Ancient Cultural Contacts between Ecuador, West Mexico, and the American Southwest: Clothing Similarities

by Patricia Rieff Anawalt
Ancient Cultural Contacts between Ecuador, West Mexico, and the American Southwest: Clothing Similarities
Patricia Rieff Anawalt
Latin American Antiquity
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Patricia Rieff Anawalt

Clothing styles, design motifs, and techniques of cloth production found in codex illustrations and on pottery and extant textile fragments suggest diffusion of culture tralts from the northern coast of South .4merica to West Mexlco and on into the American Southwest. The non-mesoamerican garments depicted in a West Mexican sixteenth-centuty manuscript and on mortuarj~figurines buried more than 1,000 years earlier in an adjacent area find analogs only in styles that were present in Ecuador from 1500 B.C. up to the time of Spanlsh contact. Clothing and textile design motifs represented on figures found in the West Mexican shaft tombs of Ixtlrin del Rio, Nayarit, indicate that these parallels existed as early as 400 B.C. .4 variety of other data suggest that intermittent maritime contact persisted between Ecuador and West Mexico through the interveningperiod and into the sixteenth century.

El estilo del vestido, 10s diserios decorativos y /as tknicas de produccidn ilustrados en 10s cddices, la cerdmica y en fragmentos de tejidos sugleren la difusibn de elemenros culturales de la costa norte de Sudamkrica a la parte oeste de hfxico y a1 suroeste de 10s Estados Unidos. Los trqjes de origen no-mesoamericano ilustrados en un rnanuscrito del siglo dieciskis, proveniente del oeste de Mkxico, y 10s mostrados en Jiguritas depositadas en tumbas mris de un milenio antes, tienen analogi'a sdlo con 10s estilos del vestido presentes en Ecuador desde 1500 A.C. hasta el momento del contact0 con 10s Esparioles. La ropa y 10s diserios decorativos representados en las tumbas en forma de bota de Ixtlrin del Rio, en Nayarit, indican que estos paralelos existian tan temprano como 400 '4.C. Otra informacidn diversa sugiere que hubieron persistenres contactos maritimos entre el Ecuador y el ocste de .W6xlco durante todo este periodo que continuaron hasta el siglo dieciskis.

A number of traits common to Prehispanic northern South America and West Mexico-probably the result of seaborne diffusion-have been identified by various scholars: shaft tombs and mortuary offerings (Kan et al. 1989); ceramic objects and techniques (Evans and Meggers 1966; Grove 198 1: 39 1, 1982; Lathrap 1966, 1975:53-6 1; Piiia Chan 1989:33-38); metallurgy (Hosler 1988; Hosler et al. 1990); design motifs (Meighan 1969); and language (Swadesh 1967).

One can even see evidence for such contact in the extraordinary distribution of two closely related species of birds, one of which appears to have been introduced into West Mexico in ancient. times (Haemig 1979). The painted jay, Cvanocorax dickeyi, is a brightly hued, blue bird inhabiting a tiny 193-x-32-km range in a mountainous region of western Mexico, located in the states of Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Durango. It appears nowhere else in North or Central America; its taxonomically closest relative. the white-tailed jay (Cyanocorax rny.~tacalis), is known only in the coastal regions of Ecuador and northern Peru. These two birds are separated by a distance of 4,000 km,' making the painted jay's distribution one of the most isolated and unusual in the Western Hemisphere (Haemig 1979). A feasible explanation for this anomaly is importation via seaborne trade.

To the above list of similarities shared by northern South America and West Mexico, this article adds a further trait, clothing.


Tarascan Clothing: Sixteenth Century

The investigation was originally triggered by garment inconsistencies depicted in an early colonial codex that originated in the highlands of West Mexico (Figure 1). The Relaci6n de Michoaccin was

Patricia RiefAnawalt, Center for the Study of Regional Dress, Fowler .Museum of Cultural Histoo< University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90024

Latin American Antiquity, 3(2), 1992, pp. 114-129.
Copyright O 1992 by the Society for American Archaeology


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Figure 1. Map of West Mexico showing areas under discussion.
compiled between 1539 and 154 1 by the Spanish missionary Fray Jeronimo de Alcali working with Tarascan informants and native artists. The document deals with the Prehispanic social and religious institutions of the Tarascan kingdom's ruling class (Freddolino 1973). The clothing shown in the Relacidn is distinct from Prehispanic clothing known for all other areas of Mesoamerica (Anawalt 198 1).

