The prehistory of this region is almost completely unknown at this time, and little has been published about the early history. According to conventional descriptions of the highlands at the time of the Conquest, the inter-Andean valley to the east would have been inhabited by the Panzaleo, a shadowy group of whom little is known; however, more recent research suggests a rich ethnic mix including several other groups as well as Inca. Groups known as "Yumbo" would have lived to the west, and this term still exists in the mythology and ritual of the area. The early inhabitants of the high páramos are unknown; this ecological zone may have been largely uninhabited or the term "Sicchos-Angamarcas," used as an ethnic designation, may have referred to people who lived here as well as in the slightly lower, maize-growing area where the modern towns of those names are found.
In the seventeenth century grassland areas such as this became desirable in Spanish eyes, as the growing textile industry created a need for increased wool production. This region was transformed into a thriving and lucrative hacienda economy, and indigenous individuals were brought into the area from elsewhere to work as shepherds. A few pockets of "free" territory escaped being carved up into the large estates and became indigenous communities, such as the area known today as the comuna of Apagua, but most of the land and people fell under the jurisdiction of estates operated by religious orders such as the Augustinians. This arrangement prevailed for several centuries. After independence, these estates met various fates, some coming under private ownership and others becoming the property of the government. The inhabitants of the area lived under various systems of coerced labor; the huasipungo system of peonage is perhaps the best known.
By the late 1960s, the large-estate system had broken down and the area, which in the eighteenth century had been of some economic significance, had become marginal to the nation both economically and socially. A few, much smaller estates remain, as does a legacy of deep-seated racial hatred and mistrust of nonindigenous outsiders and especially of members of Ecuador's dominant White social groups.