Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000

Anthropologists Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans asserted that design similarities between five-thousand-year-old pottery from Ecuador and pottery of the same age from Japan represented evidence of pre-Columbian contact between Asia and South America.

Summary of Event

Anthropologists agree that humanity had its origins in the Old World and migrated to the New World comparatively recently. While there is disagreement over the earliest date for humankind in the Americas, there is consensus that North and South America were populated by about 10,000 b.c.e. These early inhabitants were of Asian origin and migrated to the New World across the Bering land bridge, a vast, subarctic plain connecting present-day Alaska and Siberia. The land bridge was exposed by a fall in ocean levels resulting from the Ice Age. After the close of the last Ice Age, the sea level rose, submerging the land bridge and arresting land contact between Asia and the Americas. Some anthropologists have argued, however, that sporadic contacts between the Old and New Worlds continued and that these contacts had decisive impacts on the development of culture in America. Valdivia pottery
Transpacific contact, ancient
[kw]Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000 b.c.e. (1965)
[kw]Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000 b.c.e., Anthropologists Claim That (1965)
[kw]Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000 b.c.e., Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian (1965)
[kw]Transpacific Contact in 3000 b.c.e., Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows (1965)
Valdivia pottery
Transpacific contact, ancient
[g]Latin America;1965: Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000
[g]Ecuador;1965: Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000
[c]Anthropology;1965: Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000
[c]Archaeology;1965: Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000
[c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;1965: Anthropologists Claim That Ecuadorian Pottery Shows Transpacific Contact in 3000
Meggers, Betty J.
Evans, Clifford
Estrada, Emilio

The possibility of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages, particularly voyages between Asia and South America, has been one of the most debated issues in anthropology. It is important because it plays a key role in the debate between diffusionists and those who favor independent invention.

Diffusionists Diffusionism (anthropology) believe that human beings are, by nature, very conservative and that as a result, new social practices and forms of society are rarely invented. Accordingly, practices such as agriculture, urban centers, monumental architecture, writing, and complicated social organization are so intricate, they could not have been discovered more than once or twice in human history. Instead, diffusionists theorize, such civilizations have spread around the world through contact between groups. In the late 1800’s, Friedrich Ratzel Ratzel, Friedrich and the members of the German Kulturkreis school attempted to trace the spread of complex civilizations around the world. In the 1920’s, Grafton Elliot Smith Smith, Grafton Elliot , a prominent British anthropologist, suggested that all complex society had developed in Egypt and diffused from there.

In the early twentieth century, under the purview of Franz Boas Boas, Franz , most American anthropologists came to reject diffusionism in favor of independent invention Independent invention (anthropology) . Boas and his followers were disturbed by scientific problems with diffusionism, as well as its often racist and ethnocentric overtones. While they did not reject diffusionism altogether, they argued that humankind is equally inventive everywhere. Consequently, civilizations rise in many places as the result of broadly similar conditions of population and environment. Unless contact between cultures can be scientifically proven, they insisted that similarities between them must be assumed to be the result of convergent or parallel cultural development, or chance. By the mid-twentieth century, American anthropologists overwhelmingly favored independent invention over diffusion. A small but highly vocal group of scholars, however, continued to support the diffusionist position.

For both groups, the high civilizations of the Americas were important test cases. If all contact between Asia and the Americas ended with the disappearance of the Bering land bridge twelve thousand years ago, then complex civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya, and the Inca, which appeared only within the past few thousand years, must have been invented independently. If, however, transoceanic contact between Asia and the Americas continued, then there remained the possibility that the development of complex civilization in America had been critically influenced by voyagers from Asia, thus supporting the diffusionist view.

Despite the strength of academic opinion against diffusion, public interest in it remained strong. Numerous popular authors wrote about the similarities between American societies and Old World civilizations. Explorers such as Thor Heyerdahl captured the imagination with dramatic demonstrations showing that transoceanic voyages were possible with simple technology. Unfortunately, archaeologists working on scientific projects failed to find data that could confirm contact between Old and New Worlds. Without such reliable, scientifically collected data, arguments for diffusion remained weak.

