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Atacames, the name assigned to the prehistoric culture occupying the Ecuadorian Esmeraldas coast during the Integration Period (500–1531 ce). Recent archaeological research of the Atacames type site has established three occupational phases: Early Atacames 1 and 2 (700–1100 ce) and Late Atacames (1100–1526 ce). The end point marks the first of Francisco Pizarro's voyages of conquest down the coast of Ecuador.

Early ethnohistorical accounts, which report a densely populated coast, describe the town of Atacames as having over 1,500 houses laid out on a grid plan with streets and open plaza areas. Archaeological investigations conducted in the 1970s by the Spanish archaeologist José Alcina Franch and his colleagues confirmed these early descriptions, having documented a series of large habitation sites with mound groups and extensive cultural refuse all along the coast of Esmeraldas, including Atacames, Ton-supa, Balao, and La Tolita. Most mounds are long, low platforms that supported residential structures, while others are funerary mounds containing numerous urn burials or tall, chimney-type interments of stacked bottomless urns.

At the Atacames site, a progressive expansion in site size and complexity has been documented. The mounds vary considerably in size, from 420 to 5,520 square yards in area and from less than 30 inches to over 80 inches in height. Mounds are predominantly round throughout the sequence, but ellipsoid and irregular shapes occur as well. The overall site configuration experienced temporal shifts throughout the Integration Period, as on-site population levels continued to grow. By Late Atacames times, a regular grid pattern emerged with rows of mounds and open avenues running obliquely from the shoreline.

Atacames pottery is generally less decorated and more poorly crafted than that of the preceding Tiaone culture, although vessel forms remain diverse. These include a range of small olla forms, polypod bowl forms, as well as pedestal cups (compoteras) with anthropomorphic faces. Red-on-buff painting is the predominant decorative technique, with geometric designs executed in fine- to medium-width lines. Other pottery artifacts include spindle whorls with a large flat base and small conical top, cylindrical seals or stamps, and modeled zoomorphic whistles.

Also found in abundant quantities are a wide variety of small beads (chaquira) used for bodily adornment. These were manufactured from a range of raw materials including lithics, shell, bone, and precious metals such as gold and copper. Although all were widely traded, shell beads seem to predominate, and those made from Spondylus were highly prized. Other forms of bodily decoration characteristic of Atacames include dental mutilation and gold-inlaid teeth. The latter may have been the prerogative of high-status individuals.

The large size and internal complexity of towns such as Atacames, together with specialization in craft production and the deferential treatment of the dead, all suggest a fairly complex form of sociopolitical organization, very probably a stratified chiefdom. As was the case with the Jamacoaque II settlements to the south, however, Atacames was probably succumbing to strong Manteño domination prior to the Spanish Conquest.

See alsoArchaeology .


Francisco De Xerez [1528], "La relación Sámano-Xerez," in Colección de documentos inéditos para la historia de España, vol. 5 (1842), pp. 193-201.

Betty J. Meggers, Ecuador (1966).

Mercedes Guinea Bueno, Patrones de asentamiento en la arqueología de Esmeraldas (Ecuador) (1983).

Robert A. Feldman and Michael E. Moseley, "The Northern Andes," in Ancient South Americans, edited by Jesse D. Jennings (1983).

Mercedes Guinea Bueno, "Valoración de las evidencias de intercambio en la desembocadura del Río Esmeraldas: El problema cronológico," in International Congress of Americanists, Relaciones interculturales en el área ecuatorial del Pacífico durante la época precolombina, edited by Jean François Bouchard and Mercedes Guinea Bueno, BAR International Series 503 (1989), pp. 127-146.

César M. Heras y Martínez and Jesús Adánez Pavón, "Chimeneas cerámicas: Un rasgo cultural de significación controvertida," in International Congress of Americanists, Relaciones interculturales en el área ecuatorial del Pacífico durante la época precolombina, edited by Jean François Bouchard and Mercees Guinea Bueno, BAR International Series 503 (1989), pp. 147-162.

Additional Bibliography

Alcina Franch, José. La arqueología de Esmeraldas (Ecuador), introducción general. Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Dirección General de Relaciones Culturales, 1979.

Almeida Reyes, Eduardo. Culturas prehispánicas del Ecuador. Quito: Viajes Chasquiñan, 2000.

Brezzi, Andrea, and Matthew Leighton. Tulato, ventana a la prehistoria de América: Cultura Tumaco-La Tolita. Bogotá, D.C.: Villegas Editores, 2003.

DeBoer, Warren R. Traces behind the Esmeraldas Shore: Prehistory of the Santiago-Cayapas Region, Ecuador. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

Ubelaker, Douglas H. Skeletal Biology of Human Remains from La Tolita, Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

                                    James A. Zeidler