One of the greatest discoveries you’re likely to make while visiting Ecuador is the site of an ancient civilization that has a relatively recent history of excavation and exploration called the Pyramids of Cochasqui. When my son Herb – a professor living in Quito – told me about this little-known archeological find I was intrigued! We decided to make our own expedition to this mysterious site.
We traveled by car with our private guide and it was a mere 45-minute drive from Ecuador's capital city of Quito. As you leave the urban sprawl of Quito, you begin your ascent up the Andes snaking around hills and mountains as you pass the cloud line. It was quite a strange sensation looking over the guard rails down into a valley to see clouds BENEATH you! As we got closer to the site, the roads became more difficult. Huge undulations in the rocky terrain made driving more than 10 mph impossible. Goats, dogs, llamas and alpacas strided all around us with an air of confidence that told us in no uncertain terms that we were in their backyard now.
We continued to follow the directions faithfully, but we were losing faith as we saw no signs of civilization – ancient or modern. Finally, we saw a hand-painted sign nailed to a tree that simply said “Cochasqui” with an arrow pointing to a right turn on a dirt road that seemed seldom used. Eventually, we reached the end of the road and a more formal sign “Piramides de Cochasqui”. About 50 years following its discovery in 1933 by German archaeologist Max Uhle, it was declared a National Patrimony by UNESCO, but despite this international recognition, the site remains relatively undeveloped and certainly not designed with tourists in mind – no parking lot, no tour buses and, most telling of all, no gift shop! As we entered the site I was initially underwhelmed by what was laid out in front of me – all there seemed to be was a series of rolling, grassy hills and a few alpacas, but I was about to discover that what was underneath held a wealth of revelations!
Cochasqui is a surprising mountain plateau community of 15 pyramids! Its first exploration was not extensive. A cursory review and some limited excavations by Uhle concluded that the site was used for ceremonial purposes based on finding several skulls. It wasn’t until another 30 years that another German archeologist, Udo Eberem, conducted more excavations and found that the site also had living quarters and that some of the pyramids were actually “luxury condos” for the important members of the Caranqui people, the pre-Incan tribe that built these impressive structures. Through a portal dug into the side of one of these hills, we were able to enter a pyramid and see how they were actually made. Exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization is an eerie experience. Along the lines of visiting a haunted house that hasn’t been inhabited in 1200 years! You can feel or sense the spirits of the people who called this home in the chilly air inside these structures. Why these pyramids were built here, nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, is a bit of a mystery but why archeologists and the government of Ecuador have collectively paid relatively little attention to this beautiful and intriguing pre-Incan site is a bigger mystery to me.
The Caranqui civilization thrived here between 850 AD and 1550 AD building the 15 pyramids and 20 “mounds” believed to be burial plots. Nine of these pyramids hold a clue to the mystery of the construction of these architectural wonders. Every level is comprised of square blocks of “cangahua” (a dense volcanic stone) weighing 300 pounds each. When two levels were complete, a ramp was made using dirt so that the heavy stones could be pushed up to make higher levels. I couldn’t help but marvel at the simplicity of the solution to hoist heavy rocks up increasingly higher levels. No cranes, levers, pullies or any other mechanical support we often attribute to Egyptian pyramid construction. I noticed that only nine of these pyramids still have these ramps. Completion of the remaining six pyramids seems to have been interrupted - most likely by Incan invasions. When the Incan people invaded this territory, there are records to suggest the Caranqui put up a great fight before finally surrendering. This would explain the unfinished development of the community, but they still managed to leave an impressive mark as to their ingenuity. In the 1980s, studies found that the Caranqui people used their unique location at the Equator (0º 3' 35'') for stargazing. Using one of its 15 pyramids as an observatory, they were able to determine both solar and lunar calendars calculating 364 and one-quarter days per year!
This was an amazing discovery! I saw a circular platform on top of one of the pyramids. Here, I found incredible detail and accuracy of the stars including a trough that housed a series of clay instruments that look like bowling pins used to measure days, months and lunar cycles. As crude as their materials were, their accuracy rivals our sophisticated instruments today. In 1981, the site came under the under the supervision of the Government of Pichincha and in 1988 was declared an archaeological park. Today, anyone can visit this amazing site. There is also an open-air museum housing some of the pots, weapons and art from this ancient time, much of it remarkable in its design and craftsmanship. And for those more interested in the site from an archeological perspective, a new field research study headed by Danny Zborover of the Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary is being planned for June 17 to July 21 this year.
It’s an often beautiful and sometimes trying journey from Quito, but well worth the trip to step back in time and explore the civilization of a people the world knows very little about.
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Mark Terry is a Fellow International member of The Explorers Club and recipient of the Canadian chapter’s highest honor, the Stefansson Medal for his international field work “documenting our natural world”. As well as a Community Leader for the David Suzuki Foundation, Mark is also this year’s winner of the Gemini Humanitarian Award, presented by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in recognition of his work with the United Nations with his documentaries.
Working closely with the world’s scientific community in Antarctica and the Arctic earned him the recognition of the United Nations Environment Programme in 2008. His last two films – The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning and The Polar Explorer – were made in partnership with the UNEP and both premiered at the Climate Change Conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. Together, both films have won 20 international film awards for excellence.
As a member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Canadian Council for Geographic Education, the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the University of Alberta's Northern Research Network, Mark lectures and speaks regularly about the environmental issues affecting the fragile eco-systems of the polar regions and, by extension, the world.
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