An Andean Aqua-culture:Reflecting on the sacred landscape of the Yumbo

Thu 12 Feb 2015 21:31:13 | 4 comments

If you want to feel what it’s like to be immersed in a water culture, visit a cloudforest like Tulipe where the clouds swirl around you and everything is dripping.  Tulipe is high in the Ecuadorian Andes.  It is an extraordinary and beautiful landscape which was manipulated by the Yumbo people to reflect their spiritual connection with the world through water.  The area is high pre-montane cloudforest; 900-1,600m (2,950-5,250ft) above sea level and approximately two hours to the north-west of Quito.  This area (Tumbes-Choco-Magdalena) is regarded as a biodiversity hotspot.

Everything's wet: Andean cloudforest biodiversity is amongst the richest in the world

The Yumbos were an ancient civilization of peaceful agriculturalists and traders who carried goods up and down the mountains to the coast via narrow sunken tracks (culuncos) reminiscent of ancient hollow roads, created so that the vegetation would grow across the top of the routes to act as a cooling and shading green roof.  The site I visited at Tulipe was the main sacred gathering site.  A visitor centre acts as the gateway to the main site which is approached across a small river.  In an area of flat land next to the river appear large pools, or piscinas.  The walls of the pools are made of stone of approximately 1m in depth.  Over 2000 mounds of various sizes have also been found in this area. The central piscina area is enclosed by four large flat-topped mounds or tolas (approx. 20m/65ft ht) set at the cardinal points of the compass.  The term tola means artificial mound or other elevation of special significance in the Tsafiki language (see Lippi & Gudino, 2010 p.270 for a very interesting analysis of the mythological and linguistic links).  The Tsáchila people (who speak Tsafiki) are descended from the Yumbos.  On first sight the tolas do not appear to be manmade because the pools seem to nestle amongst them naturally. Some tolas have steps and associated terracing and are thought to have had ceremonial functions.  The Tsachilas have flood myths which indicate that tolas were also used as refuges and dwellings and thus become ‘icons of danger, salvation and sanctity’ (Ibid).

At the Visitor Centre at Tulipe: Petroglyphs found at the site are based on natural patterns symbolising eternity, infinity, life, earth, mankind, divinity and fertility 

It is thought that the pools – or stone basins - were used for a number of rituals, including reflection, bathing and baptising, and thus had astronomical, religious and cultural significance.   The museum shows some pictorial imaginaries of the layout and construction of the pools as well as the possible nature of these activities.


One of the astonishing things about this landscape is that the water supply for this series of pools was fed by a gravity system of drainage.  This is where the Silbury Hill-like mounds come into the picture. One of their functions was to provide runoff water that was directed by a number of drains, gullies and smaller cisterns into the main pools.  Some of these runnels allowed the water to cascade into the pools like waterfalls. Indeed the word ‘Tulipe’ is a word from the Quitu-cara language which means ‘water that comes from the tolas’.

The mounds surrounding the site provided the water runoff that fed the pools                       through a series of runnels. 

Another extraordinary thing is that excavation and study of this landscape has shown the clear mathematical nature of the layout and construction of the pools, and the variety of pool shapes. The site is very near the equator and high up; perfect for a good view of the heavens, but in a cloudforest, it is often difficult to see the sky.  Two semi-circular pools are believed to have been constructed particularly in response to a desire or need to reflect the sky – both during the day and at night.  Here in the Andes the skies are amazing.  The moon and stars would have transformed the pools into sparkling mirrors.  Other pools are rectangular and one is through to represent the jaguar, an animal sacred to this culture.  Further away from these pools is another, circular pool which is perhaps the most extraordinary of all.   Excavation has found the remains of a long bamboo pole which, it is thought, was situated in the middle of this pool to act as a large sundial. 

The ‘sundial’ pool which has terraces like an amphitheatre.