Whereas the Tarascans' mesoamerican male neighbors all wore long, wrap-around loincloths and rectangular capes (Anawalt 198 1:2 lo), Tarascan men are shown in short breeches (Figure 2) and tunic-like shirts (Figure 3), often checked (Figure 4). Mesoamerican females of the central plateau were modestly clad in long, wrap-around skirts and huipil or quechquemitl (Anawalt 198 1:2 13), but Tarascan women are depicted in tight, short, checked skirts worn either with a tiny mini-mantle over one shoulder (see Figure 3) or completely topless. This scanty apparel is particularly puzzling because the Tarascan heartland is located at an elevation of 2,100-2,700 m, where frosts are common from November to March. The strangeness of Tarascan attire did not go unnoticed by their enemies. The Aztecs scoffed at the Tarascan men for wearing women's huipiles, and recorded their aberrant attire in several pictorials (e.g., Codex Telleriano-Rernensis [Corona Nuiies 1964:f. 25~1).

These garments, worn by the Tarascans at the time of Spanish contact, were completely unlike those of the rest of Mesoamerica but almost identical to clothing worn over a thousand years earlier


Figure 7. Map of the Manabi coast of Ecuador showing sites and culture areas under discussion.
zoned punctation (Figure 8); a female is clad in a miniscule tight skirt and matching mini-mantle, both punctate incised (Figure 9).

Large clay human figures have been found at Los Esteros on the coast of Ecuador in Bahia phase (500 B.C.-100 A.D.) contexts (Lapiner 1976:334). These hollow Los Esteros sculptures often wear multiple earrings, as do their slightly later Ixtlan del Rio counterparts. A further parallel trait is geometrically patterned, polychrome garments.

Los Esteros female figurines are attired only in decorated skirts and necklaces; males are clad in short shirts over which are often worn a large, curved pendant (Figure 10). The general shape and size of these Ecuadorian pectorals and the pelvic cover that often hangs from the belt of Ixtlan del Rio males (see Figure 6) appear to be identical.


Figure 14. Diagram of a supplementary-weft gauze weave (after Teague 1991:Part 2, Chapter 3, Figure 15).
technique. When discussing these pieces, Pang (1 975:306) used the term "brocaded gauze." refemng to the decorative effect achieved by the supplementary wefts being added during the weaving process. Pang (1 975:30 1) dated these gauze fragments post-A.D. 1000, whereas Mastache de Escobar (1 97 1: 85) suggested post-A.D. 700-900. In view of Hosler's (1 988) contention that the initial introduction of metallurgy in to West Mexico was around A.D. 800, the earlier dating may be feasible.

Alternating- Warp Float Weave

An additional ancient Andean weaving technique further links the American Southwest, West Mexico, and South America. The tradition of loom-woven warp patterning dates back in the Andes at least 4,500 years (Rowe 1977:6). Of these weaves, the alternating-warp float is among the earliest and remains the only Prehispanic weaving technique still extant along the Ecuadorian coast in modern times (Hagino and Stothert 1984:22-24). The alternating-warp float (Figure 15) involves skipping one of the regular interlacings of threads in a plain weave in order to produce a three-span float in the warp on one side of the fabric and in the weft on the other (Rowe 1977:53).

An archaeological textile exhibiting the alternating-warp float weave was found in West Mexico. A copper-preserved piece of loom-woven cotton cloth was discovered in 1960 by looters in a cave

Warps Interlacing Warps Interlacing \1:1 1:3


Figure 15. Diagram of an alternating-warp float weave (after Teague 1991:Part 2, Chapter 3, Figure 10).


near Campo Morado, in the Rio Balsas Basin of Guerrero. This undated fragment represents a weaving technique unlike any other reported to date from Precolumbian Mesoamerica (Johnson 1964:532-533) and is a special variant of warp-pattern weave "[where] the design generally depends upon the alternate arrangement of contrasting colors in the warp set-up." This technique was used by the ancient Peruvians (Johnson 1964:532-533) and was also known to weavers in the American Southwest.

In discussing textiles of the prehistoric Southwest, Kent (1957:532-535) refers to the alternating- warp float weave as producing a pattern where the design is built up by warp floats on the surface of the cloth. There is no evidence of this particular technique anywhere in the Southwest until after

A.D. 1300, when it turns up in the present-day state of Arizona at Tonto National Monument, a site that contains further South American-West Mexican parallels.

American Southwestern Clothing: A.D. 1000-1400

The American Southwest had developed weaving skills in a variety of complex techniques by

A.D. 900, following the introduction of domesticated cotton by A.D. 500 and the mesoamerican backstrap loom slightly later. Owing to this area's desert climate and dry-cave preservation, at least 2,000 textile remains have survived (Kent 1983).

