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Las Caracuchas

A middle formative site at the Caribbean coast of Colombia (Arqueocaribe project).


  • Omar R. Ortiz-Troncoso
  • Gustavo Santos Vecino
  • Helda Otero de Santos
  • Ronald R. van Zweden

This is a preliminary report of a research carried out in a shell midden located in the Sinú river area, Colombia, with a radiocarbon age of c.3600 years.

This study is part of the Arqueocaribe Project, which is conducted since 1982 by archaeologists of the University of Amsterdam (Dept. of Pre and Protohistorical Archaeology), and the University of Antioquia, Medellín (Dept. of Anthropology).

Funds were made available by the Netherlands Foundation for the Advancement of Tropical Research (WOTRO, The Hague), and the Foundation for Anthropology and Prehistory in The Netherlands (Amsterdam).

Since the first surveys and excavations by Gerardo and Alicia Reichel-Dolmatoff at the Caribbean coast of Colombia, four decades ago, the archaeological study of this littoral has received increasing attention (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1955, 1961, 1971). Another incentive comes from the investigations conducted by Carlos Angulo Valdés on a number of prehistoric settlements present in the Barranquilla-Santa Marta area. Basically, these sites are related to the early exploitation of sea resources, or from the adjacent lagoons in a swampy tropical mangrove environment. Cultural remains include some of the oldest pottery types of the continent. The accumulation of data has permitted the definition of a Formative stage or period for this area. Chronological sub-units were created, and progressively adjusted, according to advances in typological analysis of the pottery.

The earliest phase at Puerto Hormiga site, excavated by Reichel-Dolmatoff, is characterized by subsistence based on the gathering of shellfish, and crude pottery with frequent use of vegetal temper, rudimentary and irregular decoration, etc. The next phases (Barlovento, San Jacinto, and Malambo) present an evolution in pottery ornamentation. The midden refuse of Barlovento suggests that it may have been a seasonal camp, visited only in periods when shellfish are most abundant. On the other hand, San Jacinto included new pottery elements, and Malambo suggests cultural contacts between northern Colombia and Venezuela (Barrancoid Series); also, "the extent of the refuse deposits, their proximity to the banks of the Río Magdalena, and the abundance of griddle fragments permit the conclusion that this phase corresponds to a sedentary village life based on the cultivation of manioc and probably other plants. Although there must have been a secondary dependence on hunting and on fishing from the rivers and lakes, shellfish were no longer exploited" (Angulo Valdés 1963:58).

In 1974 G. Reichel-Dolmatoff discovered the site of Monsú (Municipio Turbana, Departamento Bolívar), which permitted him the elaboration of a more accurate sequence for the early ceramic period. Geographically and culturally this site exhibits an evident relationship with the shell midden of Puerto Hormiga, but the age of Monsú seems to be larger (5300 ± 80 BP; UCLA-2149C; shell sample). According to this author, this is the oldest date for ceramic production in the American continent, and he pointed out that sherds found in subjacent non-dated layers could be considerably older, for instance those of the Turbana Excisa type (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1985:175). A sequence of both cultural and social traditions from the West coast has been summarized by Santos Vecino (1992).

Among the sites studied by the Arqueocaribe Project there is at least one that, by its characteristics and age, is related to those mentioned above. This site is Las Caracuchas, a shell midden of great extension and density located near Altamira, a village of the Municipio San Bernardo del Viento (Departamento Córdoba) in the Sinú river area. This is one of the major rivers of northern Colombia, with a delta located now at Boca de Tinajones, 9°25' N & 75°55' W (originally the delta was situated in the Cispatá bay).

We surveyed and tested the site for the first time in 1984, collecting sherds and samples of lithic industry from the surface (Ortiz-Troncoso & Santos Vecino 1985; Santos Vecino & Ortiz-Troncoso 1986). Unfortunately, during the early 80's it was exploited for extraction of shells used in the restoration of rural roads. Nevertheless, about 50% of its volume remained untouched, but its central part (perhaps the most representative for a stratigraphic research) was considerably damaged.

