Notes on the pre-Columbian past of the Ecuadorian Amazon Region Print
Written by Geoffroy de Saulieu   
Friday, 16 February 2007 12:22

The archaeological and historical analysis of the data currently available on the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon relativizes from the beginning that the classification of these regions makes an excellence example about “simple tropical cultures” (1948) as well as the ratings on the basis of a supposed ecological adaptation of inter-fluvial societies (like those of Meggers, 1971, retaken by Roosevelt, 1980); understanding these regions as areas not suited to complex social developments. This double reading of the past leads to a large number of investigators to question the model of an intinerary agriculture on slashing and burning “(often cited as a typical lifestyle of Upper-Amazon) to be largely the combined effect of a survival strategy of indigenous societies which face the persecution from the western world due to the introduction of steel tools to facilitate large-scale deforestation. The review of current data also shows that the study of the area is confined in a comprehensive regional area where it is appropriate to emphasize not only on contacts with the Andean area in the broad sense of the word, but also on the middle and lower Amazon Region.

The archaeological information currently available to the Upper Amazon at the northern part of Marañon allows to rebuild a scenario of the two major pre-Columbian times. The first period from the fourth millennium A.C. to the eighth century D.C. represents a close cultural and commercial link between the Andean region, the Pacific Coast and the Upper Amazon region. The second period runs from the eighth century AD to the Spanish period and would be marked by the old system disappearing  and a cultural cut between the Andes and the Upper Amazon region as well as between the interfluvial and fluvial Amazon region. The cultural and social characteristics and the reasons for the gap between the two major periods are not known yet. That is why, this should be a current priority.

Critic and Proposal:

The prehistoric times of the Upper Amazone are still slightly well-known and it is an object of numerous speculations. Two big positions face, the first position supports that the origin of certain cultural, Andean, ancestral, as the birth of the agriculture or the appearance of the Chavin Horizon in Peru must be investigated in the tropical forest (for example Lathrap 1970), another position affirms a preeminence be of the part of the Andes or of the Coast of the Pacific Ocean in the social pre-Columbian processes (for example Burger 1995). Concerning these two currents three reservations can be expressed:

  1. the archaeological and paleoenvironmental information are very insufficient;
  2. the majority of investigators apply consciously or unconsciously, but always very strictly, taken social or ecological models of other periods and of other regions; and
  3. On the same way, the investigators have in consideration neither the most recent information nor the weight of the distinguishing conservations, giving probably an incomplete vision of the Amazon past and of his diversity.

Generally there splits the history of the pre-Columbian Ecuador into three periods: the Formative one (4500 to. C. - 300 B.C.) that there is marked by the first societies agriculture - potter, the Regional Development (300 B.C. – 500 A.D.) that is characterized by the diversification of the cultures, and the period of Integration (500d. C.-1532 A.D.) that supposes a tendency to the cultural homogeneización that Inca would reach with the conquest.

For certain investigators - especially J. Guffroy who worked during long time in the south of the Ecuador and in the north of Peru (Guffroy, 1995, 2004)-, costs to insist on the continuity between the Formative one and the Regional Development and the rupture that happens to the beginning of the period of Integration. In this sense, the prehistoric times of the south of the Ecuador would have known two big moments of sociocultural development, the first one with the Formative one and the Regional Development, and the second one with the period of Integration.

In the first moment, a strong integration is observed between the coast of the Pacific Ocean, the Andean plateau and the oriental slopes of the Andes, which would have caused an excellent and precocious development of the Ecuador, although strongly unequal. Jean Guffroy goes so far as to raise the hypothesis according to which the origin of the culture Catamayo A (the first formative culture of the south end of the Ecuadoran Andes) comes from the Amazone (Guffroy et to., 1987:236). This hypothesis can be verified by the discovery done in 2002 of a new agr-pottery culture in the eyebrow of oriental mountain of the south of the Ecuador. The dates C14 associated with this material place it as one of the most ancient cultural declarations of the whole region, for what she could be a precursor in many aspects of the Peruvian Horizon of Chavín (Valdez et to., 2005). If this is the case, there appears the possibility that the Upper Amazone to the north of the Maranon has played a leading place.

The second moment would be characterized by a rupture and a sociocultural repairing. It seems that the origin of several American Indian current populations is in this period. In Loja, in south of the Ecuadorian Andes, this period would be marked by the arrival of groups belonging to the linguistic set Jíbaro-Candoa from the Amazone (Guffroy et to., 1987; Guffroy, 2004).

This script emphasizes the relations with the Upper Amazone. It seems to me that it is possible to apply this hypothesis to the Ecuadorian Amazone. Undoubtedly it is a question of an imperfect and hypothetical stage. Let's enunciate the archaeological information:


The first Period:

During the first period, from the Formative up to the Regional Development (3500-300 AC), the cultures of the Upper Amazone would be a part of a system that integrated them clearly to the North and Central Andes (Lathrap, 1970; Myers, Dean, 1999; DeBoer, 2003). His relatively precocious origin and his roll are still badly known and they are an object of numerous speculations. The precocious presence of the corn (from 4000 AC up to 2700 AC, according to the regions) has been supported by several investigators (Bush et to., 1989; It resides et to., 1991), but it keeps on being hypothetical, moreover if the size and the number of grains of this ancient corn, known only by any polens and phitolites, have not still been defined.

