Real Alto, an archaeological site located in southwest Ecuador’s Chanduy Valley, represents one of the oldest organized villages in South America. Discovered in 1971 by archaeologist Jorge Marcos, Real Alto is associated with the artistically precocious Valdivia culture, which flourished on the coast of Ecuador ca. 3300–1500 B.C. Located near the fertile agricultural lands of the Río Verde, the site is situated on top of one of the two highest points in the valley, possibly providing the inhabitants of Real Alto with insurance against flooding during Ecuador’s heavy rain season.
The earliest occupation at Real Alto dates to approximately 6,000 years ago. At this time, Real Alto resembled a small ring or U-shaped village consisting of fifty to sixty individuals living in twelve to fifteen small, single-family huts. These huts were elliptical in shape and constructed, most likely, from bent poles topped with straw thatch or palm fronds. The majority of household activities like cooking, stone-tool manufacturing, and burial of the dead took place immediately outside of these residential structures, suggesting that at this time social and economic activities were centered in and around the household.
By about 2500 B.C., however, Real Alto’s population spiked to an estimated 1,250 people and the layout of the site transformed from a small-scale village to a regional center. The former ring-shaped orientation of the settlement was replaced by a rectangular layout with ninety to a hundred houses oriented around a central plaza. These residences were significantly larger and sturdier than the single-family huts of earlier times and most likely housed extended families. They consisted of upright post walls covered with daub (an adhesive material such as plaster, mortar, or clay used in combination with straw, hay, or grass, and applied to walls during construction) and capped by large thatched roofs. In the central plaza, four irregularly shaped mounds topped by public buildings were constructed. The two largest of these mounds, the Fiesta House Mound and the Charnel House Mound, contained evidence of large-scale ritual feasting and mortuary activity, suggesting that architectural and social complexity were increasing during this time.
By 1800 B.C., residential patterns at Real Alto changed again. Tiny hamlets sprang up around the periphery as a portion of the site’s inhabitants moved to outlying areas. Despite such change, Real Alto continued to function as a vitally important center for ritual and community activity. Archaeological evidence suggests that during this phase, members of Real Alto’s regionally dispersed community actively engaged in agriculture, long-distance trade, and craft specialization, including ceramic production, spinning and weaving, and stone-tool manufacturing.