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Exchanges -- Interamerican Dialogue

Between Crisis and Hope:
Archaeology in Ecuador

Ernesto Salazar


As in many Latin American countries, archaeology in Ecuador is the Cinderella of the sciences, except she has yet to find her prince to pick up her crystal slipper.

Ecuador is a country rich in archaeological resources, with a chronology extending from Paleoindian times to the Inka conquest. The country also has a vast legacy of historical monuments that, unfortunately, have been ignored in archaeological investigations.

Precolumbian archaeology in Ecuador is more than 100 years old, but from a historic perspective, it is disjointed. In terms of chronology, the Formative Period has been studied most intensively, but primarily only on the coast. Other prehistoric periods have received only superficial attention, with most information coming from old excavations and private collections; these studies have emphasized the study of ceramics rather than the resolution of theoretical problems. Geographically, only a few provinces, particularly those along the coast, have been subjected to systematic research. There are entire provinces in the Sierra and Amazon regions that have never been subjected to a regional archaeological survey. It is therefore no exaggeration to state that half the country has yet to receive any systematic archaeological investigation. This is a shame, since the structure of the state itself requires continuity with its Precolumbian past, which should provide an incentive for archaeological research.

Ecuador is a country in search of its cultural identity. The media constantly spreads, and outwardly promotes, foreign traditions that are detrimental to the local heritage with its deep Precolumbian roots. As a consequence, the country has generally underestimated the importance of archaeological research and knowledge of our past. For example, it is inconceivable that the country continues to build its national origin on the hypothetical Precolumbian reign of Quito, whose existence has not been demonstrated by either history or archaeology, while at the same time ignoring 10,000 years of cultural history in which Ecuadorians should take pride. On the other hand, the powerful indigenous movement that has recently influenced the political life of the country needs to have a clear identification with the Precolumbian past. Archaeological research can clarify the past of Ecuadorian ethnic groups so that they can establish their rights in a white-mestizo culture. Some groups have already successfully used archaeological and historical evidence to establish their territorial rights. Finally, I should point out that Ecuador is planning its future on tourism, which increases yearly. This could be a great opportunity for the development of archaeological research, particularly considering the fact that major tourist countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Peru) base a good part of their tourist attraction on their archaeological resources.

The Ecuadorian Archaeological Establishment

Ecuadorian archaeology is represented by two groups of people who differ greatly in their contributions and academic standards. The first group consists of national archaeologists, who until the 1970s were amateurs and self-taught scholars working on their own, publishing articles in newspapers or producing an occasional descriptive work. Certainly, archaeologists such as J. Jijon y Caamaño or Emilio Estrada exceeded the academic level of their fellow countrymen. However, there is a significant lack of theoretical models in the scientific contributions made by Ecuadorian archaeologists, and research is still at the level of theoretical inquiry that Taylor calls "Historiography." This tendency began to change in the 1970s, when the first Ecuadorian archaeologists trained in academic settings emerged prepared to address the theoretical and methodological problems of the Precolumbian past.

The other group of Ecuadorian archaeologists consists of foreign professionals or doctoral candidates conducting research in Ecuador. They have temporarily made this country the center of their research, generally financed by universities or cultural institutions from abroad. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the scientific contributions about the Ecuadorian past have been made by this group. Ecuadorian archaeologists represent less than 10 percent of the total number of archaeologists who have worked in the country. Because science does not recognize political frontiers, we do not disparage the contributions made by our foreign colleagues. However, our country needs national archaeologists to discover and study our cultural past, thereby strengthening the national identity.

Until the 1970s, the country did not have an academic center for training archaeologists. In the early 1980s, the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Católica, the only one of its kind in the country and one which was traditionally indifferent to archaeological research, introduced an archaeological curriculum that responded to the need to more closely link archaeology to anthropology than to history. Likewise, the Escuela Politécnica del Litoral established its School of Archaeology (now the Center for Archaeological and Anthropological Studies) for training professionals from the entire Andean region, although ultimately all of its pupils were Ecuadorian. Both centers offer degrees equivalent to a North American B.A. However, the Escuela has now practically closed its doors, while the Department of Anthropology at the Universidad Católica only recently began to include archaeology in its curriculum. Other research initiatives in the early 1980s include the Centro de Investigaciones Arqueológicas, no longer active after the death of its founder, the Ecuadorian archaeologist Padre Pedro Porras; a foundation called the Programa de Antropología para el Ecuador, also inactive since of the death of its founder; and the ECUABEL Project, an experimental program between Ecuador and Belgium for the restoration of historical monuments and archaeological research, which is also no longer active. Finally, the Museo del Banco Central established an archaeological research program that had the best financial support in the country, but which is now inactive due to economic reasons and internal conflicts. By this time in the 1980s, foreign archaeologists became interested in conducting research in Ecuador. This allowed for the extension of the archaeological map, which before 1970 was restricted to the central Sierra region, the Santa Elena Peninsula, and the north coast, while the Amazon region was known only through the works of Evans and Meggers along the Napo River. Especially notable are the Columbia University investigations of the Santa Elena Peninsula; the University of Illinois, which studied the Formative Period along the coast; the Spanish investigation of Ingapirca and the province of Esmeraldas; the German mission that worked in Cochasquí in 1965; and the French mission's survey of the province of Loja.

