The Tsáchila Recommended read

From the 16th to the 20th Century, missionaries and explorers reported finding bare-chested, black toothed natives in the hot, rainy, snake infested country behind the Western Cordillera. The men were striped like jaguars, wore silver wrist bands, and jangled with feathers, bird bones, and Achiote seeds. They painted and sculpted their hair in such a way that they appeared to be wearing shiny, red, leaf-shaped helmets tilted forward over bald heads.

The Tsáchila, as they called themselves were referred to by the settlers as the Colorados for their colorful hair and clothing. The red hair dye, derived from extract of Achiote, accentuated their identification with the Achiote seed. The home was a seed pod, providing a foundation from which its members, like seeds, could go out and plant themselves in the world.

For them, the world was full of treacherous spirits and demons that could bring luck or make people sick by stealing their souls. The universe was ruled over by a sky god seated in a thrown of clouds. Shamans, the most revered members of society, were in charge of convening with the gods, rescuing souls of the sick, bestowing luck, and foretelling the future. In order to gain access to the supernatural world, Shamans used a combination of the hallucinogenic extract of the Ayahuasca and special artifacts, including volcanic rocks pulled from the mouths of Cotopaxi and Chimbazo.

As late as the 18th Century, the Tsáchila numbered in the tens of thousands. Due to the treacherousness of their territory, they were never conquered by the Incas or the Spanish. They spanned over a large area, where they cultivated exotic fruits—guayabo, banano, sugar cane, pineapple—and dined on animals and fish easily plucked from the surrounding forest. Archeological remnants suggest that they had an extensive knowledge of astronomy.

Their population and territory have been drastically reduced over the centuries by disease and settlement; today, they occupy just eight small reservations. Their ancient dominion over the region lingers on in the name of its main city, Santo Domingo de los Colorados. The Tscáchila man in his characteristic striped kilt and red hair style pops up on the sides of trucks and consumer product packaging around the city, near which the last Tscáchila communities struggle to preserve what they can of their native heritage.

Go to top