mythical figure rumored to own mountains of gold.

The expedition lead by Pizarro began in Quito in February of 1541.  For his journey, he recruited 200 Spanish soldiers, 4000 indigenous, mules, provisions, horses, and about 4000 other animals (pigs, sheep, dogs…).  At the end of March of 1541, Orellana left Guayaquil accompanied by only 25 soldiers, a few native people and provisions.  Each crossed the mountain range and met in the region of Sumaco, in Eastern Ecuador.  This took a month or so (today the journey can be completed in about 3 hours by car!). Pizarro and 80 other soldiers set out on foot seeking the precious cinnamon trees that two months later, they would finally discovered… or at least a version of it. The species (Ocotea quixos), however, did not possess the fruit’s scent on its leaves or bark, thus wasn’t really valuable. The dream of finding famous “El Dorado” began to fade, along with the spirits of the crew.  The expedition continued Northeast, leaving the Sumaco volcano behind, crossing the Guacamayo mountain range, into Coca River. The epic trading through impenetrable vegetation and the steep divides must have proven slow and tedious, and tired and disheartened, Pizarro and Orellana arrived to the Coca lowlands by October and November of 1541.  In order to save their mission, Pizarro decided to build a boat in order to send a group down river in search of supplies.  It was a critical moment for the expedition, as everyone was disheartened and preparing mutiny.  Orellana, Brother Gaspar de Carvajal (the journey’s chronicler) and 57 volunteers went on this historic expedition.  For the trip, Orellana and his men took munitions, steel, jewelry and coins.  Without knowing it, this would be most necessary when navigating along the Amazonas River.

Orellana left Pizarro’s camp in December of 1541.  In Janary 1542, he met up with the Omaguas in the Aparia Menora region, at the entrance to the Curaray River.  At the town of Irimary, Orellana made the decision to continue downstream.  The reason for this decision is not known but according to some historians, Orellana ignored the plan to meet up with Pizarro once he had acquired supplies.  Instead of a peaceful encounter with the people of the riverside, the Spanish explorers invaded their homesteads in search of food, which resulted in violent retaliation by Omagua warriors.

When the explorers reached the region known as Aparia Mayor, they found villages with corn, fish, turtles and parrots.  Orellana and his men carefully changed their strategy and befriended the native community. They were thus welcomed by the locals and greeted with food and gifts.  It is here where Orellana first heard about the “coniupuyaras” or warrior women.  The natives warned them not to continue further east.  Brother Gaspar de Carvajal would later refer to these women as “Amazons”, as he was reminded of the characters from Homer’s “Iliad”.  After navigating through the Aparia regions, Orellana arrived at the convergence of the Napo and the Amazon Rivers on February 12, 1542.  On this special date, we commemorate the discovery of the Amazon River. 

Pizarro returned to Quito from Coca with only 40 soldiers.  The natives had all either perished or escaped into the forest. The return to Quito was even more tragic for him since he was notified of the death of his brother Francisco and was stripped of his title as Governor.  Orellana returned to Spain in 1543 and organized another expedition to visit the Great River, Río Grande. This was the name initially given to the river until relentless attacks during the second expedition by supposed warrior women would eventually inspire the name we currently know today. Who were these Amazon warriors?  Modern history denies the existence of such women, stating that perhaps the Spanish were fighting warrior men with long hair that moved stealthily among the dense vegetation. 

In 1546, Orellana passed away on the Amazon River while attempting to claim new territories for Spain.

 

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