The dissemination of national archaeological work has been scattered in journals that are irregularly published and not exclusively dedicated to archaeology. In the early part of the century, the "official" medium of archaeological research was the Boletín de la Sociedad Ecuatoriana de Estudios Históricos-Americanos, which gathered the works of researchers trained in the shadow of González Suárez. When the Academia Nacional de Historia and its new Boletín were established, they actually preferred to publish archaeological research. However, the frequency of archaeological articles decreased over the years, and now has almost ceased completely. The "old" Boletín de Informaciones Científicas Nacionales, sporadically produced by La Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, published numerous archaeological articles, primarily during the 1940s. The Cuadernos de Arqueología e Historia that appeared in Guayaquil in 1951 were at one point the platform for several amateurs and professional archaeologists, until their circulation stopped. The same thing happened in the 1960s to the journal Humanitas of the Universidad Central, which published many pioneering works on the Ecuadorian Paleoindian period. In the 1980s,there was the Miscelánea Antropológica Ecuatoriana, published by the Museo del Banco Central, which promised to be a permanent platform for Ecuadorian archaeology. However, few Ecuadorian archaeologists published in this journal; its publication was habitually late until it finally disappeared. There are currently some journals, such as Revista de Antropología (Casa de la Cultura-Cuenca), Antropología Ecuatoriana (Casa de la Cultura-Quito), Sarance (Instituto Otavaleño de Antropología), and Memoria (Marka), which publish some articles on archaeology. However, Ecuadorian archaeology has not been able to produce its own journal.

Ecuadorian archaeology has not been very successful in the arena of professional relationships. An attempt in the 1980s to establish the Sociedad Ecua-toriana de Arqueología failed, as have several conferences and symposia that, professionally, have meant little to Ecuadorian archaeologists. Until 1975, most of these meetings were attended mainly by amateurs in archaeology. The so-called Primer Congreso Ecuatoriano de Arqueología (Ibarra, 1976) was not national nor archaeological, and it held little importance to the profession. The two Encuentros para la Defensa del Patrimonio Nacional organized by the Universidad de Guayaquil have yet to discuss the defense of the archaeological legacy of the country, which lately has been the victim of depredation. In comparison, the symposia that have been relevant to the profession have been the Primer Simposio de Correlaciones Antropológicas Andino-Mesoamericano (Salinas, 1971, with late publication in 1982), the Coloquio Carlos Cevallos Menénde (Guayaquil, 1982), the congress Diez Años de Arqueología Ecuatorian (Cuenca, 1988), and the Encuentro Ecuatoriano-Colombiano sobre Culturas Comunes (Esmeraldas, 1990), the last three without any supporting publications. Finally, the international symposium Arqueología Sudamericana: una Reevaluación del Formativo, sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution, took place in Cuenca in 1992, inexplicably without the presence of Ecuadorian archaeologists.

The cessation of the research program sponsored by the Museo del Banco Central was a heavy blow to archaeology in this country. Currently, there is no institution for financing archaeological research projects, which has created a major crisis in Ecuadorian archaeology that does not appear as if it will be solved in the near future. Consequently, archaeology in Ecuador has regressed to its state in the 1960s, when most of the research was accomplished by foreigners.

