Ecuador’s pivotal position between Mesoamerica and Peru, the two centers of high civilization in pre-Columbian America, has finally been satisfactorily described in this new book by Betty Meggers. She is well equipped to make such an analysis because of her excavations with her husband Clifford Evans (often in collaboration with the late Ecuadorian archeologist Emilio Estrada) in the Guayas basin, the Pacific coast, and the interior montaña. Because of the absence of a well-integrated history of all Ecuador, the largest part of the text must present a detailed archaeological framework relating each region and period. Although extremely interesting for the specialist, this material makes monotonous reading for the layman because of the catalog-like style of writing. Such careful exposition, however, allows Meggers to perceive Ecuador’s importance as a receiver and transmitter of culture, which results partly from its position as the major landfall at the end of the North Pacific currents.
Theories on external contacts provide the greatest interest in the book. Most important for archaeology is the hypothesis that stray fishermen from Jomon Japan landed at Valdivia and introduced the first ceramics in America. The Evanses have not diminished their support since Estrada first presented this theory in 1961, even though they are now confronted with earlier non-Jomon ceramics, both in the Valdivia sequence and along the Caribbean littoral of western South America. The Evanses rely on one aberrant radiocarbon date of 3200 B.C. to establish Valdivia’s priority. But more probably the other six radiocarbon dates, clustering compactly between 2670 and 2500 B.C., define the stage reflecting Japanese contact, which apparently introduced only some specific forms and not the concept of pottery.
Mesoameriean culture traits, long recognized in northern coastal Ecuador, began as early as 1500 B.C., as demonstrated by similar occurrences of obsidian flakes and “napkin-ring” earspools as well as the ceramic traits identified by Michael Coe. Since such objects are lacking in the interlying coastal jungles, rafts must have followed the direct ocean route. This same route was used frequently after 500 B.C., again proved by numerous parallels between Mesoamerica and Ecuador, notably flat and cylindrical stamps and small pottery masks. Coevally Meggers postulates a short-lived but more spectacular contact with Southeast Asia, based on saddle-roofed house models, headrests, and sailing-raft rigging. Her argument could be strengthened if she noted the related theory that the bronze-casting Dongson culture of North Vietnam influenced coastal Peru at exactly the same period. Meggers’ hesitancy in attributing metal casting to this period and her omission of illustrations of goldwork looted from La Tolita deny crucial data for this argument and impoverish the artistic variety represented in the book.
After A.D. 500, the Mesoameriean contacts cease and are replaced by increasing Peruvian influence. Expanded production of textiles and metalwork both echoed typical Peruvian preoccupations. Chimú forms appeared in both metal and vessel shapes. Terraced hillsides fed a greater population, which, gathering in urban centers, supported an elite class and constructed ceremonial and burial pyramid complexes. These Peruvian influences culminated in the physical conquest of the Ecuadorian highlands by the Incas shortly before the Spanish arrival. The decimation of the native population by Inca resettlement and European diseases effectively ended the aboriginal history of Ecuador.
After such an expansive view of Ecuadorian culture and its relationships, the few omissions are perhaps unimportant. The seminal early excavations by Jacinto Jijón y Caamaño are slighted or dismissed as unworkable; as a consequence, the role of the northern highlands is emasculated and its obvious interaction with neighboring Colombia minimized. Avoidance of the more spectacular Ecuadorian art objects by the illustration of only three main collections, usually photographed by Evans, creates a boring sameness in the visual material which corresponds all too well to the flatness of the writing. But its exciting conclusions alone make the book a valuable addition to our understanding of ancient American history.