The little we know about iconography is characterized by the presence of the dualism and in one of the cases by the affiliation feline / snake / lad, affiliation that will turn to find along the Andean developments, but that will disappear of the oriental grounds in the following period. The Formative badly-known , it seems nevertheless relatively ancient in certain zones (Valdez et to., 2005), which suggests the existence of a sociocultural development at least so precocious as in the Andes and on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The insufficiency of field investigations does not allow to give a precise idea of the social evolutions. In spite of it, the ceramic sets of the Formative and of the Regional Development, although very diverse, have typical forms such as bottles with handle (asa de estribo)(Guffroy, et 2003, Valdez et to., 2005; Bludgeons, 1978; Shady Solis, 1987), bottles with asymmetric neck and handle in bridge (Fung, 1981; Myers et to., 1999; Mulberry trees Chocano, 1998; Bludgeons, 1987; Ravines, 1981), bowls sometimes decorated with a lot of care (engobe, thin incisions, excisions, Saulieu, 2006), and pans (Bludgeons, 1979; DeBoer et to., 1977). If there are really cultural renewals and unequal developments, the ceramic sets remain for the most part in the logic begun in the Formative , since they are a testimony of interactions or exchanges supported with the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.

In the second part of this first period, the Ecuadorian societies of the foot of Amazon mount produced a monumental architecture (under Zamora, Upano, Puyo) comparable to that of other Andean regions. In the Amazone, settlement patterns are still very little well-known: one of the only domestic sites proves to have a estratigraphy of 90 cm (Athens, 1986), suggesting that these populations were not necessarily constituted by itinerant horticulturists as the indigenous current populations (Petersen et to., 2001).


The second Period:

The second moment sees the collapse of the previous system and an accentuation of the cultural differences with the Andes. This accentuation had his origin, on one hand in the human adaptations and in the other , in the cultural composition of the Upper Amazone that is known in modern times across ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources. It is in this period that the Upper Amazone becomes amazonian, for saying it somehow, by taking a typical form marked by the preeminence of animic cultural forms (as Descola describes it, 2005) and socially acephalous. It is translated by two stages.

It is stated first of all, the rapid expansion of a ceramic horizon 1, called Corrugated, in the zones that do not meet directly in contact the big fluvial axes formed by the Napo, the Maranon, the Ucayali and the Huallaga. This horizon is characterized by a ceramics of relatively coarse pasta which basic decoration is constituted by the use of bands of mud put on top in the neck and shoulder of the vessels. From a material point of view, our hypothesis lays on the fact that from the VIIth and VIIIth centuries is stated, in numerous regions (for example in the Upano, cf. Rostain 1999th and 1999-b, Loja, cf. Guffroy 2004):

  • the disappearance of the most typical forms (especially the bottles with or without handle, with one or more necks) and of ceramic traditions of the previous period;
  • a superficial homogenization with decorative ways that privilege the corrugated decorations, whereas the local carateristics seem important;
  • the disappearance of the monumental architecture;
  • a clear decrease of the interactions at long distance, both as for exotic materials (Spondylus, turquoise), and to stylistic and ideological features. (Rostain, 1999th; Guffroy, 1995, 2004; Guillaume, Guffroy, Valdez, Saulieu, 2003)

The settlement patterns allows to formulate the hypothesis that the social structures seem more parcelled up and temporary than during the previous phases, which corresponds relatively well to what is known of the practices of the indigenous current populations belonging to the linguistic rustic group (horticulturists of slash and burning , acephalous societies). Another stage that happens, shows along certain navigable rivers and in certain sectors of the Andean slopes (valle of the Quijos), the disposition of social systems complexes based on the commercial exchange. The Polychrome Horizon proceeding from the alluvial flatness of the lower Amazone colonizes, about the Xth and XIth centuries, the Napo (Evans and Meggers, 1968) and a part of the Maranon up to the Putumayo, and is articulated by the Panzaleo-Cosanga-Píllaro on the Andean slope. The ethnohistorical data allows us to recognize the diverse ethnic groups and often his distant origin, which have operating social and hierarchical complexes, with specializing systems of production (particularly the gold, the ceramics and the cotton textiles). The exchanges across big distances concentrate on some big axes formed by the Napo, the Maranon, the Ucayali and the Huallaga (selt, curare,gold, cotton, oil of turtle, etc.) and they seem controlled by these populations who have a strong inclination for the navigation and the fluvial habitat.



Even thought the comprehension of two periods must be worked out, it proposes already serious questions about the reasons of change. It is clear that it is not a question of an ecological determinism, since in the Formative and in the Regional Development, the Upper Amazone would have developed in symbiosis with the Andes and the coast of the pacific. In what concerns us, we would be touched by the hypothesis according to which this would have corresponded to a deep reorientation in the types of social developments in this tropical humid region, for still enigmatic reasons but maybe partly tied to big populations movements.

Philippe Descola (2005) shows that the perception of the environment that have the current populations of the Upper Amazone obeys to animistic schemes . This peculiarity separates them very clearly from the areas of the big civilizations known historically, especially Andean. We incline for to think so much that not always it has been like that, and that before the big rupture of the beginning of the period of Integration, the societies of the Upper Amazone were working largely otherwise, a way that it was allowing them to be able to articulate perfectly with the Andean and coastal societies. There is only one step for thinking that it was a question of societies who were working for the most part with analogical schemes.



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