The combination of the symbolic and aesthetic considerations and the amazing construction of mounds to supply these pools indicate the importance of the site. There are many questions which arise here, but the impression of this place is very much one of performance; something not unusual in landscapes primarily determined and moulded for the purpose of ritual proceedings and sacred expression.  Water was apparently of considerable importance to the Yumbos, particularly the curative and purifying properties. The importance and use of reflection both during the day (for the giant water clock) and the night is intriguing.  It is thought that shamans examined the movements of sun and moon in the mirror pools; the water apparently ‘imprisoned the moon, trapping it in the world below. Believers would throw small stones from the river into the ‘piscinas’ as part of a ritual, receiving the spirit of the water, manifested in concentric circles’ (see http://www.tulipecloudforest.org/index.html).

Tulipe was a place where the natural water landscape of waterfalls and rivers, in addition to the constructed pools, provided the resources for ceremonies and rituals of initiation, purification, fertility and thanks to Mother Earth.  Of course this is not surprising; water has a long history in perhaps almost every culture as a material with sacred and spiritual association and function.  Some sources describe the Yumbos civilization (800-1660s) as a ‘sun’ culture, but my impression is that this was very much a water-, or aqua-culture. 


 The sacred jaguar, transformed into a jaguar-shaped pool at Tulipe



Site observations December 2014.

Tulipe Museum: http://museodesitiotulipe.com/

Friends of the Tulipe-Pachijal Cloudforest: http://www.tulipecloudforest.org/index.html

The excavation of Tulipe (in Spanish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRjaQu67IGk

Lippi, R.D. & Godino, A.M. (2010) ‘Inkas and Yumbos at Palmitopamba in Northwestern Ecuador’, in Malpass, M.A. & S. Alconini, S. (eds) Distant Provinces in the Inka Empire: Toward a Deeper Understanding of Inka Imperialism (Iowa: University of Iowa Press) pp. 260-278. (Google eBook) https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=xJwwHi2n-kgC&oi=fnd&pg=PA260&dq=tulipe+ecuador&ots=nscAQYstRW&sig=gsi9EyNiDzPB0plyAp0sMgvaNXw#v=onepage&q=tulipe%20ecuador&f=false




Hi Maggie - this is great. Thanks. The sky pools in particular are very powerful/beautiful thiongs. Water as an immersive reflector, bathing in a pool of stars. So has this set of beliefs/practices now gone? - i assume Ecuador is essentially Christian? I tweeted this . There is another ancient water culture i was idly watching about on TV - will chase it up
Dear Owain - thanks for this. I haven't any evidence that this kind of thing is still happening in Ecuador although there are some examples of interesting links to other cultures - Buddhist traditions for example - that carry out moon bathing rituals. There are of course many examples of water-based rituals for cleansing etc and some myths (e.g. La Siguanaba see https://vimeo.com/38575728) as well as many festivals linking the moon and water (e.g. http://www.embassyofcambodia.org.nz/waterfestivalhistrory.htm). An idea of the range of these various myths can be found at (http://witcombe.sbc.edu/sacredplaces/water.html). I might be interesting to consider further both water myths and moonlight bathing potential/significance. My own experience of bathing at night is that it is an extraordinarily magical experience!
Re the last sentence - I agree entirely - at an amazing conference I attended many years ago at Findhorn – For the Love of Nature? (1999) – a hot tub was used at night – I remember that it was dark, then moon came out, people began to howl – wolf-like.
Hi Maggie
Good to re-ignite this topic when we met recently
When I started reading the blog-post, I had this nagging reminder of Silbury Hill, and especially the theories of the surrounding pool/depression put forward by Michael Dames. And then you mention Silbury !
I've visited Silbury many times, and find these ritual/cosmological water-landscape ideas very appealing. The nearby source of the River Kennet is intimately tied into this view of the site. I think it would be very interesting to compare and juxtapose sites such as Silbury (and perhaps some Irish sites?) with the Andean examples you've encountered. These are both possibly elaborately designed landforms, using water for its symbolic as well as physical aspects.
Beyond this realm of ancient water-landscape-designs, I have developed a long association with a 'sacred' lake in Ireland, called Lough Gur. There are many rich layers and lores associated with that site, and again, it would, I feel, be interesting to share some reflections on this?



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