Ceremonial Centers of the Chachi

By: Warren R. DeBoer and John H. Blitz

Originally Published in 1991

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It would seem that archaeologists are forever talking about cere­monial centers, places where people do not reside permanently but where they periodically flock to carry out—you guessed it—”cere­monies.” As tabulated in the ac­companying box, the notion of the largely vacant ceremonial center has played a persisting role in the annals of New World prehistory. Although few archaeologists would now con­sider such monumental sites as Tikal or Chain de Huantar to be purely ceremonial in nature (the evidence for sizable resident populations is abundant), nonetheless, the cere­monial center concept continues to be an attractive interpretive motif, nudging archaeologists to riddle the prehistoric American landscape with scaled-clown versions of Mecca or the Vatican.

During much of 1986 and during summer visits in 1988 and 1989, while carrying out archaeological research in the Cayapas and San­tiago Basins of coastal Ecuador (Fig. 2), we lived among the Chachi Indians. The Chachi spend most of their day-to-day lives in dispersed, single-house settlements, but also periodically aggregate in otherwise vacant ceremonial centers. In other words, the Chachi furnish a contem­porary and observable example of ceremonial centers in action. The purpose of this article is to record our observations of the Chachi settle­ment system, in which ceremonial centers play a key role, to marshall the available evidence pertinent to the historical development of this system, and to sketch the implica­tions that these findings have for archaeological interpretation, both in the Cayapas-Santiago and else­where.

The Chachi: Today and Yesterday

The Chachi (formerly known in the ethnographic literature as the Cayapas) number some 3000 indivi­duals, most of whom inhabit the inland reaches of the Cayapas Basin of Esmeraldas Province, Ecuador. The Cayapas is a formidable river that drains the western slopes of the Andean massif and flows across a relatively narrow coastal plain be­fore emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Rainfall is high, varying from 2000 mm annually near the coast to more than 5000 mm in the Andean foothills. The vegetation is humid tropical forest.

The Chachi are river people, equally at home in the dugout canoe as on land. Their staple crop is the plantain or cooking banana (Fig. 1), a post-Columbian introduction, along with lesser quantities of man­ioc and other root crops, seasonally important fruits such as the peach-palm, maize used for preparing a refreshing beverage, as well as fish from the river and game from the forest. The Chachi speak a language of the Barbacoan family (which includes Colorado and Coaiquer). Most men are bilingual in Spanish, and it is in Spanish that our field work was done.

“Settlement pattern” is the phrase archaeologists use to describe the way in which a people distribute themselves across the landscape. The Chachi settlement pattern consists of single houses dispersed along the high banks of the Cayapas and its major tributaries. The single-house settlement was well-described early in this century (Barrett 1925) and continues to be the preferred Chachi form, although in recent decades there has been a tendency for the traditionally dispersed households to congregate at missions or govern­ment-sponsored schools.

The Chachi house is a simple but elegant piece of architecture. With­out walls and with an elevated floor, it is eminently well designed for a warm, humid, and flood-prone en­vironment. The house is a rectan­gular structure varying widely in floor area from 20 to over 150 square meters, the size depending largely on whether a small nuclear family or a more extended retinue of kin is being housed. As shown in Figure 3, the elevated house floor is divided customarily into a large living and sleeping space and a smaller kitchen with a clay-lined hearth, off of which culinary waste is tossed to the ground. As is also seen in the figure, the clearing or yard surrounding a Chachi house typically is studded with a host of useful and carefully tended plants, especially fruit-bearing trees. The major gardens of plantains are usually found inland within an hour’s walk.

The Chachi are not the sole occu­pants of the Cayapas Basin. They coexist with an equivalently sized Black population descended from people who migrated from Colom­bia during the past century (West 1957). Relations between the two groups are often strained, the Cha­chi referring to the Blacks by the denigrathre term juyungo (a kind of monkey), while the Blacks recipro­cate with the simultaneously en­dearing and condescending appela­tion Cayapita (“little Indian”). The two populations tend to live apart. The Blacks, living in towns, domi­nate the Santiago Basin and the lower Cayapas up to the mouth of the Insole (Fig. 2). Above the Onzole, the two populations share the Cayapas Basin upriver to the San Miguel, above which the Chachi are demographically dominant.

The history of the Chachi is best given by their own oral traditions. According to these, the Chachi were formerly an Andean people, living in permanent villages near the highland city of Ibarra. Prompted by the sequential assaults of the Inca and Spanish invasions, the Chachi aban­doned their highland home and descended the western slopes of the Andes to Pueblo Viejo (“old town”), located far up the Santiago River, where they continued to live in vil­lages and to rely upon maize as a principal crop. It is at Pueblo Viejo that the Chachi first enter European history in the 1597 account of the Mercedanan friar Gaspar de Torres (Monroy 1938:314-364).

