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Reconsidering Precolumbian Human Colonization in the Galápagos Islands, Republic of Ecuador

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Atholl Anderson*
Department of Archaeology and Natural History, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200 Australia
Karen Stothert
Department of Anthropology, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas 78249USA
Helene Martinsson-Wallin
University of Uppsala, Gotland campus, Visby 62167, Sweden
Paul Wallin
University of Uppsala, Gotland campus, Visby 62167, Sweden
Iona Flett
Department of Archaeology and Natural History, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200 Australia
Simon Haberle
Department of Archaeology and Natural History, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200 Australia
Henk Heijnis
Institute for Environmental Research, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Kirrawee DC, NSW 2232, Australia
Edward Rhodes
Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S10 2TN, UK
1( (corresponding author)


Fifty years ago, Heyerdahl and Skjølsvold (1956, 1990) collected material from five archaeological sites in the Galápagos Islands. They retained earthenwares of possible precolumbian origin and discarded ceramic, metal, and glass artifacts postdating the arrival of the Spanish in A.D. 1535. Consequently, they argued that each site was formed as the results of a series of discard events from unrelated short-term occupations extending from the precolumbian to the historical era, and that the earthenwares represented occasional visits by fishermen from precolumbian Peru and Ecuador. In 2005, we re-excavated the sites and collected all the excavated materials. Our results show that each class of material, irrespective of age or origin, was distributed spatially and stratigraphically in the same pattern, contradicting the former assumption of multiple, unrelated occupations. We reject the palimpsest model in favor of the null hypothesis of single-phase site occupation. Analysis of putatively precolumbian pottery using optically-stimulated luminescence dating indicates that it is mostly of historical age. Radiocarbon dating confirms that the archaeological sites are younger than the sixteenth century. Research on sedimentary cores shows probable anthropogenic impacts as restricted to the last 500 years. We conclude that there was no human occupation in the Galápagos Islands until the historical era.



Hace cincuenta años Heyerdahl y Skjølsvold (1956, 1990) recuperaron material arqueológico en cinco sitios de las Islas Galápagos. Estos investigadores se enfocaron en los fragmentos de cerámica de supuesto origen precolombino y descartaron los artefactos posteriores a la llegada de los europeos, en 1535 d.C. Asimismo, sostuvieron que estos sitios eran “palimpsestos”, resultado de la acumulación de materiales culturales durante distintas etapas de ocupación, desde el período prehistórico hasta tiempos modernos. Según ellos, los tiestos de barro sin esmalte vidrioso representaban visitas ocasionales de pescadores desde las costas del Perú y Ecuador. A partir del año 2005 hemos llevado a cabo nuevas investigaciones enfocadas en la reexcavación de los mismos cinco sitios, pero nuestro análisis incluyó a todo el material en conjunto y concluimos que todos los objetos, sin importar su edad y lugar de origen, se distribuyeron según los mismos patrones estratigráficos y espaciales. De esta forma, rechazamos el modelo del palimpsesto y proponemos que hubo una sola fase de ocupación en estos sitios. Gracias a estudios como los análisis por OSL y radiocarbono, hemos determinado que la cerámica de supuesto origen precolombino fue fabricada en el período histórico y que los sitios arqueológicos no fueron ocupados antes del siglo dieciséis. La investigación paleo-ecológica se basó en el análisis de muestras sedimentarias de las Islas y ha demostrado que los probables impactos antropogénicos ocurrieron sólo en los últimos 500 años. Por todas estas razones, concluimos que no hubo ocupación humana en las Galápagos antes de la época histórica.

Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2016

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