While on my way to the Galapagos Islands, I spent a day museum hopping in Quito to learn more about pre-Columbian cultures and, of course, about how native people in the region incorporated repurposed bones into their lives. I had previously hit jackpots visiting North American and European museums and had discovered the myriad ways indigenous people crafted bone into objects of great utility, beauty, or both. In Quito, however, I came away disappointed yet enlightened.
Two archeology museums were tucked away on university campuses and were hard to find. In broken Spanish I asked a group of students for directions, and one instantly replied, “Would you prefer English?” Several times locals walked blocks with me to ensure that I found my destination. Those experiences by themselves were enlightening.
In total, I visited four museums that housed anthropological artifacts from various pre-Columbian Ecuadorian cultures. Ceramic vessels and figures abounded. There were some examples of metal and beadwork, but alas, a scarcity of bones—an awl here, a funerary urn containing a revered ancestor’s bones there.
After interspersing visits to the Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museum for variety, I finished my museum marathon at the Casa del Alabado Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. It is entirely unassuming from the street, so much so that I walked past its entrance the first time. But a block later when I realized that I had gone too far, it dawned on me that the Casa was likely the one with the armed guard positioned in the doorway. Inside, the museum was indeed worth protecting. Several tranquil and adjoining courtyards with overlooking balconies were surrounded by room after room of incredibly beautiful ceramic objects, all artfully displayed and carefully lit. In many rooms I was the only visitor, which added to the chapel-like atmosphere.
I found only two items made from bone, a stick pin and a flute with a fist at the end, likely carved from a human forearm bone.
When I first entered the museum, both youngish people at the front desk immediately distinguished themselves as far more than ticket takers and took pains to show me the detailed guidebook (in English) and explain the layout of the collection. Later, one walked with me so I could point out a piece that I was uncertain about. Was bone or ceramic and what was its purpose? She knew the answers. Then back at the entrance, I commented to them about the abundance of ceramics and the dearth of bone artifacts that I had seen over the day and that this mix differed marked from anthropological collections I had seen on other continents. They had different answers, each was revealing.
One noted that much of the soil in Ecuador is moist and volcanic, i.e., highly acidic, and therefore conducive to dissolving bone. (I had forgotten, but I received the same answer to a similar question in Japan, which is also mostly volcanic in origin.) The other observed that once people perfected the art of turning clay into ceramic, why would they bother working with any lesser crafting material? They also had plenty of fuel to heat their kilns. By contrast, imagine the Inuits trying to fire clay objects with seal blubber.
Overall, it was a great day. If you have an opportunity to visit Quito, plan to see some of the museums, especially the Museo Casa del Alabado. Then step outside and look up. On a clear day, the ice-capped Cotopaxi (19,347 feet) will remind you not to search to hard for old bones in volcanic soil.