Cotocollao, a large prehistoric village located in the northern highlands of Ecuador, is the regional type-site for the archaeological period known as the Formative. Prior to the discovery of this site in the 1970s, little was known about cultural life in the northern sierra during this period. The site takes its name from the modern barrio of Cotocollao, which is situated at the north end of the capital city of Quito. The site is strategically located near a pass that connects the Quito basin with the tropical forests of the western Andean foothills. Cotocollao was occupied from approximately 1800 to 500 bce, a period corresponding to the Middle and Late Formative in Ecuadorian prehistory. The occupation levels at Cotocollao are capped by a thick layer of volcanic ash and lapilli associated with the eruption of Mount Pululahua, which is located about seventeen miles to the north. The eruption of this volcano, dated to approximately 467 bce, is thought to have caused the abandonment of the site.
The Formative Period in Andean prehistory is defined by the appearance of pottery and incipient agriculture. These developments occurred at different times in different places. The earliest evidence of pottery in Ecuador is found on the coast, where Valdivia ceramics have been dated to circa 3200 bce. This tradition was eventually replaced by Machalilla Phase pottery, around 2000 bce. The Cotocollao ceramic assemblage exhibits decorative and morphological similarities with both Valdivia and Machalilla pottery, suggesting that connections existed between the highlands and the coast around the time of transition between these two coastal phases. The Cotocollao assemblage also evidences some stylistic affinities with ceramics from the southern highlands and the eastern slopes of the Andes.
Distinctive vessel forms in the ceramic assemblage from Cotocollao include straight-walled, flat-bottomed bowls; stirrup-spout bottles; and strap-handled bottles. The latter form is typical of the Chorrera pottery horizon, which follows Machalilla and is found throughout much of Ecuador during the Late Formative Period. The most important diagnostic element of the Cotocollao assemblage is the decorated, ground stone bowl. A ceremonial function is postulated for these objects on the basis of the technical expertise involved in their manufacture and the lack of apparent wear from use. The stone bowls from Cotocollao are the earliest known in the northern sierra, and the Quito region has been suggested as a possible locus of manufacture for these objects.
The pattern of spatial organization identified at the site of Cotocollao involves the arrangement of household clusters around a village cemetery. The cemetery apparently served as the ritual focal point of the community. This is in contrast to the pattern described for Formative Period sites on the coast, where dwellings are typically arranged around a central public-ceremonial space. The cemetery at Cotocollao has produced one of the largest samples of prehistoric skeletal remains from the northern sierra. Analysis of the approximately 200 sets of remains from the site has provided important information on diet, disease, and demography for the Late Formative Period population. In addition to the osteological evidence, finds of carbonized beans and maize in the earliest levels at Cotocollao, together with the quantity of manos (pestles), metates (mortars), and hoes recovered at the site, indicate that agriculture was the primary means of subsistence for the inhabitants of this site. Given the marshy environment of the northern Quito basin during the pre-Columbian era, waterfowl also figured significantly in the local diet.
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Tamara L. Bray