The figure stands with her hands facing forward as if to say, “how could you have overlooked me for nearly two millennia?” She is a prime example of the many thousands of brightly-painted and beautifully detailed sculptures produced by the Jama-Coaque culture, which flourished in what is now the Manabí province of modern-day Ecuador’s lush western coast. The name comes from the Jama and Coaque rivers (the majority of habitations found in this area) ; we do not know what these people called themselves. The culture lasted from approximately 350 B.C.E. to 1531 C.E., the year Europeans first arrived in the area.
Most of the intact ceramics that are currently known to scholars were looted, depriving archaeologists and other researchers of the contextual information that comes with a scientifically rigorous archaeological dig.
Luckily, archaeologists have been able to excavate at a few ritual centers, including the important site of San Isidro, located approximately 25 kilometers inland from the coast. Archaeologists found multiple mounds topped with platforms at the site, with the largest almost nearly 17 meters tall and 100 meters in diameter. This indicates that San Isidro was an important cultural center and the seat of a principal ruler. It is probable that some of the figurines in museum collections today were looted from this site.
Influence from the earlier Chorrera culture can be seen in the manufacture of their ceramic sculptures of people, using molds to create the figures’ detail-rich front portions and hand-crafting the simpler backs, creating intricate representations of highly adorned, idealized figures.
Details like jewelry were often also mold-made and applied while the clay was still damp; up to nine separate molds could be used to create a single Jama-Coaque figure. The slight webbing of excess clay connecting the thumbs and index fingers of the figure in the Michael C. Carlos Museum allows us to see an artifact of the mold process. The importance of molds can be seen in the continuity of style across the centuries, a continuity so strong that without an archaeological context it is almost impossible to date Jama-Coaque ceramics. Molds may have been passed down as heirlooms, or even been used to make new molds, so that the imagery they formed would persist. The technique of using molds appears to have been transmitted south, and was adopted by the Moche culture of northern coastal Peru.
The body adorned
The female figures seen here strike the same pose: they standing frontally with their weight evenly balanced, and their arms held slightly away from the body. The palms of the hands facing forward (a pose also seen in earlier Chorrera figures). The figures are characterized by a bilateral symmetry and lack of movement. While somewhat abstracted, the figures are fairly naturalistic. The eyes are rendered as slightly flattened half-circles and the mouths are simple recessed lines, but the noses are sculpted into realistic projections from the face. The example from the Michael C. Carlos Museum has a clay nose ornament, while the flaring nostrils of the one at The Metropolitan Museum of Art may indicate an ornament in clay or another material was once inserted in them. Both wear ear ornaments, elaborate wrapped head cloths, and necklaces, along with long skirts that extend nearly to the ankles. The figure from the Michael C. Carlos Museum also wears arm ornaments.
Stamps and paint
Another way the people of Jama-Coaque decorated their bodies was with stamps, either flat ones or cylindrical ones that could be rolled along the skin. They could be dipped in paint and used to press intricate designs on the body, further adorning a person.
Paint was applied after the clay was fired and has been used to decorate the figurines, but because it was applied after firing, it is delicate and easily damaged, so much of it has worn off. We can see a bright orange-yellow and black on the figure from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, and the same yellow and a soft green-blue on the figure from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The green-blue color may represent greenstone or turquoise, material that was held in high esteem further north in Mesoamerica, and was a widely-used stone throughout the Andes, although not as highly valued. The use of post-fire paint, which is much more delicate than slip but able to provide more brilliant color, points towards the importance of personal display and adornment in Jama-Coaque culture.
Status and power
Jama-Coaque culture was organized into hierarchical chiefdoms, and the headdresses and jewelry worn by these women may indicate their place in the social order. So too would the regalia worn by a male figure from the Brooklyn Museum, who sits with his hands on his thighs, his arms mostly hidden beneath his poncho. The cloth draped over his head has the same textured hem as his poncho, with two oblong shapes projecting from it. Large, dangling ear ornaments emerge from under the head cloth, and he wears a nose ornament and a labret (lower lip) piercing, which has been painted blue. His face has been sculpted similar to that of the women, with simplified eyes, a rudimentary mouth, and a more realistically sculpted nose. A shell is suspended from a double necklace and sits prominently upon his chest; shells were objects of wealth and prestige, and some were used to make musical instruments used in ritual. His lower legs are encircled below the knee and above the feet by bands.
Art historian Tom Cummins has theorized that the emphasis on the material aspects of Jama-Coaque ritual shows a culture vested in the materiality of beliefs, filled with texture, color, and sound (as perhaps evidenced by the shell strung on the necklace in the figure above; some types of shell were used to make trumpets and whistles), and the control that such displays of materiality could give.
What meaning might these figures hold aside from statements of power? Perhaps they are showing the role of the elites in communicating with the spirit world. The eyes of these figures, when found with their surface paint intact, are rolled upward, perhaps looking to the world of the supernatural or experiencing it directly through the use of hallucinogenic substances. In many Andean cultures, specific plants (and sometimes animals) that contain vision-producing (often referred to as psychedelic) substances are seen as guardians of or gateways to the spirit world. By ingesting these plants (eating them, drinking beverages made from them, or even taking them as snuff) during rituals, participants could meet and speak with the supernatural beings and ancestors who lived in the spirit world. Their ability to speak with these beings was often a major source of their social and political power, and the knowledge they brought back from their vision journeys was implemented into the culture.
As archaeologists make more discoveries, they hope to be able to place these figures more firmly in context, and to understand their relationship to Jama-Coaque elites and their social roles.
Maria A. Masucci, “Early Regional Polities of Coastal Ecuador,” in The Handbook of South American Archaeology, edited by Helaine Silverman and Willam H. Isbell (New York: Springer, 2008), pp. 494–6.
Tom Cummins, “The Jama-Coaque mold-made figurines from coastal Ecuador,” Res 71–72 (2019), pp. 64–77.