Cochasquí: The Immense Pyramids of Ecuador Provide Evidence for a Forgotten Civilization
The archaeological sites in Ecuador are often overshadowed by more popular locations in neighboring Colombia and Peru. However, archaeology enthusiasts have a wealth of options including more than just well-known Ingapirca to admire. Take for example the huge, 83.9-hectare site of Cochasqui, where pyramids and sacred animals patiently remind us that Ecuadorian archaeology holds more secrets than most people recognize. The debate is on: was Cochasquí a home for Quitu Cara elite, an astronomical observatory, a fortress, a sanctuary, or did it serve some combination of functions?
Architecture and Archaeology of the Site
There are 15 flat-topped pyramids constructed at Cochasquí. Nine of them have ramps. 21 large, circular funerary mounds have also been noted. This is not a small site!
Model of the Cochasquí archaeological site, showing funerary mounds and flat-topped pyramids. (Alicia McDermott)
The pyramids were created with cangagua (a volcanic rock-like material). Scholar say the 160kg (352.74 lbs.) cut blocks of rock were softened with water and then cut using harder volcanic rock tools (the site was inhabited before the Iron Age).
Most of the pyramids are left overgrown to protect the environmentally sensitive cangagua blocks. However, the largest pyramid, pyramid 9, has a wide gap in the middle where previous landowners of the site sent a channel of water through in search of treasure.
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Canagugua blocks (top) and the partially destroyed pyramid 9 (bottom). (Alicia McDermott)
The Cochasquí archaeological site is 3100 meters (10170 ft.) above sea level and extremely close to the equator. It has an unrivalled view of 280 degrees, including views of a combination of snow capped mountains and volcanoes. Archaeological investigations have taken place on and off since 1932. The most well-known archaeologist to study the site was the German Max Uhle.
The ceramic artifacts found at Cochasquí have enabled archaeologists to split the occupation of the site into two periods. Cochasquí I ran from 950-1250 AD and the zapato (shoe) style of thicker ceramic was popular. In Cochasquí II, from 1250-1550 AD, people had elaborated on their ceramic designs, included paint, handles, and were making thinner and finer ceramics. The popular style of this time period was the tripod, which some say is a reflection on the family – with one leg as a symbol of the mother, another as the father, and the third as their child.
Tripod ceramics which were discovered at the site. (Alicia McDermott)
Artifacts coming from Colombia, the coastal region of modern day Ecuador, and the Amazon region all have been found at Cochasquí. This shows that the community living at the site had contact with far away cultures and likely participated in trade and cultural interaction with them. Instruments such as a llama bone flute and countless jars, bowls, and statues, as well as stone artifacts, have all been uncovered.
A statue, llama bone flute, stone tools, and one of the many ceramics found at Cochasquí. (Alicia McDermott)
Quitu Cara burial styles have been brought to light at this site as well. It was common practice for people to be buried sitting in jars. In one of the on-site museums you can see a burial of a 1.5-1.6 meter (4.9-5.2 ft.) tall woman who was buried with necklaces and bracelets similar to the style still worn by indigenous women in the area today.
The skeleton of a woman who was buried at Cochasquí. (Alicia McDermott)
It is also said that, when archaeological excavations were underway at the largest pyramid, guides at the site claim over 700 skulls were unearthed. This has led some scholars to suggest that the huge pyramid was the location of human sacrifices.
More recent geo-radar studies suggest that there may have been people living at the site before the Quitu Cara as well. However, this information is being kept mostly in closed quarters until more details can be provided.
Reconstruction of the llama skin clothing which may have been worn by a previous inhabitant of Cochasquí. (Alicia McDermott)
Who Lived at Cochasquí?
Their geographical position means the people living at what is now called Cochasquí could have been well-prepared for any attacks. However, guides at the site claim that the people living at Cochasquí were farmers, not fighters. Simple hammers, stone hatchets, arrows and rocks tied on string were used to protect their homes. However, there is also a popular local pride that Quitu Cara warriors were able to withstand Inca conquerors until Huayna Cápac had his day at Yaguarcocha.