Colombia, Pacific Coast

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Colombia, Pacific Coast

Colombia's Pacific Coast, a geographic unit between the Pacific shore and the western highlands of Colombia. In terms of archaeology, knowledge remains so scant that processes of social development in the area can only be described in the most general terms. Even in the early 2000s major interpretations still claim migrations and diffusion as the most important variables shaping the societies that the Spaniards described in the region upon their arrival early in the sixteenth century.

Colombia was probably occupied by human societies coming from lower Central America about 10,000 to 12,000 bce. Thus, early preceramic occupation along the Pacific coast is important for the understanding of the very early human societies that settled South America. Early human presence in the region is inferred from tools that have been found in surface collections without pottery. Two projectile points found in the Golfo de Urabá, not far from the border with Panama, suggest hunting activities around 8000 bce. Very little is known in terms of other economic activities, settlement patterns, and cultural features.

Knowledge improves somewhat for much later periods, when pottery and goldwork were introduced in the area. Early radiocarbon dates have been obtained for sites in the Tumaco area, close to the Colombia-Ecuador border. About 325 bce human societies in this region elaborated fine pottery and used gold adornments. Other sites this old have been found farther north, in the Lower Calima and near the Munguidó River. Pottery from Tumaco shows similarities with pottery excavated along the Pacific coast of Ecuador (Chorrera) and sites in the Calima region near Cali (the Ilama period). In Tumaco one of the main features in pottery manufacture is the elaboration of fine figurines. This period is also known for the construction of mounds locally known as tolas. Economic activities included fishing and the exploitation of mangroves, hunting, and agriculture. It seems that intensive cultivation of maize was present in some areas from about 200 to 100 bce, although earlier dates in the neighboring Calima region to the east would suggest maize was known long before its consumption became important. Other plants seem to have been at least as relevant as maize during early times.

Later periods in Tumaco are described as a sequence of changes in pottery styles, including the progressive modification of figurines that become more and more rudimentary. Construction of tolas disappears about 1000 ce. Nonetheless, social changes in the region do not suggest a decadence in social organization or economic activities. Between 800 and 1500 ce there is evidence of agricultural progress, including labor-intensive practices of fertilization. Also, the elaboration of metal adornments continued to the time of the Spanish Conquest. Trade activities along the Pacific coast were described during the sixteenth century and there is some speculation that long-distance trade networks linked the Pacific coast with Ecuador and Panama. Archaeological evidence of this trade, however, remains scant.

See alsoCalima; Indigenous Peoples.


A summary of archaeological research in the area is provided by Leonor Herrera, "Costa del Pacífico y vertiente oeste de la cordillera occidental," in Colombia Prehis-pánica-Regiones Arqueológicas (1989). Excavations in Tumaco are reported by Francois Bouchard, "Excavaciones arqueológicas en la Región de Tumaco, Nariño, Colombia," in Revista Colombiana de Antropología (1985). Also see Diógenes Patiño, Asentamientos Prehispánicos en la Costa Pacífica Caucana. A description in English of archaeological research in the area is Warwick Bray, "Across the Darien Gap: A Colombian View of Isthmian Archaeology," in The Archaeology of Lower Central America, edited by Frederick W. Lange and Doris Z. Stone (1984). For a general overview of Colombian archaeology, see Carl Henrik Langebaek, Noticias de Caciques muy Mayores: Orígen y desarrollo de sociedades complejas en el nororiente de Colombia y norte de Venezuela (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Corsetti, Giancarlo. Cambios tecnológicos, organización social y actividades productivas en la Costa Pacífica colombiana. Bogotá: Ecoe, 1990.

Pardo, Mauricio. Acción colectiva, estado y etnicidad en el pacífico colombiano. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, Conciencias, 2001.

Seeliger, U., and Kjerfve, B., eds. Coastal Marine Ecosystems of Latin America. New York: Springer, 2000.

Velásquez, R. Fragmentos de historia, etnografía y narra-ciones del Pacífico colombiano negro, Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, 2000.

                              Carl Henrik Langebaek R.