The Tolita culture ranged from the estuary of the Cayacas River and Cayapas, in the province of Esmeraldas, to the Tumaco region of Colombia. Its archaeological sites are to be found in coastal areas and in the foothills of the Western mountain range, characterized by thickly wooded areas, rain and humidity. The Tolita culture was located in a highly beneficial geographical position, since its territory led to the sea, islands and navigable rivers; this favored relations and trade with other cultures. Its name is derived from the various “tolas”, or funerary sites, in the shape of small hills of earth found on its territory and that also served as structures on which to build their constructions.
Their economy was based on a combination of farming and fishing. Their social organization was to serve as the foundation and model for subsequent cultures, mainly in the Coast area. The Tolita culture was divided hierarchically into social classes. It consisted of a large group of farmers and subsistence farmers; another, smaller and highly specialized group of goldsmiths and artisans; and a still smaller group: the governing elite, which oversaw social, political and economic matters and lived in semi-urban centers.
Tolita art was characterized by painstakingly detailed figures made in a realist style. Representations abound of mythical creatures that are half human, half animal, such as serpents and jaguars. They were one of the first societies to engage in metallurgy in Ecuador and also one of the first worldwide to work with platinum. They made pieces using free-hand modeling, wood carving, metallurgy, openwork, embossed and assembled metalworking with precious metals, and stone carving for utilitarian artefacts such as axes and graters. They also worked with semiprecious stones such as quartz, emeralds, agate and turquoise, which mounted on gold and silver jewels.