The Instituto de Patrimonio Cultural

The legal body responsible for the management of archaeological resources is the Instituto Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural (INPC), which was not created until 1978 even though state laws regarding cultural heritage date back to 1945. The lack of funds and personnel with which to enforce the law has been a great handicap for the INPC, which has witnessed the destruction of archaeological sites, the work of many archaeologists without a required permit, and the intrusion of other state agencies in the management of archaeological resources. Fortunately, things are starting to change. The Dirección de Arqueología of the INPC has established new rules for archaeological research, which include supervision by an archaeologist of the INPC, required submission of reports to the INPC, and the restriction of archaeological materials taken abroad for analyses that cannot be done within the country. Furthermore, regulations have been established so that local, national, and transnational organizations include archaeological investigations as part of their development projects. Compliance with these new laws has been halfhearted, and in most cases the organizations do not concern themselves with the quality of the research. The oil companies, for example, have not published any archaeological reports, and in some cases, they do not even employ the right personnel for the research. It is well known that a psychologist was once hired to conduct archaeological research in their area. In a laudable gesture, the Dirección de Arqueología has been involved in an incentive program for the private sector and local state organizations (i.e., provincial advisory boards) so that they will invest their funds in archaeological research. Certainly, the funds that are obtained are generally small, but it is nonetheless important that small organizations become involved in the recovery and preservation of archaeological resources. At the individual level, the INPC still has a great task ahead to increase preservation awareness in the population. For example, it is very common for private land owners to refrain from reporting an archaeological site for fear that their property will be expropriated, or they fail to report the looting of a site to avoid becoming involved in a lawsuit.

The Ecuadorian State, the Public, and the Cultural Resources

The Ecuadorian state has maintained an ambiguous position on cultural resources, with actions based more on the personal ethics of the government functionaries than on any real policy for the protection of these resources. The erratic management of the resources is clearly demonstrated by several events. In the 1980s, the Ecuadorian government was involved in a long but successful judicial dispute with Italy over the repatriation of 10,000 Precolumbian pieces taken out of the country by an antique dealer. In contrast, in 1990 the government wanted to initiate an irrigation project involving the construction of a dam for the Culebrillas Lagoon, which is the mythical place of origin of the Cañari. The dam would have raised the water level by 25 m, which meant that part of the Inka road and several Precolumbian buildings would have been flooded. Curiously, the Minister of Education and Culture and the director of the INPC authorized this construction, ignoring other alternatives that would have avoided destruction of this archaeological legacy. As might be expected, Ecuadorian archaeologists were strongly opposed to the project, and were able to stop it. This incident was highly significant for two reasons: for the first time in the history of the country, an ethnic group, the Cañaris, vigorously defended their sacred lagoon; and also for the first time, an archaeological issue, the preservation of Precolumbian remains, was debated in Congress. The state has spent great sums of money on the acquisition of archaeological artifacts and on the establishment of the Museo del Banco Central, the best equipped in the country. Unfortunately, the museum, which for many years was the source of appreciation of Precolumbian cultures, has been closed for five years. Last April, the press reported that one of the most important Precolumbian gold collections, which had been sent by the Museo del Banco Central to be exhibited in several European countries, had been abandoned in a storage facility in Italy, and that museum authorities were not concerned with either its preservation or its repatriation.

The lack of state interest in archaeological resources is reflected in the actions and attitudes of the general population. A survey made by the Department of Anthropology of the Universidad Católica showed that the average citizen has only a vague notion of the contributions of archaeology to the reinforcement of the national identity, and has never visited an archaeological site nor read about the past of the country. This is mainly due to the inadequate teaching of archaeology in the schools. In general, texts rely on research conducted in the 1920s and 1930s and present a diffused view of archaeology that does not contribute in a positive manner to the understanding of Ecuadorian cultural history. The lack of comprehension is such that it is frequent for well-intentioned teachers, unaware of the laws, to send their students to archaeological sites to bring back objects for the school "museum," which, as might be expected, is rarely open. Similarly, the exposure of Ecuadorian archaeology by the media is almost nonexistent. Occasionally, the newspapers have an article about an archaeological site (invariably Ingapirca, Rumicucho, or La Tolita), usually with the same conceptual errors that characterize the textbooks. Television offers nothing on this subject, for the simple reason that there are no educational programs in Ecuador. For an archaeologist, publishing a scientific article in the press implies having a circle of friends that includes a reporter who can give him or media exposure. The overall situation can be attributed to the lack of scientific journals in Ecuador and to the mistaken notion that the general public is not interested in archaeology.

Ecuadorian Archaeologists and Their Foreign Colleagues

In 1972, Evans and Meggers reported in American Antiquity that a type of archaeological "imperialism" seemed to characterize the relationship between North American archaeologists and their Latin American colleagues. Time has passed and the manifestations of this imperialism have decreased in favor of an integration between archaeologists on both sides of the Río Grande. For example, the largest archaeological society in the United States, the Society for American Archaeology, has founded a journal dedicated exclusively to Latin American archaeology, and has established a low-cost subscription to American Antiquity for Latin American archaeologists.

