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Mayo Chinchipe - Marañón archaeological landscape

Date of Submission: 24/02/2016
Criteria: (iii)(v)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Ecuador to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Zamora Provincia
Ref.: 6091

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The material remains of the Mayo Chinchipe Marañón culture demonstrate the development of a society 5500 years ago, living in the mega-diverse environment of the Amazon Region, interacting with it and using its resources optimally, attaining high levels of symbolism. They also held exchange with cultures in coastal regions of present-day Ecuador, as shown by their use of the Spondylus and Strombus shells from there.

This is all reflected in its sacred architecture and an array of objects with great symbolic value. They also feature the world’s first traces of cocoa use.

Cocoa is from the Amazon region, and not from Central America (as previously thought) and was already being consumed 5,500 years ago, as found by research conducted by Ecuadorian and French archaeologists that was sponsored by the IRD and INPC, who found the vestiges of a major culture in southeastern Ecuador.

This group found chemical and physical traces of cocoa of the "fine aroma" variety – currently prized by the world's chocolate industry – l in the vestiges of some containers found in the Province of Zamora Chinchipe, in Ecuador's Amazon region.

Research in the Santa Ana-La Florida site, in the canton of Palanda in Zamora Chinchipe, shows that cocoa was domesticated in the upper Amazon region, and was taken from there to Central America.

Its social use dates back 5,500 years, according to carbon-14 testing of the vestiges from the Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón culture, discovered in 2002 in that area, which seems to have spread through the Peruvian jungle until the main tributary of the upper Amazon River.

Research has found that the Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón culture had sophisticated organization and apparently traded with cultures in the Andes and on the Coast of Ecuador. This has always been a crossroads area, the transition from tropical plains to mountainous valleys and the eastern slopes of the Andes. Now, as in the past, contact and interaction among people there promote development of socio-cultural relations benefitting people in several different regions. This is reflected in a rich shared history, where integration blurred cultural and natural boundaries.

The Strombus and Spondylus sea conch shells found in the jungle, in this corridor integrating territories of present-day Ecuador and Peru shows that Amazonian people had dealings with people on the Coast, surely trading their regions’ products.

Amazon peoples took plants such as manioc and cocoa to the Coast, where the Valdivia culture was flourishing, one of South America’s oldest, living in tropical Ecuador some 6,000 years ago.

This and other archaeological discoveries may change ancient history as currently taught, above all the idea that "the Amazon region was wild and the jungle prevented any development".

The Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón culture is "the oldest of the western Amazon region", with “features of complex social sophistication" and different forms of social hierarchies.

The Mayo-Chinchipe culture spread through the Chinchipe River valley to where it meets the Marañón River. In addition to its remarkable antiquity, the most important factor is their participation in a network of interactions among the Pacific Coast, the Highlands and the Amazon region lowlands.

These interactions happened in what is now southern Ecuador and northern Peru, with north-south and crosswise, inter-regional trade routes.

Among the vestiges found in the region, stonework art seems to have characterized this culture’s material expressions. Well-polished stone containers have been found all along the broad valley of the Chinchipe River. These dishes and bowls of different sizes have been made out of stone from various origins. This material was chosen to convey symbolic messages through complex symbolism, and reflects specialization of labor.

Regional archaeological reconnaissance has found such stone containers throughout the natural corridor formed by the Mayo-Chinchipe River system, on the eastern (Amazonian) slopes of the Andes. This evidence appears from the headwaters of the Chinchipe River, near the town of Valladolid; around the town of Amaluza in Loja province; and near the border in Zumba (Ecuador). On the other side of the Peru-Ecuador border, these remains have been found in San Ignacio and Jaén all the way to where this river meets the Marañón, near Bagua (in sites named Huayurco and Los Peroles).

The site best studied in this corridor so far is Santa Ana - La Florida (Palanda, Ecuador) at the headwaters of the Chinchipe River. This site has complex architecture resulting from transformation of the environment, comprising ritual elements: a circular plaza and ceremonial fireplaces, suggesting that space was divided symbolically.

It lasted approximately 4000 years, divided according to material stylistic differences into two phases: Palanda (5500 - 3500 BC) and Tacana (3500 - 1700 BC). From 700 to 1000 AD, there is evidence in the region of Jíbaro peoples, known historically as the Bracamoros, who are ancestors of the Shuar and Aguaruna peoples of the Chinchipe Basin, where they lived until 1950, when they withdrew gradually toward the Cóndor mountain range, where they currently live.

The findings include a grave, rich in offerings, which may have contained the remains of a shaman.

Its material culture includes highly developed stonework, fine-quality single-toned pottery, and the use of exotic materials (turquoise, stone crystals and shells from the sea).

Further, both the pottery and stone recipients contain offerings of food, likely to provide sustenance in the next life. Specialist analyses of these containers have identified microscopic grains of cornstarch, manioc, yams, taro, hot pepper and cocoa. The ceramic bottles contained beverages made of corn (such as present-day corn beer – chicha) and of cocoa.

