Puná Island is located in the Gulf of Guayaquil at the mouth of western South America's largest river system, which drains the fertile Guayas River basin. The island, 350 square miles in area, is characterized by extensive mangrove estuaries and a seasonally dry tropical forest which has been decimated since the colonial period.
Because La Puná is remote from modern population centers, few of its archaeological sites have been excavated, but evidence indicates that the island was occupied over 5,000 years ago by preceramic people who exploited wild resources. After about 2000 bce people at El Encanto left a giant, annular mound of shell containing shards of a regional variant of Valdivia pottery. These Valdivians were agriculturists and navigators of the open sea who may have visited the island seasonally or settled there permanently to exploit the resources of the forest, mangrove swamps, and marine waters as part of a broad-based economy. Some scholars have suggested, however, that the preceramic and early ceramic people developed a specialized estuarine-marine economy focused on the productive mangrove habitat.
Between 650 and 250 bce the Bellavista people were permanently settled in a large village on the northwest coast of Puná, where they practiced agriculture in combination with fishing and shell fishing. They made distinct pottery related to the Chorrera (Guayaquil phase), Engoroy, and Pechiche styles of the adjacent mainland areas and northern Peru. Later (250 bce–800 ce?) people using Jambelí pottery occupied some large village sites as well as small sites in many coastal locations. On the mainland to the east of Puná, Jambelí towns were located in river valleys away from the coast where people emphasized agriculture, formed groups governed by central authorities, and had extensive trade relations with Peru. People using Guangala pottery, characteristic of the mainland to the northwest, also may have occupied sites on Puná in this period.
Between 1000 and 1532 ce people making Manteño-style pottery occupied large sites where archaeologists have found evidence of sociopolitical, technological, and artistic complexity: monumental stone sculptures in the form of animals; the foundations of large buildings; gold, silver, and copper artifacts; quantities of spindle whorls indicating specialized production of cotton textiles; and elaborate burials. A large Contact Period cemetery has been found on Puná, but most of what is known of ethnohistoric Punáes comes from colonial documents.
At the time of Spanish contact in 1531 the Punáes were organized in an independent polity that was not under Inca control. A wealthy chief controlled seven subchiefs. The Punáes were renowned warriors, metalsmiths, productive farmers, fishermen, and merchants. It is widely repeated that the ancient Ecuadorians of the coast participated in a mercantile system that included societies from Peru to Mexico and involved the exchange of valuables such as metal artifacts, textiles, and Spondylus beads (thorny oyster shell) at ports of trade and pilgrimage centers like La Tolita and La Plata Island. Exotic Chimu vessels from Peru have been found in Punáe graves.
Because of the wealth and importance of La Puná it was made a repartimiento of the Crown and was amply described in colonial records. The Punáes continued to resist colonial domination until about 1543, and they allegedly killed and ate the Dominican friar Vicente de Valverde during the Peruvian civil war in 1541. Ships bound from Lima to Panama regularly stopped at the port of Puná, an important market and manufacturing center and commissary, in whose astilleros the first galley in South America was completed in 1557.
Early in the colonial period some Indians became prosperous entrepreneurs, supplying the Spaniards with labor for shipbuilding, as well as salt, timber, and maritime transport. One native cacique, Don Diego Tomalá, was so wealthy that his house was sacked by English pirates in 1587. Gradually the island became economically marginalized as Guayaquil developed, and by the eighteenth century the Indian population had disappeared and La Puná was deserted.
Emilio Estrada, Los Huancavilcas: Últimas civilizaciones pre-históricas de la costa del Guayas (1957).
Emilio Estrada, Betty J. Meggers, and Clifford Evans, "The Jambelí Culture of South Coastal Ecuador," in Pro-ceedings of the United States National Museum 115 (1964): 483-558.
Pedro I. Porras G., El Encanto, isla de la Puná, Guayas: La fase valdivia en conchero anular (1973).
Adam Szászdi, "D. Diego Tomalá, cacique de la isla de La Puná: Un caso de aculturación socioeconómica," in Estudios sobre política indigenista española en América 3 (1977): 157-183.
Thomas Frank Aleto, The Guayaquil Phase Ceramic Complex: The Late Formative Period in the Gulf of Guayaquil, Ecuador (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Illinois, 1988).
Jenny Estrada, comp. and ed., La balsa en lá historia de la navegación ecuatoriana: Compilación de crónicas, estudios, gráficas y testimonios (Guayaquil, 1988).
Almeida Reyes, Eduardo. Culturas prehispánicas del Ecuador. Quito: Viajes Chasquiñan, 2000.
Di Capua, Constanza. De la imagen al icono: Estudios de arqueología e historia del Ecuador. Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 2002.
Madsen, Jens E., Robert Mix, and Henrik Balslev. Flora of Puná Island: Plant Resources on a Neotropical Island. Aarhus, Denmark; Oakville: Aarhus University Press, 2001.
Pearsall, Deborah M. Plants and People in Ancient Ecuador: The Ethnobotany of the Jama River Valley. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning, 2004.
Karen E. Stothert