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Human settlements already existed in the Amazon Basin (Ecuador) 4000 years ago


July 2003 saw a significant discovery in Ecuador by IRD archaeologists: 4000-year-old structures indicating the presence of one of the first great Andean civilizations in the upper Amazon Basin, where their presence had not been suspected. The site is at Santa Ana- La Florida in the south of Ecuador. Subsequent systematic excavations of other parts of the site led to the discovery of sophisticated architectural complexes. Among these are a tomb and a range of diverse vestiges: ceramic bottles, plain or ornamented stone bowls, medallions and pieces of necklace in turquoise, malachite and other green stones. These objects convey the refinement achieved in lapidary art of this new Pre-Columbian civilization. They provide proof that this site was used for ceremonial purposes and funerary rites. These discoveries confirm the hypothesis put forward following the first excavations. They highlight the importance of the site and of the people who were settled there. They call into question theories on how the first great Andean civilizations emerged and the supposed interactions that took place between the different populations of these regions.

The excavations conducted in 2003 concentrated on the eastern sector of the site which corresponds to a terrace overhanging the bed of the River Valladolid. This part was the priority at the time as it was prey to illicit excavations. Several sets of architectural structures were discovered. Present on three levels, they correspond to successive eras of settlement. Near the surface (to 35 cm depth), remains of walls of a 20-m-long rectangular structure along with accumulations of pebbles were found over the whole terrace. They were possibly foundations of daub-constructed dwellings of peoples from the Corrugado horizon (from the VIIIth to the XVth Century A.D.).

Next, subsurface search down to 190 cm uncovered the most remarkable of the architectural features: an extensive set of concentric walls appearing to mark the centre of the site and ending in a spiral. A stone-clad hollow at the core of the structure served as a hearth base (indicated by reddened soil) of about 80 cm diameter. A rich assemblage of ceremonial offertory objects was found bearing: a mask in green stone covered by a polished stone bowl, an anthropomorphic medallion also in green stone and many turquoise necklace pieces ornamented with zoomorphic (animal-shaped) motifs (birds and snakes).

Further investigation of this part of the site (down to 230 cm) has unearthed a second structure situated about 1 m from the hearth: a conical pit with a stone wall lining. This yielded a wealth of materials considered to be offerings (ceramic bottles with stirrup handles, ornamental malachite pieces, turquoises with zoomorphic motifs (birds and snakes), stone bowls decorated with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures).

Three cavities excavated yielded human bone remains and some extremely poorly preserved textiles (eaten away by acidity in the sediments). These indicate that the structure was a tomb harbouring three successive funerary deposits dating from later stages of settlement (about 200 years later). Large amounts of turquoises and marine shelly fragments found in the three cavities prove that the site’s inhabitants maintained relations and made exchanges with populations living further to the west.

Wood charcoals collected in different parts of the site provided the opportunity to perform 14C dating. The dates determined, after calibration and correction, confirmed an early initial occupation of the emplacement, between 4800 and 2150 B.P., and indicated other periods of occupation, thousands of years apart. They constitute the earliest evidence ever found in the upper Amazon Basin for the settlement of any agriculture-based society that possessed ceramics techniques.

These new discoveries confirm the site’s vocation as venue for funerary ceremonies where important figures were buried (shown by the richness of the offerings buried and the sophistication of construction). Large gatherings, for important ceremonies, would have taken place, attracting many from neighbouring villages. The architectural complexity and spiral walls embody the paramount symbolic prestige the society invested in them. The diversity and remarkable refinement of the engraved stone objects is a particular feature of the valley where the site is situated, as is the style of ceramic bottles up to now unknown in this region, and assert the fact that this is a fresh discovery. The complexity of the iconography associated with this cultural tradition implies that systematized ideological and religious representations had been developing on the eastern slopes of the Andean Cordillera from the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. A long-held theory considered that this region constituted an inhospitable natural frontier unsuitable for the development of complex agricultural societies. That is now called into question. By the same token, the abundance of objects made from turquoise plus the discovery in the funerary deposits of fragments of marine shells signal clearly that this society forged relations with other peoples, whether settled nearby or further afield.

The work will continue until the eventual excavation of the entire site that had housed human-built constructions. The objective is to see if there were any different cultural contexts and any other tombs. The circular pit found was probably only one example among several still buried at various points of the site. Research on other parts that have yielded vestiges will aim to locate dwelling structures of the people who gathered there at times of funerary ceremonies.

Moreover, analyses of provenance of materials used are planned, to be done by the CNRS Ernest Babelon Laboratory at Orleans. Also programmed are stylistic comparisons of the objects discovered with the elements found in the South of Ecuador and in northern Peru. Such investigations are likely to prompt a rethink of the nature and age of relationships that existed between the northern and central Andes, as well as of the ways in which the first great Andean civilizations emerged.

In Ecuador, this research work comes under two partnership agreements, signed in 2001 and 2002, with the National Institute of Cultural Heritage (INPC) and the Culture Department of the Ecuador Central Bank (BCE). The field work focuses on two distinctive areas, located in the northern and southern ends of the country (in the provinces of Esmeraldas and Zamora-Chinchipe).

Bénédicte Robert | EurekAlert!
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