Work in this corridor has pursued the following goals: 

- Discover and study evidence of successive occupations of this watershed. 

- Highlight the value of these sites, consolidating architectural evidence, by establishing an archaeological / ecological park of interest to tourists and students. 

- Create an interpretation center providing visitors with archaeological and ecological information about the region, emphasizing the importance of learning about, caring for and publicizing the basin’s heritage treasures. 

- Reaffirming the sense of identity, by learning about the ancient cultures who lived in this region. This will raise people’s self-esteem, education and in general their level of culture. 

- Provide the community with an opportunity to generate income by sustainably managing cultural tourism attracted by these sites.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Material evidence from the Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón culture, the oldest living on the edge of the jungle, with features of complex “social sophistication” revealing established social hierarchy is an archaeological discovery that must overturn the ancient history of the Americas as currently taught.

Socio-cultural exchange among the peoples of the Amazon region, Pacific Coast and high Andean mountain regions is reflected in the finding of Strombus and Spondylus ocean shells.

There is evidence of the use of cocoa, the most ancient on record to date from this jungle region.

Critrion (iii): The territory in the Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón archaeological landscape contributes a unique testimony to the Andes foothills culture from over 5000 years ago, in the upper Amazon region, revealing the relations and linkages they had with the coastal cultures and with each other in an environment of great eco-diversity, the place of origin of “fine aroma” cocoa.

Criterion (v): Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón demonstrates high-level management of eco-diversity and the Earth’s resources, using them to create sophisticated artworks reflecting their concepts of the world, of life and death. Encroachment by the agricultural frontier and the vulnerability of the materials themselves jeopardize this evidence that has survived to our times as well as, above all, their context.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity


The cultural corridor defined by an area in the Upper Amazon between Ecuador and Peru, sharing a timeline of 5500 BC.


The age of 5500 BC for the Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón culture is unique in its cultural expressions along the western edge of the Amazon region.

Comparison with other similar properties

Caral Supe Sacred Valley (200 km from Lima - Coast of Peru)

“Caral is the oldest city in Peru (over 5000 years old) and the center of the first Andean civilization, which laid the groundwork for a unique social organization which, along with Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Meso America, are the original foci of culture in the world”.

“What kept them together was their religion, used as a means of cohesion and coercion (Shady 2004). At that time, religion was the State policy to control the public (Shady 2004), produce and circulate goods. This is represented by the major religious monuments (pyramids) with their plazas, atriums and altars for sacred fire where different festivities were held from the ceremonial calendar, symbolizing their cultural identity (Shady 2004). Periodic meetings and joint activities such as repair of the pyramids made it possible to recognize power and strengthen cultural identity (Shady 2004).” 

The above reference to Caral, validates the importance of the antiquity (5500 BC) and representative nature of the Santa Ana – La Florida site, belonging to the Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón archaeological corridor.

Valdivia Culture (Coast of Ecuador)

“We now know that the people of Valdivia “appeared” around 4000 BC and extended their hegemony along the central and southern coast of Ecuador until 1800 BC. However, when we speak of cultures that “appeared” and “disappeared”, we must understand that what disappears or appears is the culture and not the people. The people of Valdivia are descendants of the people from the Las Vegas culture.” 

Although the pottery tradition of the Mayo-Chinchipe culture is totally different from the contemporaneous culture in Valdivia (Ecuador), they both used pottery as a means and mechanism of expression to materialize common and ideological concepts, but with different styles and symbols.

Olmec Culture (Mexico)

In Central America there are data on the use of cocoa by the Olmec culture, some 3000 years ago, which developed greatly and extended through Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, in addition to Mexico, in North America.

‘The Olmec culture is also known as the mother of the cultures of Mesoamerica and represents one of the oldest that peopled and flourished in the Americas, especially in the Tropics. There is Olmec evidence dating back at least 3,000 years’. 

“The Olmecs (1500 to 400 BC) were surely the first humans to savor, as a beverage, ground cacao beans mixed in water and flavored with spices, berries and herbs (Coe’s Theory) and they began growing cocoa in Mexico. Over the centuries, the culture of cocoa spread to the Mayan people (600 BC) and the Aztecs (1400 BC). Cocoa beans were used as currency and as a unit of measurement: 400 cocoa beans made up one Zontli and 8000 made one Xiquipilli. During wartime among the Aztecs, Mayas and Chimimekens, the latter used cocoa beans as tax payment from the zones they conquered.

For these civilizations, cocoa was a symbol of abundance, used for religious rituals devoted to Quetzalcóatl, the Aztec god who brought cocoa to humans, to Chak Ek Chuah, the holy Mayan patron of cocoa, and for funeral rites of the elite, as an offering.

The culture of cocoa continued expanding, thanks to migratory flows in Mesoamerica, but drinking this beverage remained a privilege reserved for the upper classes and for soldiers during battles. Cocoa’s powers to lend vigor as a tonic were already known at that time.’’ (Listed as World Heritage)