Life at Pueblo Viejo was not to continue forever. A second stage of Chachi migration was precipitated by depredations, especially the steal­ing of Chachi women, by allegedly cannibalistic Indios Bravos (“wild Indians”), who made life increas­ingly precarious. In response to these attacks, the Chachi, with the crucial assistance of their shamans, de­scended to the Cayapas Basin, wiped out the settlements of the Indios Bravos one by one, and established their own settlements. Some of the Indios Bravos are thought to have escaped this campaign of exter­mination by retreating to the far upper reaches of the Cayapas, where even today the Chachi tell of distant wisps of smoke said to mark the campfires of their lingering foes.

Although the historicity of this oral tradition as recorded by Barrett (1925) and others has been doubted by some recent scholars (e.g., Palop 1988), the Chachi account of their own history receives considerable support from both the ethnohistoric record and from our own recent archaeological investigations in the Cayapas and Santiago Basins. Over 20 Chachi archaeological sites have now been identified in our con­tinuing survey. All of these sites yield a distinctive ceramic ware that can be identified securely to be of Chachi manufacture, and in all cases this distinctive pottery is associated with traces of metal, glass, and porcelain imports of European deri­vation, suggesting an age within the last two centuries or so.

Although the Chachi discontinued ceramic manufacture in the 1950s, we are fortunate to have the detailed record of traditional pottery given by Barrett (1925); as seen in Figure 5, our archaeological ceramics con­form in detail to the pottery col­lected by Barrett. Furthermore, these highly salient Chachi ceramics are totally unlike the preceding ar­chaeological materials called Tumbaviro (Tolstoy and DeBoer 1989). It does not require much imagina­tion to identify Tumbaviro with the preceding Indios Bravos of Chachi history. The archaeological signature of the intrusive Chachi occupation is quite uniform: small single-house settlements distributed along the high banks of the Cayapas and its tributaries (Fig. 2).

In their new homeland along the Cayapas, the Chachi abandoned their ancestral highland pattern of permanent villages, shifted to a dis­persed settlement pattern in which the single house figured as the stan­dard residence, and shifted from maize to plantain as a principal crop. Now one  might ask how it is pos­sible that such a seemingly dispersed and fragmented entity as the Chachi could first confront and defeat the Indios Bravos, and then subse­quently maintain their corporate identity in the face of Black terri­torial expansion, as well as innumer­able gold, lumber, banana, and coffee-seeking schemes emanating from the greater capitalist world. In this context, the ceremonial center is of signal importance.

The Ceremonial Center: Today and Yesterday

Today the Cayapas Chachi are divided into four major territorial subdivisions, each having its own ceremonial center. The location of these centers and the extent of their participating territories are indicated in Figure 2; their history, as gleaned from a somewhat sketchy documen­tary record, is summarized in the box, “A Chronicle of Chachi Cere­monial Centers.” Pueblo Viejo, the traditional Chachi center, had its heyday in the 16th and 17th cen­turies, then experienced a decline culminating in its final abandonment early in this century. On the Cayapas proper, Punta Venado—today the largest and premier center—was in place by 1809. At that time, the upper reaches of the Cayapas were still controlled by the Malabas (al­most certainly the Indios Bravos of Chachi oral tradition). By the late 19th century, however, the Malabas had disappeared from the Cayapas scene, and the three Chachi cere­monial centers of Punta Venado, Zapallo Grande, and San Miguel were fully established and function­ing installations. To complete the contemporary geography of Chachi ceremonial centers, we need only add Tzejpi, a center formed by a dissident faction from Zapallo Grande during the late 1930s (Alt­schuler 1964:7-8).

As the first-founded and largest of the extant ceremonial centers, Punta Venado maintains its premier status. From the air, it appears as an incon­spicuous clearing surrounded by jungle (Fig. 6). Even on the ground, during the “off-season”—which in­cludes most of the year—Punta Ven­ado is hardly impressive: a string of liana-choked houses flanking a plaza overgrown with weeds (Fig. 7). During the two main holidays of Christmas and Easter, however, the encroaching vegetation is cleared away, and up to hundreds of Chachi get together for several days. During these periods, a number of Catholic-based ceremonies are carried out, including a procession of saints (represented by wooden icons housed in the church), as well as a passion play on Easter.

