Real Alto, a large village site of the Early Formative Valdivia Culture of coastal Guayas Province, Ecuador. It is located near the modern town and estuary of Chanduy, on a low ridgetop between the seashore and the floodplain of the Verde River. Excavations conducted there in 1974–1975 by archaeologist Donald Lathrap and colleagues, and by the latter during the 1980s, helped transform the understanding of Valdivia society in terms of chronology and social change, community plan and settlement pattern evolution, and agricultural production.
Stratigraphic excavation of cultural features permitted the identification of discrete occupations within the village configuration and confirmed the validity of the eight-phase ceramic sequence developed by Betsy Hill. Although the phase-1 occupation may have conformed to the earlier view of Valdivia as a small-scale egalitarian society of fishermen and shellfish gatherers, phases 2 through 7 exhibit progressive shifts toward greater population density and social complexity. Archaeological indicators of social ranking and status inequality suggest that a complex "big man" political system may have existed as early as Middle Valdivia times.
The Early Valdivia village was laid out in a horseshoe shape with small, flimsy dwellings (probably housing a small nuclear family) forming a ring around a small open plaza. At the opening of the U-shaped plan is evidence of ritual activity, presumably of a communal nature. By phase 3, the Real Alto village had grown to a maximum size of 31 acres through a doubling of the previous U-shaped configuration into an elliptical plan measuring 440 yards x 330 yards. Dwellings again formed a dense ring around a long plaza, but the house structures were much larger and more permanent in their construction, probably housing larger extended families of eight to twelve people. At the center of the new configuration were two small opposing mounds, each supporting a ceremonial structure. To the west was a funerary facility or charnel house, while the eastern mound supported a communal structure that, judging from its internal midden refuse, had ritual functions. By Late Valdivia times (phase 6-7), the habitation area had become reduced within the village as small satellite settlements appeared adjacent to floodplain agricultural plots and the ceremonial precinct began to serve a wider local area. Mortuary patterning at Real Alto and other Valdivia sites suggests a central political and/or ritual role for high-status females from phase 3 through phase 8.
Although exploitation of maritime resources in a constant, agriculture formed an integral part of the Real Alto economy throughout the sequence, as shown by the presence of large grinding stones, corn kernel impressions in pottery, and direct botanical evidence. Research by archaeobotanist Deborah Pearsall and associates has documented a variety of plant cultigens, including two varieties of maize, canavalia beans, root crops (including manioc, arrowroot, lleren, and canna), cotton, and chili peppers.
The phase 3 town configuration may have been laid out as a "cosmogram" with a distinct intercardinal orientation and alignments toward heliacal risings that signaled fixed points in the planting season as well as the Valdivia ritual calendar.
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James A. Zeidler