Geoheritage is a notion that concerns three main elements: a territory with its defined geo-characteristics, the people that have inhabited it throughout the ages, and the natural and cultural resources that it encloses. A general definition of territory is that of a spatial entity that is linked to a human group as the scene of their actions. As such, the group claims a form of jurisdiction that is recognized by other human groups. This jurisdiction can take the form of an exclusive domain over it, with rights and obligations to its good keeping and usage.

The territory, like the landscape, is a cultural construction that has been defined, produced and recognized by human beings as the settings of their social interactions. Their history is closely linked to the space, along with its particular geography and the ecological environment that characterizes it. Therefore it is a place where people live and work, it is a place of production and extraction of resources. In this sense it is the product of the transformation it has endured by the work of a particular human group over time. That is probably the main reason why a group can claim suzerainty over a given territory, it is seen as a form of geoheritage: “It is our space because it was and it is being transformed by our work and that of our ancestors”.

Joel Bonmaisson (1996) stated that an important part of the notion of a territory is its cultural, symbolic, and identitarian dimensions, for these are markers that go beyond the simple space boundaries. The cultural identity that marks the inhabitants of a given region has a defining aspect on the notion of space, time and reality. The symbolic dimension of a given territory is an important link to the social organization that governs a group with a sense of common identity. Thus a territory can be defined by the different kinds of stakes that the people value: cultural tradition, ideology, technology, … for these mark the way they manage the notion of space.

Ancestral territories are an important part of the symbolic sphere, since the feeling of sharing a common identity is deeply enrooted in most autochthonous groups. In this sense geoheritage is especially relevant. A tribe or an ethnic group has claims over a given territory and its resources as part of its rights as an ancestral heritage.   

However, this is also significant for many modern states that evolved after the independence from a foreign colonial power. Most of these countries have had difficulties in assigning clear boundaries with their neighboring states. In such cases the notion of heritage is relevant to the territorial claims that each country has. The juridical aspects of these claims are sought on the political constituents of each country, but these seldom consider the ancestral rights of the original autochthonous groups over a given territory. In most cases the new states based their claims on the interests of the dominant Creole groups, issued from the former colonial powers. In this case, the new Creole identity replaces the ancestral identity of the group and assumes its rights. The destiny of the geoheritage of a given territory is therefore subject to the political changes that the territory undergoes. Its identity may also change over time, but this is normal since its inhabitants are continuously imprinting the identity.

The archaeological study of a given territory is an open enquiry about its ancient people, its geoheritage and its cultural and natural resources. As such it tries to get a comprehensive view of all the relevant facts about the environment, the history of the different sorts of human occupations, their cultural background, and their regional and interregional interactions. Archaeology tries to define the heritage that characterizes a given region. The landscape, for instance, is probably the first page that the archaeologist reads and tries to interpret in view of the historical phases of its formation. This is done in terms of the human transformation of the original natural settings into that of the habitat that is reflected at the present time.

Archaeology will reconstruct the history of a territory and its people through the rests of material culture that are found in and under the surface of the study area. The different survey techniques allow the archaeologist to collect data on the past inhabitants of the area and with this he will try to establish an occupational sequence for the territory where the evidence has been retrieved. The evolution of the geoheritage of    a given territory can be studied in the environment and in the relics left by the past inhabitants of the region.

An example of the impact that geoheritage has today can be seen in the case of an ancient pre-Columbian culture that was discovered in the upper Amazon region, along the boundaries of the present republics of Ecuador and Peru. This region had never been studied previously, in part because of the difficult access conditions that prevail in the thick tropical rain forest that covers the jungle, but mostly on account of the continual armed conflicts that arose in an area that was disputed by the two countries ever since they young republics gained their independence from the Spanish kingdom in the 1830s. Although dispersed indigenous communities inhabited the Amazonian tropical forest, these were alien to the interests of the new states. Nevertheless, both countries claimed vast territories in the jungle as part of the territory that constituted the original geopolitical domains of the colonial entities that were set by the Spaniards in the 16th century. A long history of frontier disputes arose between the young republics and armed conflicts were recurrent for over 200 years. In 1998 at the end of the Cenepa war, both countries finally signed a peace treaty and new political boundaries were definitely set. Soon the area was formally opened to the peaceful interactions of economic and sociocultural exchanges.

In 2000 a team of archaeologists from the Institute de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD-France) proposed to carry out an archaeological project to survey the Ecuadorian province of Zamora Chinchipe, located in the newly delimitated frontier zone. The purpose was to study the cultural heritage of the ancestral people that inhabited this part of the upper Amazon before and after the Spanish conquest. A scientific cooperation agreement was signed between the Ecuadorian Institute of National Cultural Heritage (INPC) and IRD to carry out the archaeological project. The systematic survey registered over 400 archaeological sites throughout the province. As a result ancient culture was revealed, it was called the Mayo Chinchipe - Marañón culture since it was located on the hydraulic basin bearing the same name.