In addition to the religious obser­vances, the celebrants engage in feasting (prized shellfish are brought in from the coast), heavy drinking (rum is the preferred beverage), and dancing (marimba is the favorite music). These occasions, however, are more than just parties. Con­fronted by the spectre of a crowd, a government with a hereditary Gobernador and his appointed retinue of specialized officials, which includes a police force, is temporarily ac­tivated to deal with what can be called “law and order” matters. From his extra-large house, the Go­bernador reviews and adjudicates complaints accrued since the last congregation. Most frequently, these complaints deal with accusations of marital infidelity. A forceful phy­sical symbol of these proceedings are the stocks, still in place at Punta Venado and San Miguel (Fig. 8), and only recently discontinued at Zapallo Grande. It is here where spouses accused of infidelity or other abuses, such as wife-beating, are publicly mortified. As the rum takes effect, the stocks are also used to contain unruly drunks.

As archaeologists accustomed to viewing behavior in terms of its material manifestations, we thought it important to prepare reasonably accurate maps of Punta Venado and the other ceremonial centers. On two separate occasions, we were per­mitted to visit each of these centers in order to prepare site plans and, in addition, to conduct limited excava­tions in one of them (Punta Venado). Our excavations—two small test pits—revealed a meter-deep midden full of sherds, shellfish, and animal bones, presumably feasting residues. The presence of glass, rusted metal fragments, and imported European wares suggested that we were dealing with deposits accumulated within the last two centuries, a finding fully in accord with the historical record for Punta Venado. Figure 9 gives the modern ground plan of the center. The Gobernador’s house is positioned at the down­stream end of the settlement. Guest houses, each identified as to com­munity, form a flattened ‘U’ that extends upriver from the Goberna­dor’s house. This ‘U’ flanks a plaza in which the church, with its bells and icons, is centered.

The arrangement of guest houses shown in Figure 9 is not haphazard, but rather mirrors a virtual micro­cosm of the geography of the Punta Venado section. The houses of the Ouzole communities of Pintor are situated at the downstream end of Punta Venado. Next come the houses of Pichiyacu, located but a bend upriver from Punta Venado. Then follow the houses for the farther upstream communities of Santa Maria and Chivatillo. At the up­stream extremity of Punta Venado is the guest house for Loma Linda. The latter is an interesting case that still conforms to the geographical logic of Punta Venado’s layout. Loma Linda is within the sphere of the San Miguel ceremonial center. Member­ship in a particular ceremonial sec­tion, however, is assigned patri­lineally (that is, through the father). Women of the Punta Venado section who have married men from Loma Linda and who reside in that area often return to Punta Venado for the big gatherings of Christmas and Easter. Among Chachi ceremonial cen­ters, Punta Venado is unique in having a number of separate guest houses, each assigned to a particular area within its territory. In essence, Punta Venado resembles a village, much like the ancestral village of Pueblo Viejo. In contrast, the cere­monial centers of San Miguel, Za­pallo Grande, and Tzejpi bear a different aspect. As always, the church is present, but the separate guest houses of Punta Venado are collapsed into one or two extra-large structures with small attached com­partments (see Figs. 10-12). Recal­ling the historical testimony that these three centers were founded after Punta Venado, we find no reason to doubt the Chachi’s own account of these differences in terms of a temporal sequence: (1) origi­nally there was Pueblo Viejo, a sedentary village; (2) then Punta Venado, a ceremonial center pre­serving the old form of a sedentary village; (3) and lastly, San Miguel, Zapallo Grande, and Tzejpi, de­signed to be ceremonial “hotels” providing short-term accommoda­tions for a dispersed populace.

Until now, we have described the Chachi ceremonial center as a veri­table “ghost town” except during the periodic festivities of Christmas and Easter. This description is not quite accurate. The centers are also used for smaller-scale and aperiodic events having to do with rites of passage.

Death and Marriage

The patrilineal rule of section membership is ultimately reinforced by death. Upon death, each Chachi is properly buried in his or her natal ceremonial center. Burial takes place beneath the floor of the appropriate guest house. Such sub-floor burials, marked by postmortem offerings of food and candles, are still con­spicuous at Punta Venado. When such sub-floor cemeteries become full, overflow burials are placed around the church or in a separate cemetery. In the most recently founded center of Tzejpi, however, sub-floor burial was never practiced, interment taking place in a separate cemetery. Among younger members of the Zapallo Grande section, sub-floor burial is perceived to be “un­sanitary,” and burial in a separate cemetery is increasingly the norm. These separate burial plots are typi­cally marked by a decorative plant locally called palms china (Figs. 11­12). To a large extent, these changing mortuary practices at the upriver centers can be attributed to the presence of an active Protestant mission at Zapallo Grande that has urged the Chachi to discontinue sub-floor, in-house burial.

