La Tolita

  • Environment and Geography

    The La Tolita culture extended along the coast from the Esmeralda area of Ecuador to the Tumaco Region in Colombia, at the southern edge of the tropical coast of western South America, beyond which the landscape gradually becomes more arid. It is an area of dense rainforests, high rainfall and abundant wildlife, and is criss-crossed by broad, navigable rivers with many islands at their mouths.

  • Economy

    The La Tolita economy was based on growing corn and yuca, as well as hunting and the extraction of marine resources. Being located at the mouths of large rivers that flowed down from the Andes Mountains positioned them favorably for trading with mountain groups, and even those from the jungle on the other side of the Andes.

  • Art

    La Tolita potters used sandy, grayish clay to make their pieces, which included jugs, pitchers, cups, tripods and yuca graters. The many figurines they made were finely crafted and realistically detailed, almost all having nose rings, ear ornaments, and other bodily ornaments. Also notable were their statues of mythical beings, including some that were half human-half animal. Incense burners were another distinctive item in the La Tolita ceramic repertoire. Some of these were very large and resembled others from Mesoamerica. In stone, they manufactured grinding stones, axes, and chisels, and also worked with semiprecious stones (emeralds, quartz, agate and turquoise), which they mounted in gold and silver pieces. The metalworkers of La Tolita were the first in the world to work with platinum.

  • Social Organization

    La Tolita society was probably divided into different classes. In addition to peasants, there were those such as metalworkers and other craftspeople who did not work directly on subsistence activities but who were members of a small, highly skilled class. At the apex of La Tolita society was the ruling elite, which governed the group’s different districts from urban centers.

  • Religion and Funerary Practices

    Judging by the images found on their ceramics and metalwork, the people of La Tolita worshipped a wide range of mythical beings, notable among which were powerful animals such as big cats, serpents, primates and frogs. Ceramic representations of erotic scenes may have been associated with fertility and sexual initiation rites. They buried their dead lying down on their sides, with jewels, clothing, and practical implements as grave goods.

  • Settlement pattern

    Although little is known about this culture’s settlements, at least two major centers have been identified—one at Bahía de Tumaco (in Colombia) and the other on Isla de La Tolita (in Ecuador). The latter site contains many man-made mounds, known as tolas, which gave rise to the name La Tolita. These people located their dwellings and temples on the top of these mounds. Many of them lived along the coast and on riverbanks, building homes of perishable materials.

  • History

    The culture of La Tolita has elements of ancient Mesoamerican traditions, but its origins are also strongly rooted in local traditions, especially the Chorrera. The groups were in contact with the Jama-Coaque, Bahía and other cultural groups of Ecuador and Colombia, and actively helped to disseminate metallurgy and metalworking to Central America.