Lords of the seas


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If it were just about the sea and its endless waves, there would be no story to tell. But the ancient voices of these lands speak to us across the centuries from stones, ceramic pots, balsa rafts, and mother of pearl.

The pre-Columbian world of Ecuador’s coast, especially in what is now the province of Manabí, may bring to mind tales of science fiction with fascinating characters, but these protagonists owe nothing to the great interplanetary sagas of our present-day film industry, and are wholly of this earth. Take the people of ancient Machalilla, who distorted their skulls from an early age, making their heads look like elongated headdresses; or myths like that of the Emerald Goddess, an enormous emerald that if removed from its pedestal would shut off the sun and stars; homosexual giants; or the shining purple shells that served as money, acquired from the depths of the ocean by divers able to hold their breath to depths of 30 meters, without today’s oxygen tanks! This is all part of the rich imagery on which the present province of Manabí grew from.

The first contact between Spaniards and the natives of South America is a formidable metaphor for the early days of exploration: explorer Bartolomé Ruiz sailed south from Panama, into the heart of the Pacific Ocean, to a place yet to be “discovered.” In these waters, unmatched in size and breadth, he encountered what seemed to be a primitive boat, much lighter than his, yet ironically, more maneuverable. Albeit the vastness and roughness of the Pacific seas, this unique vessel floated like a cork, and – much like his comparatively enormous caravel – had sails made of fine cotton. Both facts were worthy of wonder, but what was most perplexing was the raft’s means of navigation in these ruthless waters, a rudderless system, later described as a “guara,” a strange hybrid of a rudder and a keel.

Headdress reminiscent of ancient Egyptian sculptures found recently at Hojas-Jaboncillo.

Placed in the middle of the vessel, this technology enabled distant journeys over the vast ocean (while able to carry a weight of over 50 tons!). This seemed inconceivable given the simplicity of the structure. Some fifty years ago, the Spanish navigator Vital Alsar ventured from Ecuador to Australia on a replica of these pre-Columbian rafts. The first one sank at sea, its wood eaten by worms, but that was because Alsar didn’t follow the cardinal rule of Manteño raft-making: balsa wood must be cut during the full moon. Once he corrected this, his balsa rafts reached Australia on two subsequent journeys. During one voyage, he sailed with three rafts, demonstrating the possibility of large-scale trans-Pacific travel. Alsar reportedly stated the system offered “the most wonderful form of control at sea.”

One can envision how technology as simple and sophisticated as this, and as unique in the world as this, could provide the inhabitants of this Ecuadorian region not only the ability of ruling the seas, but perhaps more importantly, gave them an unparalleled opportunity to pursue commerce wherever they pleased. It is this that is today thought the key to the Manteño-Huancavelica civilization’s success, helping them to become one of the most influential pre-Columbian societies in the Americas. Based on their ‘industry’ of harvesting Spondylus shell and mother of pearl, which purportedly served a monetary purpose at the time, the Manteños proved an advanced society. These communities had mastered the concept of purchasing power! It would make sense they’d be that advanced, since their presence, civilization and ceramic artifacts date back 5000 years.

Unlike our current view of money, Spondylus shells (and emeralds, as well) also possessed spiritual meaning

It is suspected that there probably existed an emerald reserve, and Spondylus shells were used to make the bead necklaces found in so many tombs of the crème-de-la-crème in Inca Peru. As for mother of pearl, recent findings around Los Frailes suggest the development of a production system; another glimpse into the mysterious Manteño technological savoir-faire.

The zone of influence of these traders, who controlled maritime traffic throughout the Pacific Ocean, is thought to have occupied an enormous range spanning from Chile to Mexico, whose inhabitants were all connected at some level or another to the luxury goods produced and marketed by the fascinating Manteño-Huancavelica conglomerate.

Harvesting the clouds

Power in the hills

One of the archaeologists at the Hojas-Jaboncillo Archaeological Complex, Oswaldo Tobar, tells us that funding is always important when hoping to learn “just a little more” about this deeply misunderstood society. “We need professional archaeologists to continue working consistently here to truly get a decent picture of the area”. This site alone represents over 8,600 acres of ancient settlements, suggesting just how influential these series of hills were to pre-Columbian society. But much remains a mystery.

From Jaboncillo Hill, an ancient trail, with staircases carved into the rock thousands of years ago, cuts through semi-humid bromeliad-laden forests, and at the top one can admire what was once the entire “Manteño” domain. There are even vantage points that offer a view of the sea, where the natives probably caught sight of the legendary arrival of the “Famous Thirteen” (13 de la Fama) onto the shores of Jaramijó. These were the thirteen Spaniards who, on the Isle of Gallos, decided to follow Pizarro to the undiscovered lands south of the equator.

Museum display evoking a Manteño-Huancavilca council, with the seats of power forming a semicircle as they were originally found.

On this same hill, the American archaeologist Marshall H. Saville discovered and amassed the most important collection of Manteño “Seats of Power” in the world, which he transported to the United States and are now found at the Museum of the American Indian in New York. A large number of these spectacular stone structures were located at the very top of the hill, touching the sky, so to speak, and it is believed that they symbolize and exemplify Manteño-Huancavelica power and organization.

These unique U-shaped thrones present us with a window into the hierarchical system under which the ancient Ecuadorian coast was governed, with Jaboncillo and its four surrounding hills of La Negrita, Guayabal, Bravo and Hojas forming a political center of great importance. Made here hundreds of years ago, these unique furnishings were probably distributed among important people of different complementary and interrelated centers or chiefdomsalong the coast (including Agua Blanca, Salangome, etc.), which played different roles within the Manteño political construct. The seats symbolically attached power and connectivity to each, demonstrating the uniqueness and elaboration of this pre-Columbian society in particular.

Carved onto the seats are a diverse range of faces, from sacred animals like the jaguar to fish heads, allegedly bestowing a specific hierarchical jurisdiction upon those who sat on them.

At least symbolically, these steep hills connected the Manteños to heaven; the sky’s water was collected, even in times of drought, to ensure life and prosperity for the inhabitants. Wells found in the area collect rain, drizzle and condensed mist, while ancient “albarrada” reservoir systems, at lower elevations, seem never to dry up, not even during the driest years. Let us add to this picture the sense of monetary value, the functional integration of autonomous chiefdoms throughout a very large territory, the control and domain of navigation at sea… and you can begin to get a glimpse into a sophisticated pluri-focal operation. Some interpret this as a kind of state, united through a cultural framework, which was able to remain free and autonomous, so close to formidable forces such as the Incas, despite no evidence of having an army. Jaboncillo holds within it enough material to teach us much more about this amazing ancestral political mechanism forged by one of the America’s most fascinating civilizations.

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