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Archaeologists from the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador, found evidence of the oldest sedentary occupation so far known in Quito, between 4,400 and 1,600 BC, in the El Condado sector, northwest of the capital.
In 2011, Criminalística contacted the archaeologist María Fernanda Ugalde after the fortuitous discovery of human burials. The owner of the land, who was building a house, thought it was a mass grave and therefore reported it to the police. After the rescue excavation of the archaeological assets, construction resumed.
In that excavation, which was financed by the then still existing SOS Heritage of the National Institute of Cultural Heritage (INPC), 18 skeletons were found in a small space.
“In all of Quito and its surroundings, a preceramic cemetery had never been excavated. It was a novelty. It was clear that it is the oldest cemetery in Quito. That was confirmed by carbon 14: 1,600 BC analysis. With that date, they become the first Quiteños that we are aware of so far”Commented Ugalde.
A stable isotope analysis revealed that these groups ate corn in small amounts and shared the food, due to the similarity of values found in all the people in the group. Due to the importance of the finding, the researcher sought funds to carry out new explorations in nearby lands.
The Metropolitan Heritage Institute (IMP) supported and financed the second and third stages. In 2013, the second excavation was carried out where another part of the cemetery was unearthed. In addition, near a nearby stream (important for access to water), a site was found where obsidian was being worked.
Archaeologist Eric Dyrdahl joined the project in 2014, first to do analysis with the X-ray fluorescence technique, with which the source of the obsidian was identified. About 40 km east of Quito, in the Papallacta area, there are mines of this material.
The way to obtain obsidian is not known, but there are two alternatives. The first poses the exchange between a group close to the mines and Rancho Bajo. The second option is that the people of Rancho Bajo went to the source and transported the material. "The exchange is more likely," according to Dyrdahl.
One of the most important findings is that of charred seeds, 5,000 and 5,300 years old. These are indications of plant domestication at very early dates for the area. “Long before the cemetery there was a population that was probably using domesticated plants,” explains Ugalde.
Afterwards, microbotanical analyzes were performed on obsidian and andesite tools, which revealed a palette of five products: pumpkin, goose, melloco, beans and -probably- corn.
The oldest evidence is from 6,400 years ago. Before these investigations, it was thought that the earliest occupation of Quito was that of Cotocollao, which inhabited from 1,500 to 500 BC. and that it had agriculture and pottery.
It was also believed that the arrival of agriculture in the Sierra was later, but with these findings it was found that the dates are close to what was happening on the Coast: 7,000 years BC, the inhabitants of the Las Vegas culture, in Santa Elena, were already domesticating plants. This is the earliest date of agriculture in Ecuador for which there is evidence.
“There have always been problems in the Sierra to find sites with early evidence. Due to the volcanic activity, the remains are buried under meters of rubble ”, says Dyrdahl, who joined the excavations of the third stage, in 2018. The importance of this find is the possibility of understanding the chronology of the occupation of Quito.
“We had this gap of time between the evidences that are in the Ilaló, in the area that we call El Inga (hunter-gatherers from 10,000 BC), and Formative groups, which we call Cotocollao”, Says the researcher.
Ugalde published the research in the journal Arqueología Iberoamericana, under the title ‘Rancho Bajo: first evidence of the preceramic terminal in Quito’.
The next step is to carry out new excavations in nearby land, in order to find houses, since Ugalde and Dyrdahl are sure that it is a sedentary population.
The archaeologists, in addition, are writing a book together with all the information about these findings, because throughout these years different interdisciplinary works have been carried out. It is planned to be published in 2020.