Real Alto

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Real Alto

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.

See alsoValdivia Culture; Valdivia, Ecuador.


Emilio Estrada, Valdivia: Un sitio arqueológico formativo en la provincia del Guayas, Ecuador (1956).

Betsy D. Hill, "A New Chronology of the Valdivia Ceramic Complex from the Coastal Zone of Guayas Province, Ecuador," in Ñawpa Pacha 10-12 (1972–1974): 1-32.

Donald W. Lathrap et al., Ancient Ecuador: Culture, Clay, and Creativity, 3000–300 B.C. (1975).

Donald W. Lathrap et al., "Real Alto: An Ancient Ceremonial Center," in Archaeology 30, no. 1 (1977): 2-13.

Deborah M. Pearsall, "An Overview of Formative Period Subsistence in Ecuador: Paleoethnobotanical Data and Perspectives," in Diet and Subsistence: Current Archaeological Perspectives (1988).

James A. Zeidler, "Maritime Exchange in the Early Formative Period of Ecuador: Geo-Political Origins of Uneven Development," in Research in Economic Anthropology, edited by Barry L. Isaac, vol. 13 (1991), pp. 247-268.

Additional Bibliography

Chandler-Ezell, Karol, Deborah M. Pearsall, and James A. Zeidler. "Root and Tuber Phytoliths and Starch Grains Document Manioc (Manihot esculenta), Arrowroot (Maranta arundinacea), and Llerén (Calathea sp.) at the Real Alto Site, Ecuador." Economic Botany 60, no. 2 (2006): 103-120.

Marcos, Jorge G. Real Alto: La historia de un centro ceremonial Valdivia. 2 vols. Quito, Ecuador: Corporación Editora Nacional, 1988.

Marcos, Jorge G. Los pueblos navegantes del Ecuador prehispánico. Quito, Ecuador: Ediciones Abya-Yala, 2005.

Meggers, Betty J., Clifford Evans, and Emilio Estrada. Early Formative Period of Coastal Ecuador: The Valdivia and Machalilla Phases. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1965.

Pearsall, Deborah M., Karol Chandler-Ezell, and James A. Zeidler. "Maize in Ancient Ecuador: Results of Residue Analysis of Stone Tools from the Real Alto Site." Journal of Archaeological Science 31, no. 4 (2004): 423-442.

Perry, Linda, Ruth Dickau, Sonia Zarrillo, et al. "Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum spp. L.) in the Americas." Science 315, no. 5814 (16 February 2007): 986-988.

Zeidler, James A. "Cosmology and Community Plan in Early Formative Ecuador: Some Lessons from Tropical Ethnoastronomy." Additional Studies Presented to Reiner Tom Zuidema on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday. Journal of the Steward Anthropological Society 26, nos. 1-2 (1998): 37-68.

Zeidler, James A. "Gender, Status, and Community in Early Formative Valdivia Society." In The Archaeology of Communities: A New World Perspective, edited by Marcello A. Canuto and Jason Yaeger, 161-181. London: Routledge, 2000.

                                   James A. Zeidler