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Ecuador skeleton finds may shed light on period surrounding Spanish conquest

By Melanie Enriquez

Quito, Jan 8 (efe-epa).- The recent discovery in central Ecuador of 12 skeletons and various artifacts at an Inca-era “cancha” (small city block) may shed light on life in that Andes region at around the time of the Spanish conquest and the transition to colonial rule.

The finds, made during an archaeological salvage operation launched during construction of an irrigation water tank, are deemed highly significant because academic research on that period thus far has relied almost exclusively on historical sources.

The remains dating back roughly five centuries were found at an altitude of 2,900 meters (9,500 feet) in Mulalo, a rural district of the Ecuadorian canton of Latacunga, located in Cotopaxi province.

“It’s a major contribution because this period specifically is an era that’s little-studied archaeologically, only from the perspective of history,” Esteban Acosta, the archaeologist who headed up the salvage operation, told Efe.

The bone remains and artifacts found at a depth of less than one meter correspond to a period from around 1450 to 1540 that saw a transition from the late Inca period to the start of the Spanish colony in that region.

That is the conclusion reached by archaeologists based on some ceramic vessels that are typical of Inca culture but which also are decorated with symbols that include a Christian cross and the letter “W” (the significance of which remains unclear).

“This type of decoration hadn’t been seen before, which makes us think that it’s from the transition to the Spanish colonial” world, the expert said.

Acosta said he expects a laboratory analysis of the finds will offer a glimpse into “how the people of that era lived,” considering that the main sources on those cultures are historical rather than archaeological.

Other archaeological sites also are located in Cotopaxi province, including an Inca-era wall that has given rise to several research projects.

Some sites in that province contain remains and artifacts from the Panzaleo culture, which stretched from present-day Quito in the north to Tungurahua in the south and pre-dated the Incas, the archaeologist said.

Amid a lack of funding for archaeological research at the national level, Latacunga’s mayor, Byron Cardenas, stepped in and hired Acosta to launch an in-depth investigation.

The first discovery – of a cranium and a pottery vessel – was made in 2019 during a preliminary study and prompted recommendations that a larger-scale operation be carried out before the construction of the irrigation water tank – an artificial reservoir that the local population had been demanding for more than a decade.

“We discovered a rectangular Inca cancha (a mass of earth and clay that served as a foundation for homes and fortifications and which are found throughout the Andean region) measuring 13 meters east to west and seven meters north to south,” the researcher said.

Unlike in coastal areas, canchas located in the Andes tended to be made out of stone, although in this case the blocks are missing because they were likely “taken away to build houses and only part of the foundation remained,” Acosta said.

A total of 12 skeletons have been discovered at the site in Mulalo. Although all of them are badly deteriorated due to water filtration, laboratory analysis will allow a determination on whether they belong to the same family group or not.

“What’s in better shape are the teeth of almost all of (the skeletons),” Acosta said of the possibility for genetic and morphological studies.

Among the findings of the initial study stage is the conclusion that all of the skeletons correspond to the same period of between 50 and 100 years, although DNA tests will be necessary to confirm their gender and ages and the familial relationships among them.

Another object that has attracted archaeologists’ attention is a ring in some of the skeletons that “is not copper nor a known metal” but which Acosta has ruled out as anything associated with Inca culture.

Following the discovery of this extraordinary site, authorities have had to intervene and protect it from “huaqueros,” as raiders of tombs, temples and archaeological sites in the Andean region are known.

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