One of the most important sites discovered was the Santa Ana-La Florida (SALF) complex. It has been studied for over 15 years and its occupation has dated through a series of 14 C assays, with a long prehistoric sequence starting more than 5000 years ago. (Valdez et al 2005). These findings gave a new panorama for the history of the Amazonian cultures. It was the first time that stone architecture was found on the lower eastern flanks of the Andes. The material culture was composed of a very fine type of pottery, polished stone vessels, exotic green stone ornaments and probably some very handsome textiles that have not survived the harsh conditions of the jungle environment. One of the most interesting aspects of the material culture is its complex iconography, for it reflects the profound ideological power that governed this ancient rain forest society. The evidence obtained shows a positive process of human adaption to rough ecological settings.

The study of the different elements of the site showed the importance of the social interactions that the Mayo Chinchipe- Marañón culture had with other cultural groups, both on the regional and on the long-distance scale. For example, Pacific Ocean seashells were physically and ichnographically present among the funerary offerings that were found in several tombs. This shows that the upper Amazon societies had economic and ideological interactions with their counterparts in the Pacific Coast and specifically with the people of the Valdivia culture that was coeval (Valdez 2008). Another interesting fact that was revealed in the archaeological study was that cacao was cultivated and consumed in the upper Amazon over 5000 years ago, that is 1500 years before the first use of this product in Mexico or in Central America. The domestication of this culturally significant plant was actually made in this part of Amazonia, and from there it was later dispersed to another parts of the Americas and eventually the world (Zarrillo et al.2018)

Archaeological research brought on new facts that were progressively changing the traditional ideas on the jungle and its supposedly primitive people. The new archaeological evidence showed that many traits that characterized the high cultures from the highlands and the Pacific Coast had been developed in Amazonia more than five thousand years ago. A decade of research was changing the notion of the geoheritage of the rain forest cultures. The new evidence showed that the early Amazonians had fashioned their territory and developed a complex society that was determinant in shaping the social organization of the known world through significant interactions with the rest of its coeval groups.

Archaeologists now have the responsibility to change the image of the supposed passive "good savage" by presenting the evidence of the development of a high culture in this particular territory. The traditional notion of the Amazonian heritage has to change, but the challenge is not easy, since in the minds of the present dwellers the image of the indigenous tribes seems frozen in time. In this way of thinking there is nothing positive in the “native lifeways” and their methods of exploiting the environment are unproductive, to say the least.

The transmission of the new evidence had to be done in situ, the SALF site itself had to become a showcase where any visitor could appreciate the cultural feats of the prehistoric inhabitants of the region. The impressive architecture speaks for itself, but there are many other cultural traits that speak of the advanced civilization that thrived there 5000 years ago.

However the archaeological materials cannot be exposed in the site, as there are no ways of protecting them from vandalism in the middle of the jungle.  Yet the evidence has to be exposed there so the local population and the visitors could see and understand the importance of the Mayo Chinchipe culture. An educational program for the local schools and high schools was set from the very beginning of the project. Regular talks and multimedia shows were part of the task that was to become an important educational aid. Later an interpretation center was mounted in the site to explain the main characteristics of the archaeological evidence that the study has been progressively furnishing.  In that instance, posters and information panels were made in a clear language as to be able to transmit the information the visitors need to understand the cultural process that can be witnessed in the site. Pictures of the different cultural materials and the funerary offerings that were extracted from the site are shown in their original archaeological context.  Summary explanations about certain aspects of the ancient lifeways are also posted in different parts of the site.

A large panel exposition of the site and the Mayo Chinchipe-Marañón culture was conceived as a traveling exhibit for the main cities of Ecuador and Peru; once the tour ended in late 2013 the exposition was set in Palanda, the administrative territorial center for the area where the SALF site is located.  Other public exhibitions with some of the actual archaeological objects have been made in different cities, including major museums such as the Museo Nacional in Quito, or the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

The proper transmission of the historic importance of geoheritage is crucial to the understanding and preservation of the cultural landscapes that are the fruit of the human transformation of the natural environment.

In short, the notion of geoheritage is an ongoing process that concerns all the actors, the local community, the authorities and the mediator that helps make the link between the data and its meaning in social terms. The archaeological data has to be properly presented in order to explain the successful process that the early tropical forest dwellers had in transforming the jungle environment into a very productive garden.


VALDEZ Francisco

IRD, France

To go further

Bonnemaison J., 1996, Gens de piroque et gens de la terre, Paris: Ed de l’ORSTOM.

Valdez, F. (2008). Inter-zonal relationships in Ecuador. In Handbook of South American Archaeology (H. Silverman y W. H. Isbell, Eds.): 865-888; New York, Springer.

Valdez, F., Guffroy, J., de Saulieu, G., Hurtado, J., & Yépez, A. (2005). Découverte d’un site cérémoniel formatif sur le versant oriental des Andes. Comptes Rendus de l’Academie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. Palevol 4: 369–374.

Zarrillo, S., Gaikwad, N., Lanaud, C., Powis, T., Viot, C., Lesur, I., . . . Valdez, F. (2018). The use and domestication of Theobroma cacao during the mid-Holocene in the upper Amazon, Nature Ecology & Evolution FULL TEXT.

Video (Francisco Valdez)