Hard Times in Ecuador: Inka Troubles at Pambamarca

Samuel V. Connell, Chad Gifford, Ana Lucía González & Maureen Carpenter

"Finding that their forces were not sufficient to face the Inca on an open battlefield, the Cayambes withdrew and made strongholds in a very large fortress that they had; the Inca ordered his men to lay siege to it and bombard it continuously; but the men inside resisted so bravely that they forced the Inca to raise the siege because he had lost many men in assaults on the fortress. Sensing that the opposition was weakening, the Cayambes came out to meet them and they pressed the attack so much that the orejones, who were the backbone of the army, broke and fled, abandoning their king."

Cobo 1979:157

Figure 1
Figure 1. A view from Quito of the Pambamarca fortress complex.
Click to enlarge.

Cobo's tale describes an indigenous society in northern Ecuador that proved to be one of the most difficult for the Inkas to conquer in Andean South America. Inka king Tupaq Inka Yupanqui and his son, Huayna Capac, or so it was said, were enchanted with Ecuador, and established in Quito a second great city to complement Cuzco, their capital in Peru. As they looked out from Quito towards the verdant lands of the Cayambes, the imperial armies of the Inka king expected little resistance to their advances. But as they marched north and crossed the Guayllabamba River, the Inkas encountered the unexpected: a fiercely resistant society that was prepared to fight at great lengths for its independence. During the next 17 years, in fact, the Cayambes managed to turn back the invaders until finally their fortresses fell in the early 1500s (Figure 1, above).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Map of Quitoloma, Ecuador.

The early historical chronicles also describe a subsequent period of Inka rule over the Cayambes and detail the Inka occupation and construction of even more fortresses in northern Ecuador (Cieza de Leon 1880). Today the region of the ancient Cayambes, which straddles the equator and lies in the shadows of the Mt. Cayambe volcano, is rife with pre-Columbian fortresses, with the greatest concentration lying in Pambamarca. These fortresses and the surrounding settlements, which have only been sporadically investigated in the past, are the material object of study of the Proyecto Arqueológico Pambamarca (PAP). Topically, the project is interested in understanding and interpreting the nature of resistance and domination along the northern frontier of the Inka Empire. Archaeological and historical evidence documenting the construction and activities in and around these fortresses (or pucarás) will contribute greatly to our understandings of imperial and colonial processes in the ancient New World.

Research in 2002 marked the first year of field investigations, and began with a full accounting of the architecture at Pambamarca. Building on research by other archaeologists (e.g., Oberem 1969, Plaza 1977, and particularly those working with the Banco Central in Ecuador; see Fresco, Coloma and Espíndola 1990), initial efforts were made to calculate the dates of construction of the Pambamarca fortresses and to determine who constructed and used each fort through time. Work started in July on the well-known fortress of Quitoloma, which lies at the southern extreme of the Pambamarca fortress complex (Figure 2, see left).

Figure 3
Figure 3. Looking north from the inside of Quitoloma with the kallanka foreground left and the ushnu center right at the apex of the concentric walls. The Pambamarca ridgeline is in the background.
Click to enlarge.

Quitoloma was built of cut-blocks mined from the nearby mountain slope. It is a massive construction, enclosing some 30 hectares of space in the páramo, the inhospitable landscape of the high Ecuadorian Andes where cultivation would have been virtually impossible in the past. Sections of the bulky, outer walls are more than 3 meters high and are broken in places by formal entranceways. The more than 100 freestanding structures inside the circuit wall are distinctly Inka in form and architecture and include an Inka platform (or ushnu) and administrative hall (or kallanka). Excavations at the site exposed a mix of non-Inka as well as some Inka ceramic styles, which is quite normal for imperial outposts in the empire. The six excavation test pits into and below site architecture consistently revealed one phase of construction at Quitoloma, which we are attributing to the Inkas. An assay of four radiocarbon samples collected from inside site architecture will test this attribution.

Other Pambamarca fortresses were also documented in detail, including the equally large fortress of Pucará Guachala (or Pinguilmi). Although a full analysis of the ceramic assemblage is forthcoming, we are reasonably confident that both the ceramics and architecture suggest that this site is indigenous in origin (see Bray 1990, Meyers 1998). The same can be said for the non-walled settlement of Oroloma, which was mapped and surface collected late in the season. While Quitoloma is located on the southern edge of Pambamarca within sight of Quito, these possible indigenous sites are located on the northern edge of the study area within plain view of the Cayambe territory.

One scenario that is supported by the data gathered thus far begins with a standoff between Inka and Cayambe forces over the Pambamarca region. It is certainly possible that these opposing armies exchanged forts repeatedly as they occupied and abandoned land during the ebb and flow of 17 years of battle. Eventually the Inka did conquer the area outright, only to be overthrown themselves by the Spanish. The presence of this truly dynamic frontier, therefore, allows us to look more closely at the negotiations and interactions that occurred across an imperial border zone through time. In the future we are interested in looking more closely at the nature of Cayambe sociopolitical organization as it clashed with the ideals and military force of the Inkas. We wonder, for instance, in what way there was something about the way these societies intersected that was perhaps atypical of most other encounters witnessed throughout the Inka Empire.


The authors would like to thank the Instituto de Patrimonio Cultural de Ecuador and Monica Bolanos for supporting this research. The Ecuador Fulbright Commission and the University Research Expeditions Program (UREP) generously funded this research. We need to express our gratitude to Diego Bonifaz, our many hard working students, the people of Cangahua and Chumillos, and most importantly, Father Roberto and Carlos Perez.


  • BRAY, T. 1990 The effects of Inca imperialism on the Northern Frontier. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at Binghamton.
  • COBO, B. 1979 [1953]. History of the Inca Empire : An account of the Indians' customs and their origin, together with a treatise on Inca legends, history, and social institutions. Transl. by R. Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • CIEZA de LEON, P. 1880. Segunda Parte de la Crónica del Perú, que trata del Senorío de los Incas Yupanquis. Madrid.
  • FRESCO A., M. COLOMA, and G. ESPÍNDOLA 1990. Proyecto Arqueológico "El Quito de los Incas". Octava Parte: Informe excavaciones Pucará Quitoloma (1990). Quito: Banco Central del Ecuador.
  • MEYERS, A. 1998. Los Incas en El Ecuador: Análisis de los Restos Materiales, Parte 1 and 2. Colección Pendoneros, Volumes 6 and 7. Otavalo: Instituto Otavaleno de Antropología.
  • OBEREM, U. 1969. La fortaleza de montaña de Quitoloma en la sierra septentrional del Ecuador. Boletín de la Academia Nacional de Historia 114: 196-205.
  • PLAZA, F. 1977. El Complejo de Fortalezas de Pambamarca: Contribución al Estudio de la Arquitectura Militar Prehispánica en la Sierra Norte del Ecuador. Instituto Otavaleno de Antropología, Otavalo.


  • Samuel V. Connell
    Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, Los Angeles, and US Army Central Identification Laboratory, Honolulu (CILHI).
  • Chad Gifford
    Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, New York.
  • Ana Lucía González
    Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, Los Angeles.
  • Maureen Carpenter
    Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Davis, CA.