Around 4000–3500 B.C., ancient people living along the coast of Ecuador produced the earliest representational images in the Americas. Small, solid figures of carved stone, between three and five inches high, have been found at archaeological sites like Real Alto and Loma Alta. Made from calcium carbonate (which includes limestone, marble, gypsum, etc.), these tiny figurines ranged from simple ground plaques to finely carved statuettes with clearly delineated facial features. The figurines often possessed both feminine and masculine attributes, such as the breasts of a woman and the genitals of a man.
Roughly 500 years later, the first ceramic figurines began to appear at Real Alto. While similar in form to their stone predecessors, these fired clay figures varied significantly in detail. They were constructed of two rods of clay pressed together to form the main portion of the figure, and the hair—often elaborately styled—was added as a separate caplike slab of clay. The arms of the figures are indicated only slightly and the legs are separated by a triangular cut. Most of the ceramic figurines appear to be female, with prominent breasts and voluptuous bodies, though some of the statuettes continued to manifest both male and female characteristics.
Valdivia figurines have been found in a variety of contexts at Real Alto, from burials of important personages to refuse piles on house floors. The majority of them, however, have been found near hearths and food preparation areas—activities traditionally associated with women. Based upon these features, the figurines are most often interpreted as fertility figures, though their precise purpose remains unknown.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Valdivia Figurines.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/vald/hd_vald.htm (October 2004)