Evidence suggests that in these arid lands men were wearing Andean-style cotton tunics (Kent 1983:7 1,22 1-225). Four virtually complete southwestern shirts dating between A.D. 1000 and 1400 are known, two made of painted plain weave, two of single-element fabrics. The best-known of these garments was found in a cave in Tonto National Monument. The tunic-like shape of this cotton-fiber shirt appears only in West Mexico and South America. Its construction method, how- ever, is a nonloom technique called sprang-the manipulation of a set of parallel yams-that appears to have originated in South America, where it has been found in Peruvian sites dating back to 1 100

B.C. Today sprang is also present in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Guiana, and Venezuela (Kent 1983:70-7 1).

A detailed analysis of the Southwest's cotton-based textile assemblage recently has been completed by Lynn S. Teague (1991). Her research suggests that the prehistoric southwestern phenomenon does not represent a locally derived tradition but rather was introduced from West Mexico. The costume evidence bears this out.

Although the mesoamerican backstrap loom was used throughout Middle America-including West Mexico-and played a decisive role in the development of clothing in the American Southwest, its diffusion was not accompanied by the full mesoamerican costume repertoire. Southwestern men did not wear the pan-mesoamerican wraparound loincloth and simple cape, but instead wore close- fitting breech coverings and tunic-like shirts. Two of the latter, constructed of loom-woven plain weave, resemble the male garments of West Mexico. The archaeological presence of this non- mesoamerican apparel (Kent 1983:221-233) suggests that the backstrap loom anived in the Amer- ican Southwest by way of West Mexico.

The mutual reinforcement of dress modes and weaving technology suggests the possibility of a pathway of cultural exchange between South America and the American Southwest with West Mexico the interlinking channel. Riley (1987:86-87) described evidence for Prehispanic trade routes to the north from coastal West Mexico. He based his argument on evidence of Indian traders from Culiacan being found in the Yaqui area as well as the archaeological discovery of southwestern goods in Jalisco and Sinaloa. A memory of this trade-in operation when the Spanish arrived-was still extant in the 1880s when Lumholtz traveled through the Michoacan highlands. He reported that in "former times" Tarascan merchants journeyed as far north as the state of New Mexico (Lumholtz 1973:11:368).


To the argument favoring Ecuadorian-West Mexican cultural exchange, this article has added an additional trait, clothing. Similarities in garment styles and weaving techniques between coastal Ecuador, West Mexico, and the American Southwest lend credence to the linguistic hypothesis

proposed by Swadesh (1967:92-93) for an ancient link between Quechua, Tarascan, and Zuni. Nonetheless, puzzling questions remain concerning the reasons for this contact, the items being traded, and why these trading forays were going on with West Mexico rather than other mesoamerican populations.

The combined language and garment similarities suggest that Ecuadorian kin, or adopted kin, may have been permitted to remain in the West Mexican villages for up to six months at a time and that these northern groups were probably originally trading colonies of southern merchants who then stayed on permanently. They thus would be the same linguistico-ethnic group and, hence, wear the same clothing. Repeated trade would have maintained contact-preventing "genetic drift"- and kept the West Mexicans from becoming acculturated "Mesoamericans." The Ecuadorian-West Mexican parallels in ceramics, metallurgy, design motifs, burial practices, dress modes, and weaving techniques argue for more than strong ties of trade between these two distant groups.

Acknowledgments. Many colleagues have contributed to this investigation; I am indebted to them all. Eliz- abeth Boone provided the initial incentive. Olaf Holm, director, Museo Antropol6gico del Banco Central, Guayaquil, Ecuador, made his collections available, and supplied needed photos and detailed information, as did Robert Stroessner, Latin American curator, Denver Art Museum. Betty J. Meggers, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., kindly permitted me to examine the Ecuadorian Los Rios textile fragments and also lent assistance with an early draft of the manuscript. Lynn Teague, curator of archaeology, Arizona State Museum, generously allowed the use of unpublished data and interpretations and drew the textile diagrams shown in Figures 14 and 15. Al Stendahl helped in obtaining information on the published archaeological figures. Other helpful colleagues include Jonathan Batkin, Frances Berdan, Guillermo Cock, Alana Cordy-Collins, Christopher Donnan, Alan Grinnell, David Grove, Bridget Hodder Stuart, Thomas Howell, Clement Meighan, Phil C. Weigand, Gordon Willey, and the anonymous readers. Elizabeth P. Benson's assistance in Ecuador was appreciated, as were Susan Einstein's photographs, Kathleen O'Reilly's maps, and Lisa Chisholm's research competence.


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I The insert on Figure 7 shows the distributions of the painted jay (Cyanoxorax dickeyi) and the white-tailed jay (Cyanocorax mystacalis).

Received July 5, 1991; accepted January 6, 1992

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