Seeing the Future in the Past, Again

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador 

The chronological record for Greece that exists in Herodotus’ History beginning with the Trojan War is missing for coastal Ecuador. There was a similarly rich culture here in the same era but we don’t know its sagas. The archeological traces of ruins themselves are only partially explored here. 

It was a complex world but in a different way from the Greeks judging from handsomely carved and highly symbolic metal, stone and clay objects found so far. Animal references abound in the form of tigers on the legs of stone thrones, monkeys on drinking vessels, and whistles in the shapes of birds. A high degree of regard for celestial influences is evident in multiple representations of the sun, moon and stars. Personal ornamentation seems to go beyond anything in the traditional Western Civilization accessories kit.Figurines show tiered headdresses, heavy disk nose rings that must have needed to be held in at least one hand to be worn, huge ear rings, neckbands and necklaces several inches wide. Decoration is dense in general with few of the clean lines and open areas associated with classic Western art. Known by the archeological name Valdivians, their mode of thought must have operated on several levels at once if it resembled this overlaid, compact graphic style. 

Only the most durable materials remain so the historical record as well as metaphysics, social forms, speech, and other core aspects of these tropical people are open to conjecture. Voracious equatorial biota devoured the more ephemeral remains. But clay and stone objects seem to be everywhere. They are common on beaches, washed out from banks by flooded creeks that sometimes change directions and in so doing excavate a new site. Many houses have a few that were found by farmers digging in fields. Robbers have brought them up by the basketful from ordinary gravesites and tolas, huge mounds that probably have funerary significance. Two weeks ago a man waiting for a bus described himself as a restorer of artifacts and led me to a ramada-covered workshop on the side of his house just behind the bus stop. He had ten or so worn cardboard boxes full of intact and broken objects from various archeological periods along with nondescript pieces taken from the same sites that were used to make repairs. 

There are too many objects for the limited national museum resources to collect and store. However, the town of San Jacinto in the same county as Bahia de Caraquez (Canton Sucre) has notable tolas in an area nearby where excavations have just begun for an ancient city named Japoto that dates from fifteen hundred years ago and was abandoned at about the time of the Spanish Conquest. This promising dig will undoubtedly fill in volumes from the lost history of the immediate predecessors of today’s inhabitants. 

There was a preceding culture here as well that stretched back before the time of the earliest pyramid builders in Egypt. Even less is known about their cosmology but one feature marks the people of coastal Ecuador and Colombia from 7,000 years ago as original and influential. They were the first to develop agriculture in South or North America. It is felt that the enormous biodiversity in this region led to information exchanges between people about a larger number of possibilities for getting food. The result was the earliest signs of plant cultivation in the Western Hemisphere. The first ceramics in the New World also arose here within a thousand years after that. 

Among all of the techniques and methods developed by local farmers since agriculture began, the management of water may be the most intriguing. A rainy season followed by months of dryness creates the paradox of overflowing amounts of water at one time contrasted with dusty unavailability of it in another. How can the surplus be retained for the scorched days of need? The present system of dam-building and water diversion that is so common throughout the world (and disastrous in the long run) requires huge amounts of materials, numerous pieces of heavy machinery, and a high level of operating technology for the purpose of moving water from faraway places to wherever it is wanted. The earliest farmers differed in that both the surplus and subsequent shortage of water they experienced occurred in the same place.  

Their ingenious solution from at least 5000 years ago is so apt that it is still in use in many places. Generally know as jagueys, these are modifications in flat earth surfaces that temporarily collect and concentrate rainwater, holding some in pools but allowing the greatest part to seep into the subsoil for storage and later use. 

In coastal Ecuador they are called albarrados and worked so well that numerous dots that can be seen on satellite photographs were left scattered on the prehistoric landscape . The enthusiastic explorer and interpreter of this phenomenon is Dr. Jorge Marcos who has cataloged two hundred and fifty two albarrados around the city of Santa Elena south of Bahia de Caraquez alone that date as far back as 3800 years, with the majority falling between 2800-2150 years old. Remarkably, one hundred and ninety-two of those, an overwhelming majority, have been functioning continuously since they were first created.

According to Marcos, albarrados actually aim water underground. The most common result is to simply raise the water table beneath the surface so that roots of plants have shorter access to a more abundant supply of nourishment than was otherwise available. An outcrop of land on a hillside was all that was needed to create a collecting area. A shallow basin was scooped out and the removed dirt was made into a semicircle on the outward side to act as a barrier to hold some rainwater from immediately escaping to a creek or river downhill below. After rain soaks in, the whole hill becomes a kind of water bank that can be drawn on by plants all summer and fall until the next rainy season. 

Sometimes albarrados may have been positioned more strategically. They could have collected water above places where agriculture was carried out in a pattern on the side of a hill. The most drought tolerant species of plants would be at the top with descending rows for more thirsty plants. The ones that require the most water occur at the bottom. This order was common along sloping riverbanks used by ancient farmers.

Examining the still-functioning Santa Elena albarrados closely, Marcos has found a biotic treasure trove of over one hundred families and two hundred and twenty genera of plants. The catchments are an abundant reserve for wild vegetation and many of them are valuable in some form as food. Open albarrados are designated for use by men as cattle watering holes, while fenced pools are controlled by women to draw water for cooking and other uses.

It’s an astounding prehistoric cultural practice, but there is an even more striking quality about this elegantly simple and reasonable approach. It provides timely answers to several pressing questions that confront most human communities today. The availability of water is already at a crisis level in some parts of the world and will be everywhere else in a few years. The reason is that a greater human population means a greater number of people needing it, and at the same time, more uses for water are being employed. Energy to move water through the present long distance systems is also becoming scarce. Jagueys such as albarrados can be adapted in places where they have never been previously used to produce a genuinely sustainable benefit. They can be a future life-assuring tool while reiterating the wild heritage from our species’ past.

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