Cerro Narrío

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Cerro Narrío

Cerro Narrío, an important archaeological site in the south-central highlands of Ecuador. Stratigraphic excavations conducted at the site in the 1940s produced some of the earliest known pottery in the highlands and yielded a lengthy ceramic sequence that has been used as a baseline for interpreting the regional archaeology. The site is also significant for the evidence it has produced of early connections between the sierra, coastal Ecuador, and the Amazonian lowlands.

The site of Cerro Narrío is situated on a hilltop across the river from the modern town of Cañar, at an elevation of 10,230 feet. The surface of this barren hilltop is literally paved with ceramic potsherds. In the early 1920s, a find of several gold objects at Cerro Narrío induced indiscriminate looting of the site on a massive scale. For all the activity, very little gold was actually recovered and the site of Cerro Narrío was all but destroyed.

Twenty years later, two North American scholars, recognizing the archaeological significance of the site, undertook limited excavations in the remaining undisturbed areas. Their excavations produced enormous quantities of sherds, the principal variety being that which the excavators classified as Narrío Red-on-Buff This pottery type, most often a jar form decorated with painted red bands, is found in all occupation levels at the site. Almost as common numerically, though confined to the lower levels, is the spectacularly thin-walled pottery identified as Narrío Red-on-Buff Fine. This was the index ware (the pottery type that marks or indicates a specific chronological period) for the archaeological culture or phase known as Chaullabamba. In addition to the local pottery, exotic styles and influences identified at Cerro Narrío include Valdivia and Chorrera elements from coastal Ecuador, the "Group X" components possibly deriving from the eastern Andean slopes or lowlands, Puruhá and Tuncahuán wares from further north, Kotosh styles from the Peruvian Montaña, and Chimú pieces from Peru's north coast.

Based on the relative changes in the percentages of these wares found in different stratigraphic levels, the occupational history of the site was divided into an earlier and a later phase. Though work at the site was conducted prior to the advent of radiocarbon dating, subsequent assays of charcoal collected from the lower levels of the site gave a date of 1978 bce. This and other carbon 14 dates from sites in the Cañar Valley having an Early Cerro Narrío component associate this phase with the Early Formative period of Ecuadorian prehistory. Cross-referencing of exotic styles found primarily in the upper levels of the site associate the Late Cerro Narrío phase with the Late Formative period (about 1500–500 bce).

In addition to pottery, occupational debris found at the site includes stone beads, bone awls and whistles, shell beads and figurines, copper objects, and cylindrical pottery "drums." Charred remnants provide direct evidence of maize cultivation, while numerous deer and rabbit bones indicate that hunting continued to be an important subsistence activity. Postholes encountered in some excavation units indicate that the dwellings constructed by the site's inhabitants were both circular and rectangular in form, with the latter type perhaps postdating the former. The burials encountered were simple and generally lacking in funerary offerings.

The ceramic sequence at Cerro Narrío and the cross-correlation of exotic styles found at the site with other regions have been taken as evidence of early contact between the southern Ecuadorian highlands, coast, and eastern lowlands; of trade with the north coast of Peru; of indirect links with the civilizations of Central America; and of possible influences from the Middle Horizon cultures of southern Peru. Cerro Narrío is thus considered a key site in the reconstruction of Ecuadorian prehistory.

See alsoArchaeology; Precontact History: Latin America in the Precontact Period.


Donald Collier, and John V. Murra, Survey and Excavations in Southern Ecuador, Field Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Series, Publication 523, vol. 35 (1943).

Betty J. Meggers, Ecuador (1966), especially pp. 53-55, 108-111.

Robert Braun, "The Formative as Seen from the Southern Ecuadorian Highlands," in Primer simpósio de corelaciones antropológicas Andino-Mesoamericano, edited by Jorge Marcos and Presley Norton (1982), pp. 41-53.

Additional Bibliography

Garzón Espinoza, Mario. Evolución cultural del Cañar prehistórico. Azogues: Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana "Benjamín Carrión" Nucleo del Cañar, 2005.

Molina, Manuel J. Arqueología ecuatoriana: Los canaris. Roma: LAS; Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 1992.

Stahl, Peter W. "Pre-Columbian Andean Animal Domesticates at the Edge of Empire." World Archaeology 34, no. 3, Luxury Foods (Feb. 2003): 470-83.

                                        Tamara L. Bray