A good academic book on the prehistory of Ecuador is rare, but a book that combines archaeological, historical, and ethnographic data to produce interesting and challenging interpretations about local polities known as “chiefdoms” is exceptional. Traces behind the Esmeraldas Shore falls nicely into this second category. With lucidity, sociological imagination, and compelling evidence, DeBoer lays solid ground to establish a chronological cultural sequence for the Santiago-Cayapas area in the coastal Esmeraldas province, dominated by La Tolita (300 B.C. to A.D. 350), the largest archaeological site of a region famous for its earthen mounds, elegant pottery, and delicate goldwork.
The book is based on a decade of archaeological work in what DeBoer refers to as “La Tolita’s hinterland,” an area dominated by the Santiago and Cayapas rivers as they flow toward a mangrove-fringed Pacific coast, and by densely forested interfluves. Everywhere this rich landscape shows signs of having been occupied for transportation, agriculture, and general subsistence by both prehistoric and historic populations. Primary among the latter are the Native American Chachi, who by the late sixteenth century had migrated into the region from an Andean homeland to the east, and the Afro-Ecuadorian descendants of African slaves.
On the basis of evidence from stratigraphy, seriation, and radiocarbon dating, DeBoer establishes the cultural sequence for the Santiago-Cayapas basin as comprising a series of phases that he tentatively establishes as spanning three millennia. Analysis of these phases demonstrates external connections of the hinterland with La Tolita during the latter’s apogee, connections that are manifested through shared ceramic styles, and riverine trade in highland obsidian as well as gold and perishable goods. However, since the real nature of La Tolita is still largely unknown, the social linkages remain conjectural. With the demise of La Tolita, the Santiago-Cayapas basin became balkanized, interregional trade declined, and ceramic arts became provincial. But it is when DeBoer comes to the end of this “Tumbaviro” phase of culture history (which, following his Chachi hosts, he calls the time of the “barbarians”) that prehistory really begins to excite the intellectual curiosity of ethnohistorians and ethnographers by coming alive in oral and written historical records as well as in living memory. Most likely, these “barbarian” folk represent the allegedly cannibalistic Indians whom in their oral tradition the Chachi claim to have defeated and replaced. In explaining this last prehistoric phase, which extends into historic times, DeBoer relies primarily on the changing social environment of the period. This environment speaks of new urban developments taking place along the Esmeraldas coast that could have forced the people of the hinterland to take a defensive attitude by retreating to the interfluvial ridge tops. As a result, these “Tumbaviro” folk became just another of the bellicose ethnic interior groups known generically as “Barbacoas,” who appear in the early Spanish accounts.
In the last chapter, DeBoer questions several established assumptions that equate large regional sites containing monumental architecture, such as La Tolita, with large populations and complex political hierarchical organization. Based on the contemporary use of Chachi ceremonial centers, he tentatively argues for the general ceremonial character of this prehistoric chiefdom. And finally, DeBoer uses the example of Jesusito (the famous and now deceased Chachi shaman), his well-documented travels in search of power and prestige, and his recognized spiritual, political, and material powers, to speculate on a plausible model of legitimate authority with which to interpret the still poorly known but tantalizing facts about the La Tolita chiefdom. As a historical anthropologist who works in an area of the Ecuadorian Amazon where this model perfectly fits some early historical accounts, and who some years ago was cured by the late Jesusito, I have drawn a very special intellectual pleasure from this fascinating book. Its archaeological accomplishments have already been praised by others more knowledgeable in that field.