Manteño is the name given to the prehistoric culture occupying much of the Ecuadorian coast during the Integration Period (500–1531). Manteño's territorial boundaries extended from the Bahía de Caráquez in the north to the Gulf of Guayaquil in the south, where it is sometimes referred to as the Huancavilca culture. It is widely considered the preeminent society of coastal Ecuador prior to the Spanish Conquest because of its monopoly on balsa raft navigation and a far-flung network of maritime trade, which included a wide variety of sumptuary goods such as artifacts of gold, silver, and copper; elaborate textiles of cotton and wool; richly decorated ceramic vessels and figurines; turquoise, greenstone, and lapis lazuli; and the highly prized chaquira (small beads of red and white marine shell).
With the Puná Islanders, the Manteños formed a League of Merchants, although it is unclear to what extent this exchange was strictly commercial or an extraction of religious tribute from dominated coastal peoples. The Manteños themselves were probably subject to Inca influence in a peripheral zone of that expanding empire. Although no permanent Inca presence has been documented in coastal Ecuador, La Plata Island, off the coast of southern Manabí, has yielded clear evidence of a royal Inca burial ritual commonly employed as a territorial marker throughout Tawantinsuyu.
The largest regional centers of Manteño culture were divided in quadripartite fashion, with one of the four local communities playing a paramount sociopolitical role. The two most important of these centers, or señoríos, were Salangome in southern Manabí (at present-day Agua Blanca), and Jocay in central Manabí (at present-day Manta). Others existed in inland riverine settings, such as Picuazá (near present-day Portoviejo), but have received less archaeological attention. Many of these sites are true urban centers having well-ordered platform mounds and numerous public buildings with stone wall foundations organized around principles of dual division, tripartition, and quadripartition. Jocay is reported to have had an important religious shrine where regular pilgrimages were made on ritual occasions. There is also a substantial Manteño settlement of the hill country of central and southern Manabí in areas such as Cerro de Hojas, Cerro Jaboncillo, and Cerro de Paco. Sites here are usually smaller than those on the coast and represent habitation sites often associated with agricultural terracing on hillsides.
One of the chief hallmarks of Manteño culture is the use of stone carving for the manufacture of large ceremonial objects. These include heavy U-shaped seats placed over three-dimensional feline or anthropomorphic imagery, and large rectangular stelae with heraldic female figures carved in bas-relief. The seats are widely considered to be associated with high-status, civic/ceremonial functions involving formal seating rituals and may symbolize authoritative powers of the chiefly elite.
A second hallmark of Manteño culture is its distinctive pottery, characterized by burnished black designs on grayware bowls, pedestaled compoteras with zoomorphic modeled figures, grayware ollas with fine-line incision, and anthropomorphic figurine-vessels with flaring rim on the head and a pedestal base. Solid mold-made figurines as well as larger, hollow, modeled figurines are common. The latter often depict elite personages with elaborate tattooed designs, especially on the shoulders and neck.
A complex social division of labor is indicated by occupational specialization in economic pursuits as well as in craft manufacture; certain settlements were dedicated exclusively to a narrow range of subsistence and craft pursuits. For example, numerous albarradas, or human-made earthen catchment basins, found throughout coastal Guayas province reflect the complexity of Manteño agricultural pursuits and demonstrate a sophisticated management of hydrological resources. Uncovered at Los Frailes in the señorío of Salangome was an extensive shell artifact workshop that was dedicated to the manufacture of plaques, sequins, beads, and other ornaments from the pearl oysters, Pteria sterna and Pinctada mazatlantica, as well as beads and pendants of the thorny oyster Spondylus. Because of their very strong symbolic connotations, these were highly sought-after luxury items throughout the Andean Area.
The existence of a complex social hierarchy in these señoríos is also suggested by the diversity of human burial patterns found throughout Manteño territory. These include primary interments in simple pits, primary burials in platform mounds, secondary urn burials, and deep shaft-and-chamber tombs in hilltop ceremonial centers such as Loma de los Cangrejitos in the southern Manteño area.
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James A. Zeidler