Agrarian spaces, pre-Hispanic settlement and LiDAR technology in the central coast of Ecuador

Manuel Castro-Priego, Lauro Olmo-Enciso, Marcos Octavio Labrada-Ochoa, Juan Andrés Jijón-Porras, Juan Alejandro García-Campoverde

Abstract

The use of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology has revolutionised pre-Hispanic archaeology in large tracts of Central America (Canuto et. al. 2018; Fisher et al. 2016; Garrison et al. 2019; Chase & Weishampel, 2016). This contribution is particularly significant in areas in which jungles and a complex orography had precluded the implementation of large-scale landscape archaeology studies.

Although this technology has not been used in South America as intensively as in Central America (Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, among others), LiDAR is beginning to be used to answer questions concerning the interaction between the landscape, pre-Hispanic societies and their economic exploitation strategies (Amazonia, Peru) (Van Valkenburg et al., 2020). This work analyses one of the most important archaeological areas in central Ecuador, Cerros de Hojas-Jaboncillo (Figs. 1 & 2), which has traditionally been identified as a major centre of the Manteña culture. This culture spanned the current provinces of Manabí, Santa Elena and Guayas between the 8th and 15th centuries AD.

Although the site was discovered in the early 20th century (Saville, 1907 & 1910; Estrada, 1957) on the slopes and summits of the Chongón-Colonche and Balzar hills range (formerly called Sierra de Bálsamo), it has not been until recent moments that the characterization of its extension, its spatial conformation, as well as the main geoarchaeological characteristics of the site have begun to be possible (López, 2008; Delgado, 2009; Tobar, 2012; Lunniss, 2012; Veintimilla-Bustamante, 2012). The limitations of previous studies were largely due to the prevalence of thick sub-tropical forests, whose trees are sometimes 14 m tall.

In 2016, a large-scale LiDAR flight covering 147.78 km² at a density of 9 ppm² has revealed the main features of the archaeological complex, including various sites that illustrate a multi-nuclear settlement pattern (Figs. 5, 8 & 10). The study suggests that settlements, between 0.5 and 3 ha in size (Fig. 8), followed a common pattern, standing on small long hilltop plateaus. The complexes were visually connected and were linked by a road network.

There is little doubt that one of the most important discoveries concerns the relationship between archaeological sites and complex agrarian systems, which point to the exploitation of wide areas. These had irrigation systems that involved rainwater retention and water resources maximisation (Figs. 6 & 8). The system made intensive rainwater use during the humid season (December-May); it also took advantage of the coastal mists that ensure precipitations on the hilltops.

At the same time, the LiDAR survey has established differences between the settlement pattern in the north-eastern sector, in which the interaction between settlements and the agro-system is not so obvious, and the south-western sector, whose settlements are clearly related to wide terraced systems.

These results will allow for comparisons between Cerros de Hojas-Jaboncillo and other known Manteño sites, such as Japotó (Bouchard, 2010), Agua Blanca (McEwan & Silva, 1992) and Ligüiqui. All of them point to the continued occupation of the same areas, and the continuity of some sites at least between the Guangala period (500 BC.-600 AD) and the late Manteño period (12th-15th centuries), as seen in Salango and its territory (Béarez, Gay & Lunniss, 2012).

Most research in the 20th century has argued for an increase in social complexity during the classic Manteño period (8th-11th centuries), following a diffusionist explanatory pattern (Estrada, 1957). However, the LiDAR analysis of the Cerros de Hojas-Jaboncillo site points to prolonged periods of stable management of the environment, a response to the need to make use of the available resources. Archaeology, through large-scale landscape studies and the in-depth characterisation of sites through wide-ranging sampling methodologies can contribute to answering the question as to whether environmental management led to the formation of a “Manteño state” or whether this society can be better defined as a chiefdom (Touchard-Houlbert, 2010).

Highlights:

  • The study focused on the LiDAR research of the Cerro de Hojas-Jaboncillo, the most important pre-Hispanic site in the Manabi province (Ecuador).

  • LiDAR technology has allowed users to identify an intense occupation in a forest area, where until now, it was impossible to detect archaeological structures.

  • The study has established the close relationship between the pre-Hispanic occupation model and the use of complex irrigation systems.


Keywords

airborne LiDAR; Ecuador, pre-Hispanic settlement pattern; irrigation systems; Manteña culture

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