In the Footsteps of Those Who Came Before

The Yumbo people walked here for centuries. Now I walk through a cloud, green dripping all around, the call of a toucan dopplering towards me before a blur of color reveals the bird itself. Water hangs in the air suspended as droplets, sits low in valleys, moves swiftly over terrain that is unendingly green. There are so many shades—emerald, jade and malachite. Apple and olive and pea green, too. This forest is the color of moss and of palms, of ferns and of figs. Bromeliads and philodendrons and orchids hang off canopy trees, chasing sunlight. The metallic glint of a hummingbird flashes, then disappears into the green. Now come a mixed foraging flock of hungry tanagers, shockingly bright in every color of the rainbow. In the Andean cloud forest, here is nature, full and rich, no evidence of human habitation at all. Except.

These trails are subtle, except where they are not. Perhaps the Yumbo dug out some of their paths, with tools, by hand. But their footsteps also wore down the soils, and their tracks became deep, then deeper, and ultimately so deep that, in places, today their narrow trails have high walls taller than an adult human. To walk the Yumbo trails now, the culuncos, is to walk in the exact footsteps of earlier Americans, descendants of the first Americans, Americans whose ancestors walked from Asia, whose ancestors lived for thousands of years in Beringia, back when it was a fertile and pleasant land, with stunted trees with which to make fire, and elk and smaller mammals to hunt and cook over that fire. Those early Americans walked down across North America and farther South, or took boats down the West coast, before heading inland and upslope into the Andes.

The Yumbo (pronounced Yoom-bo) were an Andean people, pre-Colombian, and pre-Incan, before becoming contemporaries of the Inca, briefly, and then contemporaries of the Spanish, too. Their descendants live on, but their culture is gone now, blowing tattered on the wind. They lived in the forests of mountainous South America, full of cloud and rain, spectacled bears and squirrel cuckoos.

These forest dwellers walked long distances, and became merchants, traveling between villages, to the coast, carrying food and, probably, messages as well. Late in their heyday, the Yumbo ferried fresh fruits and vegetables into the city center of Incan Quito, choked with people and commerce, a far cry from the forests where they began their voyages.

Images by Bret Weinstein

Incan Quito may have more in common with Notre Dame than with the cloud forest. Notre Dame, on an island in the Seine in the middle of Paris, was built over hundreds of years. Walking around and in and through the cathedral, the sense of history is palpable. So, too, does one feel the people who came before, at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, at the Tower of London, at the Mayan pyramids in Mesoamerica. There were others here before us. We walk in their shadows, stand on their shoulders, live in their stone and wood, and wrap ourselves in their philosophies. They were here—and here is the evidence.

When a modern stands in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia, of Notre Dame, even, to a lesser degree, in the shadow of the pyramids of Mayan cities, such as Chacchoben and Tikal, the meaning of those constructions has already been described. Historians have written our stories for us, and we look to them to know what to think, what meaning to make of these old and glorious structures. The Hagia Sophia and Notre Dame speak to the power and wealth of religion, of faith and fervor, of the beauty and ceremony that has been created in its name. Modern historians continue to tweak these histories, but, mostly, they are adding nuance, little checks and corrections to stories that have long been told. Even the Mayan pyramids, while less well understood, have now been explained by archaeologists who have deciphered the Mayan script, and understand those monuments to be, like the European ones, great, visible displays of wealth by the chieftains, those who held both religious and political power. Some of the Mayan pyramids were also, like Notre Dame and the Hagia Sophia, places where political and spiritual leaders were interred.

It is impossible to ignore the people who came before, when what is left is tangible. When they built it to last, and it lasted. We are here and now, not there and then, unable to fully understand what it was to be them, to feel their joy and know their sorrows. But to stand where they stood, to imagine their lives—it is a start.

But when you walk the culuncos, the Yumbo trails, there is no history to refer to, no signposts, few texts written by moderns to explain the lives of the ancients. Who were the people who walked here before, five, six hundred years ago, what were they thinking? What plans did they make? Where were they going? Did they succeed? They did not, perhaps, mark history as indelibly as those who built the great structures, but they left their mark, without anyone to record them doing it, except for the earth on which they walked.

Surely they were like us, though, in so many ways. They became enraged by slights, real and imagined. They fell deeply and longingly in love, and their cores rumbled and pined for the object of their passion. They grieved parents, children, partners and friends, and they had ceremony to celebrate transitions—new lives, harvests, seasons. They had politics, and religion. Even the most urban among the Yumbo lived more closely to the land than most of us moderns do, of course, so were more in touch with what it meant when hail fell late in the growing season, or when rain did not fall sufficiently to make the crops grow. Did they eat cassava, corn and sweet potatoes, perhaps also quinoa and guinea pigs, like the Inca? Or did they dine on other species, harvested wild or cultivated for centuries, now disappeared into a history that was never written down?

The Yumbo left no written documents, and few moderns have pursued their story. In a rare piece of scholarship on them, Carlos Fernando Peña Moreno wrote this in 2016 (in translation): “Let us think then of places, people, times and towns over which little or nothing has been worked, and whose past deserves the same attention as that of others.”

To walk in culuncos now, imagining a long trip on foot of hundreds of miles, or a shorter one of an hour or two, is to realize that this is both a small world, and a nearly infinite one. Culuncos must have connected sites both profound and mundane, but nearly all such places are lost to memory now, lost to erosion, and to destruction. The deepest trails, the ones whose walls extend high above as you walk inside them, seem both fragile and stable, very damp, but also protected from the wind that blows the clouds in.

On the walls of deep culuncos, roots of canopy trees extend out of the milky mud soils which are, by turns, silky and gritty to the touch. The trails are too narrow to walk two abreast, miniature canyons in an already dark, deep green forest. It is quiet in a deep culunco, too, the calls of even the rowdiest parrotlets muted. A rustle in the canopy above might be an aracari seeking fruit, an olingo waking from a nap, a spectacled bear dining on her favorite food, wild avocados. Moderns walking in culuncos are unlikely to spot a spectacled bear, or an olingo, but the Yumbo surely knew these animals well.

Perhaps when the avocados were fruiting and the spectacled bears came down from the peaks to feast, the Yumbo tracked bears to find the ripest avocados themselves. Perhaps the Yumbo, too, stopped and gazed in awe at the iridescent blue of a Morpho butterfly, dancing away down a trail before disappearing into the understory, or the long swaying tail of a motmot. The motmot has plucked his racquet tail just so, to enhance the display of bright blue feathers at its tips. Did the Yumbo know this? Did they observe animals in all that they did, as they walked for centuries, creating culuncos that would last far beyond their own culture? This we may never know. Now I walk in the footsteps of the Yumbo who made these trails, and I imagine their lives.

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  1. I am struck by how little we can be sure of when we describe how those of a lost, ancient and remote culture “were”. Probably the Yumbo shared much with us in their perceptions of the world. And perhaps they were quite different in some ways as well. People quite often want to sketch out a narrative for such long gone cultures, and quite the form and motivations are related to their political or other agenda. Whatever we assume, it’s mostly speculation.

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