The position of Las Caracuchas, 10 km. from the present seaboard, is a relevant aspect that retained our interest for a second visit and prosecution of the research, five years later. Clearly, this location indicates that important changes took place in the landscape during the period for which human presence is documented for this part of Colombia (approximately the last 6000 years). At Las Caracuchas we carried out a partial stratigraphic study in a 3 m. high profile. The study of this artificial accumulation of brackish-water shells, now considerably separated from the sea, can be particularly useful for the reconstruction of the former environment. It is believed that this coastal section consisted of vast surfaces covered by mangrove.

According to Martin et al. (1986:506) it is possible to establish a horizontal relationship between this kind of sites and former lagoonal, estuarine or marine environments: "it is probable that paleo-inhabitants chose campsites above high-tide level, immediately adjacent to favorable collecting grounds, where the best conditions of comfort and safety were found. Only occasionally is there evidence that they went farther afield, in which case one may assume an important relationship between the shell midden's position and the presence of shallow-marine, lagoonal or estuarine zone in the vicinity. Ecological investigations of the dominant mollusc species found in the shell midden will indicate the paleo-environmental conditions of the surrounding area".

Seven samples from Las Caracuchas have been dated with a maximum of 3590 ± 100 years BP (GrN-17665, charcoal), that is to say 2270 cal BC - 1680 cal BC. Tentativelly, and according to the chronological table published by Reichel-Dolmatoff (1985:176), this date correlates the initial level of Las Caracuchas to the Middle and Late Formative (Pangola & Macaví pottery from Monsú); it is also related to the first part of the Sub-Boreal. The data about the coastal processes indicate a probable high sea-level in coincidence with this age, tested for instance at Cartagena (Van der Hammen & Ortiz-Troncoso 1992:13-15). In a lowland such as this, the permanence of great lagoons formed during the previous climatic sub-stage (Atlantic), in combination with an important volume of water from the Sinú and its tributaries, was also possible.


Angulo Valdés, C., 1963.
Cultural development in Colombia. In: Aboriginal Cultural Development in Latin America: An Interpretative Review (B.J. Meggers & C. Evans, eds) pp.55-66. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 146, Washington.
Martin, L., K. Suguio & J.M. Flexor, 1986.
Shell middens as a source for additional information in Holocene shoreline and sea-level reconstruction: examples from the coast of Brazil. In: Sea-level research: a manual for the collection and evaluation of data (O. van de Plassche, ed) pp.503-521. Geo Books, Norwich.
Ortiz-Troncoso, O.R. & G. Santos Vecino, 1985.
El proyecto colombo-holandés Arqueocaribe. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 71: 29-39. Paris.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G., 1955.
Excavaciones en los conchales de la costa de Barlovento. Revista Colombiana de Antropología 4: 249-272.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G., 1961.
Puerto Hormiga: un complejo prehistórico marginal de Colombia (nota preliminar). Revista Colombiana de Antropología 10: 349-354.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G., 1971.
Early pottery from Colombia. Archaeology 24:338-345.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G., 1985.
Monsú, un sitio arqueológico. Biblioteca Banco Popular, Bogotá.
Santos Vecino, G., 1992.
Organización social y explotación de recursos naturales en el occidente de la costa caribe colombiana. In: Archaeology and Environment in Latin America (O.R. Ortiz-Troncoso & T. van der Hammen, eds) pp.165-173. Universiteit van Amsterdam.
Santos Vecino, G. & O.R. Ortiz-Troncoso, 1986.
Investigaciones arqueológicas en la costa del golfo de Morrosquillo (Colombia). Informe de avance. Boletín de Antropología (Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín) 6 (20): 27-44.
Van der Hammen, T. & O.R. Ortiz-Troncoso, 1992.
Arqueología y medio ambiente en Suramérica septentrional. In: Archaeology and Environment in Latin America (O.R. Ortiz-Troncoso & T. van der Hammen, eds) pp.9-24. Universiteit van Amsterdam.

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