The region that is now called Ecuador was inhabited by humans as early as 10,000 B.C., and established hunter-gatherer cultures in the rich highlands and coast of the region. Three distinct groups formed that created some of the oldest-known pottery in the world. These groups established trade with tribes in current-day Brazil and Peru. These civilizations evolved to be highly-skilled navigators and metal-workers, and traded as far away as Mayan civilizations in Mexico. The three most powerful tribes were called the Caras, Quitu, and Canari. When the Inca ruler Tupac-Yupanqui invaded from the South, these tribes fought fiercely to hold him back. But they could not hold out forever against the vast Inca Empire; the tribes soon fell to Huayna Capac, the emperor’s son. Huayna acculturated the tribes to the Incan language of Quechua, which is still widely spoken in the country today.
Huayna Capac built the great city of Tombebamba near present-day Cuenca, a city that rivaled the Inca seat of Cuzco. When he died, he split his empire between his sons, Atahualpa and Huascar, who immediately engaged in a civil war for the entire empire.
Francisco Pizarro landed on the coasts of Ecuador as the conflict reached its unstable finish in 1532. Pizarro had visited the region a few years earlier and heard rumors of rich cities in the interior. Upon his second landing, he intended to conquer those riches for himself. Atahualpa triumphed over his brother and his empire was extremely fragile. In what is both history and an Ecuadorian legend, Pizarro ambushed the ruler and forced him to collect a massive ransom from his people, and proceeded to execute him. The Incas were unable to resist the Spanish invaders without their leader.
Spanish governors ruled Ecuador for three centuries, although only from Lima, Peru, and Colombia. Ecuador won its independence under the historical hero Simon Bolivar, who defeated the Spanish and united Ecuador with Colombia and Venezuela under the name of Gran Colombia. Ecuador seceded from that union eight years later.