By David Morrill
Cuenca´s Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes, or Museum of Aboriginal Culture, is not your typical roadside attraction. Despite the fact that it is relatively small and privately owned, many consider it one of Ecuador’s best archeology and anthropology museums.
Operated by La Fundacion Cultural Cordero, the museum displays the private collection of Juan Cordero Iñiguez, historian, professor, former provincial governor and former director of Cuenca’s Banco Central Museum.
“My father has researched Ecuador´s pre-history all of his life. He taught the subject in universities and has written many books and articles about it,” says Cordero´s daughter, Carmen Lucia Cordero, who is director of the museum. “This museum is his personal passion and his mission and that is what makes the exhibits so good,”
Located in a modest colonial house on Calle Larga, opposite Iglesia Todo Santos, the museum exhibits more than 7,000 specimens, and has thousands more in storage.
The collection is divided into 13 display areas, organized chronologically and by the region where the artifacts were produced.
The first exhibit area includes fossils predating human habitation, providing a record of early vegetation and animal life. The first human artifacts date to 13,000 years ago when the first people took up residence in what is present-day Ecuador. The earliest artifacts include obsidian and flint arrow and spear points, stone tools, necklaces and mortars and pestles. Some of these come from areas just east and north of Cuenca.
Particularly notable is the high quality of the artifacts, many of them intact, and the intricacy of design. Among the artifacts from the early years, produced by the Las Vegas, Valdivia, Machalilla, Narrio, Quitis, Bahia and Cañari cultures, are jewelry, and cooking pots and utensils, ceremonial drinking cups, masks and funerary urns.
“This is an extraordinary exhibit, especially considering that it was collected by a private individual,” says Sven Hansson, a Swedish archeologist who has conducted excavations in Ecuador and Peru and has visited the museum on several occasions. “The overall condition of the pieces is excellent.”
Like others, Hansson is especially impressed by the design and artistry of the artifacts. “Even the oldest pieces show a high degree of creative thought. In the evolution of artifacts, it is accepted among archeologists that function precedes art. This collection and others in the Andes region show that decoration and function seemed to develop almost simultaneously.”
Many of the pieces are representations of bird and animal life while representation of human figures often reveal a sense of humor. Facial features of many of the human figurines are highly stylized and several bear an uncanny resemblance to cartoon star Bart Simpson.
There were obviously no qualms about representing human sexuality among Ecuador´s early artisans and many statues graphically depict human lovemaking. Others show pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing.
According to Hansson, the Cordero collection serves another important mission, dispelling the common notion that the Inca represented the high water mark of creativity in early Latin American. “What we discover is that the civilizations that preceded the Inca, in both Ecuador and Peru, were highly advanced and that the Incan empire inherited much of what we credit to it.”
In addition to the artifacts collection, the museum maintains a library of 36,000 books and manuscripts, which has proven popular with researchers.
If you visit the museum, don´t miss the gift shop: it is one of the best in Cuenca, offering an excellent collection of local crafts, books and postcards. Most impressive is the large assortment of replica artifacts in various sizes. Prices for the replicas begin at $6.
Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes is located at Calle Larga 5-24, between Calles Hermano Miguel and Mariano Cueva. Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tel. 283 9181; email JuanCordero@hotmail.com. Admission is $4. Guided tours are available in Spanish and English.