1.0 Introduction

The diachronic processes implicit in the evolution of social-political complexity and the eventual emergence of large chiefdom polities have long been of interest to anthropologists. This process may be observed de facto in the extant archaeological record with the slow shift from simple sedentary societies into regional tribal alignments, culminating in the eventual emergence of traits considered diagnostic of chiefdoms. It is, however, rare that we are afforded more than a cursory glimpse into the dynamics of this still-enigmatic process or insight into catalytic events that may have triggered sudden quantum developments in it . For the most part the process must be observed and divined at a distance through the partial record of prehistory. The Americas afford a better potential understanding of this process in that the interface of prehistory with history occurs here much later than in much of the rest of the world. The first European explorers and then conquerors arrived here in the late 15th and 16th centuries at a time when, outside of the Aztec and Inca empires, many territories in the southern United States, in the Caribbean and northern South America, including the so-called 'Intermediate' area, were still functioning at the chiefdom socio-political level and thus accessible to historical observation and commentary.

figure 1a - clickable map of study area Area of study Figure 1a. Area of study (clickable map)

This is the case with the Late Period chiefdoms of the Ecuadorean northern sierra (Figure 1), which have been the subject of extensive ethnohistoric interest and study in the course of the last few years (e.g. Salomon 1986; Caillavet 1983; 1985; 1988). Although advances in the archaeological study of this region across the last 30 years have improved our understanding of the nature and functioning of the chiefdom polities here (Athens 1978; 1980; 1992; 1998; Bray 1991; 1992; Cordero 1998; Knapp 1984; 1991; Oberem 1975; 1981, questions remain concerning the dynamics of the earlier evolutionary phases of this complex socio-political process. A careful review of both existing documentary and archaeological data, together with illuminations afforded by new campaigns of fieldwork, are critical to the development of a better understanding.


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