In 1956, Emilio Estrada, a well-respected Ecuadorian amateur archaeologist, discovered fragments of ancient pottery near Valdivia on the Ecuadorian coast. Estrada was a businessman with a particular interest in world trade. He was interested in the possibility of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages and favored a diffusionist explanation of New World civilization. Estrada enlisted the help of Smithsonian anthropologists Betty J. Meggers and Clifford Evans. Excavations at the Valdivia site continued from 1957 to 1961. Meggers and Evans published the results of their study in 1965 as the first volume in the prestigious Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology series. Even though Estrada died suddenly in 1961, he was listed as a coauthor of the book in honor of his important contributions. In their book, Meggers and Evans claimed that, at Valdivia, they had discovered the oldest pottery in the New World, dating to about 3000 b.c.e.

They believed their finds proved that pottery must have been introduced from Asia to the Americas at that date. They reasoned that if pottery had been independently invented in America, the oldest pottery found should be quite simple and newer forms increasingly complex. The Valdivia pottery did not fit this pattern. It was the oldest found, and yet it was very complex. Further, they showed that the Valdivia pottery bore an uncanny resemblance to Early and Middle Jomon pottery from Japan, dating from about the same time period.

It was established that members of the Jomon culture practiced deep-sea fishing. Meggers and Evans hypothesized that a group of Jomon fishermen had been blown off course and eventually landed in Ecuador. There they found people who were culturally quite similar to themselves but lacked pottery. The fishermen introduced the technology for making pottery at Valdivia and from there it spread throughout the Americas.

For diffusionists, the effect of Meggers, Evans, and Estrada’s work was electrifying. Internationally respected archaeologists, working in a strictly controlled scientific project, appeared to find strong evidence for transpacific contact and diffusion of an important aspect of culture from Asia to America. James A. Ford Ford, James A. , a prominent archaeologist and supporter of diffusionism, wrote that Meggers and Evans had clearly demonstrated that culture was diffused rather than reinvented and that “human culture is a single connected story.” In 1966, Meggers and Evans received the Gold Medal of the International Congress of Americanists for outstanding Americanist studies and the Decoration of Merit from the government of Ecuador.

Other anthropologists were not as sanguine and pointed to serious defects in Meggers and Evans’s argument for diffusion. Archaeologists showed that many of the dates and design examples that Meggers and Evans had taken for Jomon pottery were found on Honshū, rather than Kyūshū, an island farther to the southwest, where the voyages to Ecuador were alleged to have originated. David Collier Collier, David of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History noted that sailors adrift from Japan were very unlikely to reach Ecuador and concluded that they would probably have ended their trip in Southern California or Mexico.

Many argued that even if a boatload of fishermen had landed in Ecuador, it was unlikely that there would be specialists on board capable of making pottery. The most telling blow against the diffusionists, however, was the discovery of older and simpler pottery in Colombia and Ecuador. This pottery bears no resemblance to Japanese work. Because of these flaws, the work did little to convince those who were not already supporters of diffusionism.


There are very few anthropologists who support the contention that Jomon fishermen were responsible for the introduction of Valdivia pottery. Even staunch defenders of diffusion admit that, in the light of discoveries of ancient pottery made since the time of the Valdivia finds, a Japanese origin for American pottery is extremely unlikely. The debate between diffusionists and those who support the independent invention of culture continues.

Diffusionists have amassed a bewildering range of evidence showing the similarities between artifacts from New World cultures and those from China, Malaysia, the Mediterranean, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. They argue that many of these similarities seem so unlikely that contact and diffusion are the best explanation of their presence. The sheer number of similarities, they say, makes any other interpretation unlikely.

Those who favor independent invention insist that even a very large number of design similarities between Old and New World artifacts would not prove contact, since coincidence or parallel cultural development cannot be ruled out. Startling similarities are frequently found in societies so greatly separated in time and space that no contact between them is possible. Author Nigel Davies Davies, Nigel , for example, points out that very unusual stirrup-spout bottles made in Africa in the 1930’s are virtually indistinguishable from bottles made on the north coast of Peru in about 800 b.c.e. There is almost no chance of diffusion across more than twenty-five centuries.

