Valdivia Culture is the name given to the prehistoric culture that occupied the Pacific coastal lowlands of Ecuador during the Early Formative period (4400–1600 bce). It was identified at the type site of Valdivia in coastal Guayas province by the Ecuadoran Emilio Estrada, and subsequently investigated by the archaeologists Betty Meggers and Clifford Evans in the late 1950s. Valdivia culture was thought by those scholars to represent an egalitarian, semisedentary littoral adaptation based upon fishing and shellfish gathering, with only rudimentary reliance on horticulture. Its unique ceramic style and "Venus" figurine tradition were originally thought to be the earliest in the New World, and their origins were attributed to diffusionary trans-Pacific voyaging by Neolithic Jomon fishermen from Japan.
More recent research at other important coastal sites such as San Pablo, Real Alto, and Salango, as well as inland sites such as Loma Alta, Colimes, and San Lorenzo del Mate, has promoted considerable rethinking of the nature of Valdivia Culture, its origins, economic base, settlement organization, and cosmological beliefs. The archaeologist Donald Lathrap has forcefully argued that Valdivia represents a "tropical forest culture" having a fundamentally riverine settlement focus, whose ultimate origins can be traced to early population dispersals from the Amazon Basin. Newer subsistence data indicate a mixed economy of flood plain horticultural production (based on maize, beans, manioc, achira and other root crops, chili pepper, cotton, and gourds), hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild plants and shellfish. Certain coastal settlements, such as the type site, are viewed as having specialized in the exploitation of maritime and estuarine resources and traded these products for food crops with inland agricultural communities.
These studies have shed new light on Valdivia chronology and the pace of social change during its 2,000-year time span. An eight-phase ceramic sequence established by Betsy Hill has permitted a more precise delineation of temporal trends in settlement pattern and internal site layout. Large-scale excavations at village sites such as Real Alto and Loma Alta in Guayas province have permitted detailed reconstruction of Valdivia households, community patterning, social organization, burial practices, and ceremonial behavior, all of which underwent significant changes between phases 1 and 8. As a result, it is now clear that Valdivia represents a dynamic, fully sedentary society of village horticulturalists, characterized by progressive demographic growth, household expansion from nuclear to extended family dwellings, and an increasing degree of social ranking and status inequality through time. Beginning as early as Middle Valdivia times, mortuary evidence suggests the establishment of hereditary social status accorded to senior females. Long-distance maritime trade with the complex societies of coastal Peru at this time may have provided an impetus for social change leading to greater complexity in the later Valdivia phases.
There is also evidence of a progressive geographic expansion of Valdivia communities to the north and south out of the Guayas province heartland. Beginning in Middle Valdivia times (phase 3), when settlements appeared on the offshore islands of La Plata and Puná, this outward expansion culminated in Terminal Valdivia times (phase 8), when large inland ceremonial centers with satellite communities appeared in the wetter environments to the north and south. Both the San Isidro site in northern Manabí and the La Emerenciana site in El Oro represent phase 8 ceremonial centers with monumental public architecture of a magnitude not seen in previous Valdivia phases.
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James A. Zeidler