Valdivia Culture Forms Villages in Coastal Ecuador

The Valdivia culture made a highly successful hunting-and-gathering adaptation to life in the tropical forest of northwestern South America, involving the formation of nucleated settlements and the construction of complex ceremonial and ritual architecture.

Summary of Event

For most of the twentieth century, southwestern coastal Ecuador was seen as an archaeological backwater, where little interesting had happened in the past. All of this changed in the 1960’s, when American archaeologist Betty Meggers and her colleagues published their research on a series of sites in the region. Among the most startling of their claims was that the ceramics found at the earliest sites they excavated, such as Valdivia, were derived from trans-Pacific contacts with the Jōmon culture of Japan. The Valdivia ceramics, they argued, had strong stylistic affinities with the Jōmon materials and were, in their opinion, too finely made to have been the first ceramic assemblage to have developed in Ecuador. Their claim provoked controversy and led to renewed research effort into the Formative period archaeology of Ecuador.

Other controversies soon arose, the most important of them the argument that maize diffused into the Valdivia region from Mesoamerica fairly early and formed the basis of the subsistence economy. The quantities of maize found at Early Valdivia sites was always very small, less than would be expected if maize was a staple, but supporters of the argument maintained that poor preservation in the tropical forest soils explained this discrepancy.

The presence of advanced ceramics and maize at an early date led many archaeologists to assume that Valdivia was somehow a precocious culture and that it was necessarily foundational to many cultural practices seen in later time periods, not only in Ecuador, but further to the south in Peru as well.

However, the intensive archaeological work conducted in southwestern Ecuador since the 1970’s has shown that, in fact, ceramics from Valdivia sites were local in origin and could not be traced to Japan and that maize, while present, was not likely to have been a subsistence staple until late in Valdivia times. In this sense, then, Valdivia was not precocious, but the research has demonstrated that Valdivia is important for different reasons and is an outstanding example of how social and political complexity can arise from a hunting-and-gathering economy.

Valdivia culture is divided into three chronological phases: Early (3300-2300 b.c.e.), Middle (2300-1850 b.c.e.), and Late (1850-1500 b.c.e.). More than one hundred sites across a range of locations and sizes are known, and among the most important sites are Valdivia, Real Alto, Loma Alta, and Punta Concepción. Most Early Valdivia sites are found on the Punta Arenas peninsula along the courses of small rivers and streams. Most are found within 6 miles (10 kilometers) of the coast, and range in size from 2-5 acres (1-2 hectares) in size. A number of domestic residences of Early Valdivia date have been excavated at Real Alto. Most were small, single-roomed, ovoid to rectangular in form, and surrounded by posts that supported mud walls and thatched roofs. Each had a central cooking hearth, and activities in and around the houses included cooking, stone-tool manufacture, and cotton spinning. There was little variability in the size of these simple houses. Burials are found near many of these houses, some accompanied by small, stone, anthropomorphic figurines.

The layout of Early Valdivia sites was either circular or U-shaped, and domestic structures surrounded a central plaza remarkably clean of artifacts and debris. The size of the population in these early villages is estimated to have ranged between 150 and 200 persons. These villages are similar in shape and size to those found among contemporary horticultural peoples in the Amazon basin. Unlike these groups, however, Early Valdivia economy was based solely on hunting terrestrial mammals and maritime resources (primarily fish) and gathering seasonal wild plants. These resources were apparently sufficient to support a sedentary population, and the data suggest that Early Valdivia was egalitarian in nature.

The first evidence for greater social complexity is found at Real Alto and dates to the Middle Valdivia period. Although smaller sites similar in form to those of Early Valdivia are still found at this time, Real Alto is large, measuring more than 30 acres (12.5 hectares) in size. Not only does the size of the entire settlement increase, but also the numbers of domestic structures within it increase. Early Valdivia houses were thought to be the residences of single nuclear families. Middle Valdivia houses were much larger and most likely housed eight to ten occupants. This signals a change in residence patterns toward extended families. However, the same range of activities took place within them. Some domestic residences at Real Alto are quite large, and this suggests that their inhabitants had larger families or greater wealth than others, or were of high rank. The form of the site changes dramatically, becoming a large rectangle or oval with its opening to the south. Domestic structures mimic this pattern. Instead of a single open plaza or courtyard surrounded by domestic structures, the site is divided by low mounds into two plazas, a small inner plaza and a larger outer plaza. Atop these mounds are constructions thought to be ceremonial in function, although they could also have served as residences.

Real Alto appears to have become a ceremonial center in Middle Valdivia times, although there continued to be a large residential population surrounding it. The size of the site and the presence of ceremonial features support an inference that differences in rank and social status had also begun to develop. The subsistence economy is largely unchanged, continuing to be based on foraging and hunting. Small quantities of maize have been found at the site, but not enough to be of any economic significance. There is evidence, however, that it had a sacred or ceremonial role and was used to make a fermented alcoholic beverage. A form of bowl commonly found at the site is thought to have been used in a ritual context to consume this beverage. By the end of Middle Valdivia times, Real Alto had become the only ceremonial center of Valdivia culture.

Significant social changes took place in Late Valdivia times. While Real Alto continued as a ceremonial center, it was no longer a residential site. Other sites in the region took on ceremonial functions through the construction of their own mound and plaza complexes, and Real Alto became one of a small set of ceremonial centers serving dispersed local populations. Settlement shifted to smaller villages and hamlets along major streams and rivers, a pattern resembling Early Valdivia. Late Valdivia culture also became more widespread in southwestern Ecuador. Maize was present in quantity, and some have argued that its cultivation enabled the shift in settlement to dispersed villages. This pattern of population dispersion continued from Late Valdivia through subsequent time periods. Hunting and gathering continued to be of importance. Long-distance trade with the Andean highlands began during this period.


Although research at Valdivia culture sites had its origins in major debates about the transoceanic diffusion of ceramics and early diffusion of maize into a cultural backwater, the lessons learned go well beyond controversy. Valdivia culture represents a remarkable and successful adaptation to a tropical forest environment wherein significant social and political complexity were founded on a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle. Research has shown that Valdivia communities were sedentary and resilient and had a rich and impressive religious and ritual life. Although the details of social rank and power in Valdivia society are still known only in outline, it is clear that Valdivia culture had a significant influence on the trajectory of development of later societies in this region that is only now being explored.

Further Reading

  • Lathrap, Donald, W. Donald Collier, and H. Chandra. Ancient Ecuador: Culture, Clay, and Creativity, 3000-300 b.c.e.
    Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1975. Good overview of the ancient cultures of Ecuador.
  • Meggers, Betty J., Clifford Evans, and Emilio Estrada. Early Formative Period of Coastal Ecuador: The Valdivia and Machalilla Phases. Smithsonian Institution Contribution to Anthropology 1. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1965. Now dated, this volume provided the first systematic description of Valdivia culture. Excellent artifact illustrations.
  • Raymond, J. Scott, and Richard Burger, eds. Archaeology of Formative Ecuador. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2003. Wide-ranging summaries of topics on the Ecuadorean Formative ranging from diet and subsistence through ideology, ritual, and religion.
  • Staller, John. “Reassessing the Developmental and Chronological Relationships of the Formative of Coastal Ecuador.” Journal of World Prehistory 15 (2001): 193-256. A comprehensive and authoritative examination of what is known of the Formative cultures of coastal Ecuador, including Valdivia.