During the summer of 1989, we were permitted to attend a funeral at the San Miguel center. The following comments are abstracted from our field notes, which begin the night before the funeral.

The death wails wafting across the river to our basecamp started about midnight and continued for several hours, mingling with the background chorus of croaking toads and the rushing of the Cayapas. The women led the mourning in a rising and falling falsetto, while semi-sober men sobbed. The efforts of the curing shaman had failed and his patient had died, evidently of the dreaded malaria which takes such a heavy toll among the Chachi. At daybreak, the mourners in a flotilla of canoes—the lead canoe carrying the corpse of the young woman—left for San Miguel, the natal cere­monial center of the deceased, lo­cated about an hour’s paddling time upriver.

We arrived at San Miguel shortly after the funeral train. About 20 people were present, most of the men inebriated on aguardiente (a cane liquor). Three gravediggers, non-relatives of the deceased who were paid for their services in the same aguardliente, were excavating the grave beneath the elevated house floor (the southernmost structure in Fig. 10).

Their excavation, about one meter deep, cut through deposits of shell and the bones of earlier burials. While the gravediggers dug their hole, the corpse was laid out in a cane casket, her face painted red and her body bedecked in fine clothes. As the grave-diggers lowered the casket into the pit, the hitherto outwardly tranquil, even indifferent, mourners gathered around the grave, some women resuming the falsetto waiings heard the night before, while close family members recounted the virtues of the deceased. A finely woven mat was placed over the lowered casket as the church bell was rung. Then the grave was rapidly back-filled and everyone quickly left. As one mourner explained, it is not good to hang around the recently deceased.

Ceremonial centers also host wed­dings, although this is an option rather than a rule. A couple, in fact, may have been married and living together for years before a “wed­ding” or bode takes place. The wedding ceremony is organized and promoted by the padrino and madrina (godparents) of either spouse, and it is the godparents who provide the food for the wedding feast. During this ceremony, the couple is separated physically by an internal cane partition noted in our plans of San Miguel and Zapallo Grande (Figs. 10-11). Although we have not observed a “wedding,” we were able to photograph a Chachi girl sporting her wedding dress and jewelry in anticipation of a future boda (Fig. 4).

In summary, the Chachi cere­monial center is a multifunctional facility that hosts the calendric fiestas of Christmas and Easter, as well as gatherings occasioned by the less predictable events of death and marriage. It is calendar, court, church, and necropolis all wrapped up in one.

The Ceremonial Center in Context

With the Chachi case in mind, we can return now to more general considerations of the vacant cere­monial center as a settlement type. Such centers can be viewed as one solution to a common problem, namely the often conflicting claims that subsistence and political de­mands pose for human populations. In the Cayapas Basin, essential re­sources—such as arable lands (the “black” soils favored by Chachi farmers), suitable woods for con­struction and fuel, and fish and game—are scattered along, and in­land from, the all-vital river. The Chachi pattern of dispersed house­holds, therefore, represents a sen­sible adjustment to this landscape.

There are counterforces at work, however. The Chachi exist within a larger, complex, and often compe­titive geopolitical landscape, in which the very maintenance of their lands depends upon their capacity to occasionally act collectively. In fact, without such capacity it is difficult to imagine what would enable the Chachi to persist as any sort of cohesive social group. In this con­text, the ceremonial center is the key institution at which the Chachi pe­riodically aggregate. During these aggregations, large or small, parti­cipants reassert their identity as Chachi, exchange information con­cerning both local and more global matters, and expose and attempt to alleviate internal disputes. For the Chachi, such disputes—often the rupturing bane of small-scale so­cieties—are rarely severe precisely because of the dispersed settlement pattern. Any interpersonal or inter­ group tensions mounting during a few days at the ceremonial center are resolved by simply going back home.

The ceremonial center, then, can be seen as a rather clever device for integrating a dispersed population. At the vacant center, church and houses stand sentinel-like, marking “Chachi country” with historically meaningful landmarks at which the Chachi periodically signal their dem­ographic thunder in song, dance, and rum. This message, so appreciated by the Chachi, has not failed to reach their non-Chachi neighbors. As the celebrated Black author Adal­berto Ortiz (1943) lamented years ago, donde entierra juyungo, no entierra cayapa, or from the Chachi perspective, “where the Chachi are buried, Blacks are not.” As a necro­polis, the ceremonial center is a highly visible statement about land, history, and the future of a people.

Cite This Article

DeBoer, Warren R. and Blitz, John H.. "Ceremonial Centers of the Chachi." Expedition Magazine 33, no. 1 (March, 1991): -. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/ceremonial-centers-of-the-chachi/


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