Local Histories and Global Theories in Colombian Pacific Coast Archaeology

By Stemper, David M.; Lopez, Hector Salgado | Antiquity, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Local Histories and Global Theories in Colombian Pacific Coast Archaeology


Stemper, David M., Lopez, Hector Salgado, Antiquity


History matters. It provides the facts which help to test theories (Gould 1986; 1992). New data become relevant in the degree that they support or refute a theoretical framework. History generates the raw information (data) that serves to explore the usefulness of analytical tools. Reconstruction of the pre-hispanic and colonial past includes concepts such as boundary permeability, households, gender and figurines, landscapes (see below); and others with little analytical precision - such as acculturation, adaptation, diffusion, power, tribe (Groot 1989). Also, an archaeologically based history matters because it helps to strengthen and vindicate the identity of a people from a poorly known region (Lleras 1985; Trigger 1989; Vasco 1992). For example, Fals Borda (1988-9) wrote a 'double history of the coast' of Colombia's Caribbean littoral in which he described on the left-hand pages stories and anecdotes of a people's history (ancient and recent) while those on the right provided theoretical interpretation, concepts and sources. Such a double history for the Colombian Pacific coast could encourage a 'discovery' of this littoral based as much on scientific needs as on those of regional identity, avoiding the invention and 'conquest' of the region and its peoples which have gone on since the 1500s (Taussig 1992).

This article highlights the historical importance of more than 3000 years of people's use of the Colombian Pacific littoral. We examine six themes: agriculture, long-distance interaction, religion, complexity and inequality in power, environmental changes, and evaluations of people-land relations. The time-span is from before 1000 BC to AD 1850-1900, divided into four periods: Early Pre-hispanic, Transitional, Late Pre-hispanic periods, and a Historic Period. The geographical focus is from the Uraba Gulf in the north to Esmeraldas, Ecuador [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 & 2 OMITTED].

One of the first lessons of this coastal history is that the evaluations of people-land relations are saddled with several misconceptions and myths (Alzate 1990; Putz & Holbrook 1988), similar to those concerning Amazonia (Caufield 1984; Palacios 1987) and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia (Uribe 1988). In 1524 Francisco Pizarro and his followers were starving to death on Isla del Gallo during a rainy season that they probably considered typical of the Colombian Pacific. It seems likely that this year coincided with an El Nino rainfall. The constant rain was the backdrop to one of the first European dramas in the Americas: Francisco Pizarro drew a line with his sword in the black sands of Isla del Gallo, challenging his troops. The 'Trece de la Gloria' ('glorious thirteen') crossed the line, inspired by the conqueror's speech about riches to the south and chances to prove their courage in unknown jungles and deserts (Torres 1986; Hemming 1992).

A few years later, G. Benzozi ([1565] 1985: 107) sailed by Gorgona Island on a ship whose captain told him that the island was the 'Devil's land'. A moral evaluation of topography confirmed what Europeans believed about the tropical Pacific littoral: landscapes of savagery [TABULAR DATA FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] where barbarians lived in trees, disorder, and anarchy (Taussig 1987: 230). The myth of 'Green Hell' continues to influence interpretations of the 16th century, for example, Balboa's putative delay in reaching the Pacific due to impenetrable forests (Castillo 1990: 127). Yet Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien (Arcila 1986), founded in the Uraba tropical forests as 'treacherous' as any along the Pacific, shows that the Spaniards conquered and settled in any kind of environment. We can understand better the influence of the environment on pre-hispanic cultural changes through a more balanced evaluation.

Another myth about the Pacific littoral is of an 'El Dorado of Tropical Paradise', uninhabited, pristine, 'virgin' forests. More than 35 years ago, West (1957) could demystify this evaluation after travelling by canoes and along interfluvial paths from Panama to Esmeraldas. …

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