A better understanding of our situation as Ecuadorian archaeologists would encourage a more fluid scientific relationship with us. Our North American colleagues often fail to recognize that it is difficult to be a scientist in a developing country. Like all Latin American archaeologists, Ecuadorian researchers generally receive very low salaries and it is almost impossible to dedicate time to writing specialized literature. The acquisition of books and subscriptions to specialized journals have to be made with personal funds, and this is not always possible for professionals who are working two or three jobs just to support themselves. In the United States, this situation could be easily resolved by a trip to the library. Unfortunately, our libraries primarily consist of "donations," of which archaeological donations are the least frequent.

Consequently, the Ecuadorian archaeologist increasingly falls behind on the knowledge of what is current in the profession. This situation is aggravated by the numerous colleagues from the United States and other countries who do research in Ecuador yet never submit t the research results to their Ecuadorian colleagues or to a library in Ecuador. Because of this situation, it is not surprising that some foreign archaeologists do not consider their Ecuadorian peers to be genuine scientists. Many times, the relationship lasts only until the Ecuadorian archaeologist tells them about interesting sites, and then they disappear and are never seen again.

Fortunately, this attitude is not widespread. There are some foreign Ecuadorianists who maintain a very close relationship with us, not only in the professional realm, but in the personal one as well. Some North American archaeologists constantly "feed" us with books, reprints of their articles, copies of articles written by those who do not send anything, and sometimes they even surprise us with a welcome gift in the form of a subscription to a journal. At the regional level, Ecuadorian archaeologists maintain very good relations with our Colombian colleagues, with whom we have participated in joint symposiums. With our Peruvian colleagues, however, this relationship is almost nonexistent. It is a shame that political reasons have not allowed for a greater exchange with these professionals, who are linked to us not only by common research interests but also by the same cultural heritage.

The relationship between us and our North American colleagues could be positively reinforced with simple actions. An archaeological association in the United States would not be impoverished if it were to send a permanent subscription of its journals to the Biblioteca Nacional or to the Biblioteca del Banco Central. Nor would an organization that is sponsoring a symposium on Ecuadorian archaeology be hindered by occasionally sending an Ecuadorian archaeologist to learn from and to share ideas with the colleagues whom they admire and whose literature they read. Finally, the participation of Ecuadorian archaeologists in projects supervised by their North American colleagues would further encourage professional integration. By this, I do not refer to the hiring of Ecuadorian field workers, which is already a requirement of the INPC, but to the participation of Ecuadorian scholars in more demanding positions in research projects.

Achievements and Expectations of Ecuadorian Archaeology

In spite of the difficulties of the last two decades, Ecuadorian archaeology has taken some giant steps forward, producing results that would greatly surprise an observer from the 1970s. The study of early hunter-gatherers was stimulated in the 1960s with the excavation of the El Inga site, but interest in this area of research has not continued. Even though investigation of the Las Vegas culture provides us with a complete image of hunter-gatherers along the coast, there are still many questions about the initial peopling of the country, the lifeways of these hunter-gatherers in the three ecosystems of Ecuador, and their transition to an agricultural way of life. Clearly, a systematic survey of the country in search of its earliest inhabitants is urgently needed. The Formative Period on the coast, particularly the Valdivia culture, has been studied from all the angles, including chronology, the origins of the ceramics, the origin of agriculture, settlement patterns, geographic distribution, iconography, and so forth. Much less attention has been given to the Machalilla and Chorrera cultures, for which the available information comes from early excavations. Investigations of Formative Period occupation in areas away from the coast have been confined to the few Formative sites in the Sierra and Amazon regions. The excellent research at the site of Pirincay, where Chorrera ceramics from the Upano River valley, and from the north of Peru, Spondylus shells and semiprecious stones from the coast, and evidence of the introduction of camelids has been found, demonstrates that this type of research can be very productive.

The subsequent Precolumbian periods of Regional Development and Integration have been studied from two different points of view. First, there is the study of regional exchange, which is a wide-open field of research at the moment since the exchange of Spondylus shell and obsidian is only currently being initiated. Second, there is research on the complex societies that characterize these periods. In Ecuador, these political entities have been examined in great detail through ethnohistorical research but have only recently been taken up by archaeology, such as the investigations in Agua Blanca, La Tolita, the Jama Valley, La Florida, and the Sangay complex. Even though the country has many well-known Inka sites, archaeological research has concentrated only in old Tomebamba, in Ingapirca, and in Rumicucho, with unsatisfactory results. The preservation of Inka monumental sites has not been very successful because the state has preferred to spend large sums of money on historical monuments that, paradoxically, have hardly been subjected to the archaeological testing required by the law. In reality, it can be said that there is no historical archaeology in Ecuador.

Ernesto Salazar is a Professor in the Anthropology Department of the Universidad Católica of Ecuador in Quito.

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