Archaeology: The Prehistoric Mounds of Zuleta

 Zuleta lies within a side branch of the intermontane basin in the northern highlands of Ecuador.  Well-watered agricultural land covers the bases of narrow, steep-sided valleys, shadowed by towering volcanic peaks.  In the pastures of Hacienda Zuleta, cattle and horses graze contentedly amidst the approximately 100 prehistoric earthen mounds clustered within a roughly 1.3km2 area.

The size and concentration of earthen mounds at Zuleta is truly amazing.  Some mounds reach almost 100m along the side and 10m in height.  The carefully proportioned form of the largest mounds, with their square truncated pyramid shape and long ramps, suggests a powerful and well-organized ancient society.

The Caranqui: Builders of Mounds

From around AD 1250, the Caranqui built mounds at over 60 sites across a region extending roughly 75 km north-south and 55 km east-west, concentrated mostly in temperate highland valleys where the volcanic soils were perfect for growing their staple food, maize. 

The Caranqui populated the highlands between Cayambe, Otavalo, and Ibarra.  The northern boundary is sharply defined by the arid Chota/Mira River valleys.  The southern boundary generally coincides with the similarly warm and arid Guayllambamba River valley.  There are also several Caranqui mound sites west of the Western Cordillera.

 With Inca control and administration of the region (around 1510A.D.), the Caranqui culture faded into history.  Little was evident to the Spanish conquistadores when they arrived in 1534, despite the fierce resistance from the Caranqui which had stalled the great Inca army for almost 15 years.

How Old Are the Mounds?

The earliest mounds are circular structures used for burials.  By about AD 1250, we begin to see construction of the large ramp mounds, the hallmark of Caranqui society.   

Coincident with the appearance of ramp mounds are new types of pottery, including amphorae with red-line designs on a buff-colored exterior.   

Information taken from “The Mounds of Zuleta”, an unpublished document by Dr. J. Stephen Athens, M. J. Tomonari-Tuggle and Tom Arakaki.

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