“Ecuador means ‘the middle of the world’…” Jorge Eduardo Carrera, Manager of the Public Company ‘City of the Middle of the World.’
From 1734 to 1744, the French Academy of Sciences launched several expeditions to determine the actual shape of the Earth.
The French geodetic mission verified Isaac Newton’s theory that the planet was flattened at the poles and wide around the terrestrial equator, also known as the 0° parallel or equatorial line.
But the dividing line they drew was not precisely at the actual 0° latitude.
“They were ‘wrong’ by a few meters. Today with GPS you can see that the exact point is very close to here, but the reference is here, in the most visited place in continental Ecuador,” says Carrera.
Despite the mistake, hundreds of thousands of tourists come every year to that half of the world established more than three centuries ago to walk that line, which, although imaginary, is painted yellow.
Expedition to the Andes
“The geodetic mission that arrived in Ecuador found itself in a country full of small hills and very high mountains where they had to triangulate in order to measure what they wanted to measure,” says María Patricia Ordóñez, from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito.
“And you also have to keep in mind that the country was in the middle of a lot of political changes, so the work of the geodetic mission was complicated from the beginning.”
One team was sent to Finland and another to the Andes to apply different methods, including triangulation.
“Another method was the pendulum method, in which the idea is that the closer you are to the middle, the pendulum moves in a different way,” explains Ordóñez.
This is because, due to its equatorial bulge, the Earth’s gravitational pull is slightly weaker at the equator.
“And the third is through the stars.”
Pre-Incans used science
But the French were not the first to gaze at the stars in these lands.
Even before the arrival of the Incas and Spanish, the people who ruled and lived in the equatorial Andes, known as the Quitus, were already looking to the skies for answers.
“Science does not come only from the Western world; ancient cultures also created science and technology, and there is evidence that they have lasted for thousands of years,” says anthropologist Esterlina Quinatoa Cotacachi.
“They knew they were at the center of the world, and they knew everything that all the effects of the Sun meant.
The management of astronomy was very important, especially for agricultural cycles, but much more.
It is said that the Incas came here to the north in search of the straight Sun.”
And “Quito is the place of the straight Sun and the right time,” says Andean calendar expert Gustavo Guayasamin.
The solar calendars of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia, Bolivia, northern Argentina, Chile, cast asymmetrical shadows, he explains.
“Quito is the place where you can count the time of a year and that enters two arms (shadows) exactly the same.”
For 6 months the shadows are cast on the right side and for the other 6 months on the left (i.e., straight sun), he explains.
“And it’s exactly the same size, and that’s why time in Quito closes in a single circle. That circle with a cross in the center is the square cross, the Cruz de Quito.”
Over the years, the equator has moved a few meters to one side and others to the other, and despite the advent of high-sensitivity GPS that promised to fix it hopelessly, several places in Ecuador claim to be the true middle of the world.
One of them is the top of the Catequilla hill, whose name comes from “Kati Killa,” which means “the one that follows the Moon.”
“In Catequilla there is also a semicircular construction that is not Inca: it is pre-Inca,” says Cotacachi.
“Catequilla is a very important place because you can see the entire Milky Way.”
“One of the peculiarities of this region is that only at latitude 0° can we observe absolutely all the stars in the sky,” highlights the archaeo-astronomer Cristóbal Cobo.
“If we go to the north, for example to Mexico, or to the south of Peru, we can no longer see some stars.
“In the Equatorial line we can see 100% of the stars, so here, possibly, an integral awareness of the observation of the celestial vault was generated.”
The problem is that this territory has been conquered twice, so there is little archaeological evidence from before the Incas.
However, linguistics can fill in the historical gaps.
Tsafiki is a pre-colonial language spoken to this day by a small minority of people and offers us a clue.
“In Tsafiki, ‘Quit-sa’ means half and ‘To,’ world: half of the world. Possibly the source of the name Quito. ‘Qui’ half, ‘To,’ world.”
So, how advanced were the pre-Hispanic peoples and were they able to recognize the real shape of the Earth?
“The idea of a square, flat earth comes from medieval Europe, where obscurantism arose and became obscured to knowledge, but it seems that not in America.
I believe that in these aspects these American cultures, as Mayan mathematics has shown us, were much more advanced than other cultures around the world.
Those people were very wise in the use of the natural resources of water, soil, biodiversity.
Now we have to see history with pragmatism, understand that each archaeological site is a source of information on the intelligent use of natural resources, to be able to rescue ecological niches, streams, for an intelligent use of water, soil for crops.
That’s the direction science is taking now and into the future,” says Cobo.