According to John H. Rowe Rowe, John H. , a steadfast critic of diffusionism, “Direct contact is proved archaeologically by the identification of sites of actual colonies or trading posts or by the repeated occurrence of trade objects from one area in archaeological association in another.” The only known example of a pre-Columbian site connecting Old and New Worlds that meets Rowe’s criteria is the Norse settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, dated around 1000 c.e. This settlement seems to have had very little lasting impact on indigenous American culture.

Other anthropologists have reviewed several types of evidence that might be used to prove pre-Columbian contacts and diffusion. These include overwhelming architectural and city plan similarities between urban areas, as well as similarities in the structure, but not the vocabulary, of Old and New World languages, domesticated plants, and even in intestinal parasites. None of these investigations, however, has provided well-accepted, compelling evidence for contact.

Throughout the twentieth century, diffusionists have been unable to provide data for their case that satisfy the demands of those who favor independent invention. Unless they are able to do so in the future, the idea that complex culture arises very rarely and has been spread by diffusion will remain only a thought-provoking possibility. While transoceanic voyages cannot be ruled out, the hypothesis that contact between Old and New Worlds had a substantial impact on New World cultures remains unsubstantiated. Valdivia pottery
Transpacific contact, ancient

Further Reading

  • Benavides, O. Hugo. Making Ecuadorian Histories: Four Centuries of Defining Power. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Fascinating analysis of the function of archaeology in defining Ecuadoran national identity, particularly its role in either supporting or resisting national power structures over the past four hundred years. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Davies, Nigel. Voyagers to the New World. New York: William Morrow, 1979. A generally skeptical account of various theories of contact between the Old and New Worlds. Davies briefly discusses Meggers and Evans’s claims about Valdivia pottery but dismisses them as highly unlikely. He is more impressed by theories of contact between ancient Polynesia and the Americas. Davies credits the common biological inheritance of all peoples for the striking similarities between New and Old World cultures. This book is a good choice for the reader who wants a general introduction to the problems of transoceanic contact and diffusion.
  • Jett, Stephen C. “Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts.” In Ancient Native Americans, edited by Jesse D. Jennings. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1978. A compendium of evidence for diffusion to the Americas from Asia, Europe, and Africa by an anthropologist who is a firm supporter. Jett offers a large array of evidence, almost all of it based on similarities in design. He presents a great number of theories with relatively little comment on their credibility. A useful source for those who would like to see an enormous collection of diffusionist data.
  • Meggers, Betty J., and Clifford Evans. “A Transpacific Contact in 3000 b.c.e.Scientific American 214 (January, 1966): 28-35. A summary of Meggers and Evans’s theory of transpacific contact written for a general audience. Contains illustrations of Valdivia and Jomon pottery as well as a map showing the probable course of a voyage between Japan and Ecuador.
  • Meggers, Betty J., Clifford Evans, and Emilio Estrada. Early Formative Period of Coastal Ecuador: The Valdivia and Machalilla Phases. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965. As the first volume of a new series, this book set a high standard of quality for publication in archaeology. Copiously illustrated and containing much well-presented data, it was written for a professional audience. The book combines a well-accepted traditional archaeological report of the digs in Valdivia and the more controversial presentation of the authors’ theories on the connection between Jomon, Japan, and Valdivia, Ecuador.
  • Phillips, Phillip. “The Role of Transpacific Contacts in the Development of New World Pre-Columbian Civilizations.” In Handbook of Middle American Indians. Vol. 4, Archaeological Frontiers and External Connections, edited by Gordon F. Ekholm and Gordon R. Willey. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966. Phillips presents the scholarly case against the significance of transpacific contacts in the rise of American civilization. He argues that though transoceanic contacts are conceivable, the important developments in the rise of New World civilization are better explained without them.
  • Rowe, John Howland. “Diffusionism and Archaeology.” American Antiquity 31(1966): 334-337. A brief, but blistering, attack on the diffusionist position. Rowe lists sixty characteristics common to two cultures he considers completely unrelated. Intended for a professional audience but easily accessible to the layperson.
  • 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. New York: Routledge, 2000. An essay on the nature of the society that produced the Valvidia figurines. Bibliographic references and index.

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