Studying Anthropology in Cuenca, Ecuador

“Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” Margaret Mead

Ecuador is a small country, roughly the size of the state of Colorado, and within that small geographic space waits some of the most diverse cultural differences that one can study. The history of Ecuador, like the history of many Latin American countries, is wrought with conflicting identities. Indigenous and Spanish, colonizers and the colonized, “pagan” religions and Catholicism. These tensions are what have created the country that we see today, a country that has forged ahead as one of the strongest in South America, a country that uses its biodiversity to attract tourists, a country that tries to preserve indigenous roots while exploring the business of oil in the jungle. If anthropology is the study of the unexpected, Ecuador is the home of such contradictions.

Indigenous Communities in Ecuador

One of the most interesting areas of study for anthropology majors is the world of indigenous communities. There are at least thirteen distinct indigenous nationalities in Ecuador, and more than 25 known communities. Though most have joined “modern” societal practices, there are deep-rooted traditions that have not been forgotten. This is the reality of most indigenous peoples in Ecuador: straddling the world of cell phones, individualism, and capitalism and the world of medicinal healing, offering prayers to waterfalls, traditional drink and food, and set gender roles. Every group has its own identity, though some share the same Quechua language. There are indigenous communities in the Andes mountains, there are communities in the jungle, and there are communities on the coast. For students who want to learn more about a specific community, read here for overviews on Ecuador’s indigenous (link to future article). There are internship opportunities to learn the language, practice daily rituals, talk with shamans to understand the medicine and religions, and cook traditional food and drink.

What types of art/artisan work is Ecuador known for?

Otavalo, in the Ibarra province of Ecuador, is known around the world as one of the best artisan markets. Homemade shoes and decorations, hand-sewn blankets and ponchos, hand-carved toys and instruments are all sold in the large Saturday market and in smaller weekly markets. The artisans have often been working on their specific craft for generations. To work with an artisan, understanding the history of the creation, as well as how that knowledge will be passed down, is an amazing opportunity to learn about the passing of rituals in a creative capacity. Other towns throughout the country also are home to specific artisan creations: Chordeleg is known for its filigree silver, Gualaceo is known for its leather shoe production, San Bartolomeo is renowned for handmade guitars. Studying anthropology in Ecuador is an opportunity to dive into the world of traditional artisans.

Is medicinal or plant-based healing common in Ecuador?

Part of any culture’s history is its medicine: what plants and herbs have the people used to cure different ailments? Ecuador, with its diversity in the jungle as well as in the mountains, is home to many traditional remedies. Some, like chamomile flowers for headaches, are well-known. Others, like the women who sit in plazas and pass eggs over the foreheads, chests, and stomachs of patients, remain mysteries. How do these men and women heal one another? What remedies seem to work? This study of traditional medicine and healing can happen throughout the country. There are indigenous communities that still incorporate hallucinogenic roots, like ayahuasca or san pedro, that they believe tell the future and cure ailments. There are also communities in the mountains that have learned how to use the strange flowers, herbs, and trees to remedy particular problems. Creating an internship with a healer is a chance to understand the medicine that has helped sustain this culture through centuries.

What are some other potential areas of study?

An anthropologist seeks understanding, but that understanding doesn’t always come in a single truth. Often, there are many truths. For a student who wants to study identity and culture, Ecuador is one of the best places to learn about the history, and the tension past and present, between the colonized and the colonizers. That history lives on today. The truth of colonization is complex. The indigenous Shuar people, for example, say that they were the one tribe never colonized by the Spanish. Indigenous practices, seemingly untouched by the war, slavery, and devastation of colonizers, live on, especially through some indigenous peoples deep in the jungle who don’t have contact with the outside world.

But in the metropolises like Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, there are many people who descend from Spanish or European ancestors. How do these men and women interact with and treat those who come from indigenous roots? There are some who say that racism is felt in everyday interactions; there are some who say that is all behind them. This conflict, this tension, represents a deeper history that is still coming to the surface. Anthropology majors can truly explore the depth of a culture’s identity, and all of its facets, in this small country. The size of the country makes it significantly easier to travel to different communities, conduct interviews, and gather extensive information.

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