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Working Together

The New Role of the Ancient Lovers of Sumpa

Karen E. Stothert

The Museum and Cultural Center of the Lovers of Sumpa (Museo Los Amantes de Sumpa y Centro Cultural) was inaugurated in April 1997, in Santa Elena, coastal Ecuador. The concept of the new museum--the goal of which is to teach and celebrate the unique indigenous cultural tradition of the Santa Elena Peninsula--grew out of a collaboration between archaeologists and the community. The museum was built thanks to an extraordinary cooperation among private and public institutions in Ecuador.

The museum was opened after a 20-year drama involving the serendipitous recovery of a pair of human skeletons, their popularization as an emblem of cultural identity, and the transformation of an archaeological site into an interpretive center and focus for the development of heritage resources. During those years, the writer, an archaeologist trained in investigation and the preparation of scientific reports, progressively developed new roles in heritage education and the promotion of Native American culture in coastal Ecuador. But it never would have happened without the Lovers of Sumpa.

The story began in 1977 when the late Olaf Holm, then-director of the Anthropology Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador, asked me to excavate a preceramic site on the Santa Elena Peninsula. This work resulted in the description of the Las Vegas preceramic culture and the recovery of the remains of 200 individuals buried in the site between 8000 and 6700 B.P. The site is the oldest well-documented preceramic camp in Ecuador. During that first season we discovered a tomb containing two embracing skeletons, the remains of a woman and a man who died some 7,000 years ago. Because values in Ecuador do not impede the public display of human remains, the double burial known as the "Lovers of Sumpa" (los Amantes de Sumpa) became the focus of media attention, and Holm encouraged use of the find to attract public attention to archaeology. I began to give slide lectures--strategically using the figures--to inform people, especially schoolchildren, about the value and richness of their cultural patrimony and to foster its protection and scientific study.


Built at the edge of the archaeological site, this traditional house is the focus of living history exhibits, including cooking and craft activities. Photo by Roberta McGregor.

By 1979 plans were circulating in the Central Bank of Ecuador to construct a site museum in Santa Elena, to protect the Lovers and the unexcavated portions of the archaeological site, and to allow public visits. Regrettably, as the price of oil fell in the 1980s, the project was never funded, although funds were allocated for guards to be posted at the site 24 hours a day for at least 20 years. Demographic and ideological changes occurred during those 20 years. Initially, archaeology was considered a pastime of the well-to-do. Narratives about ancient peoples and cultures did not figure into the worldview (or political discourse) of the majority of the people, and the prehistoric past was largely ignored by educators.

When I first began to work in the Santa Elena region in 1970, the popular view was that the local people were deculturated remnants of an ancestral past, to which they had little connection. However, conversations with Jorge Marcos, Olaf Holm, and others, and my observations of campesinos (rural people), revealed to me the continuities between the cultural adaptations of the prehistoric and colonial periods and the way of life of rural people today. These people had abandoned their native languages and dress early in the Colonial period, and they have not been called Indians since the last century. Nonetheless, communal ownership of land is part of their political focus, and they maintain a body of traditional knowledge and customs appropriate to their unique environment that distinguishes them from other Ecuadorians. The modernization process, however, evident in the abandonment of the land and the traditions of the past, is accelerating as the people who grew up before World War II age and die.

The workmen who excavated at the Las Vegas site continued to work with me at other, ceramic-stage archaeological sites in the 1980s, and I grew more appreciative of their knowledge of the environment and their skills in transforming its resources to human use. These men, as well as their relatives and friends, helped me to interpret the archaeological record, and soon I began to combine ethnographic and archaeological studies. This strategy had been characteristic of the work of Olaf Holm and was employed fruitfully by Jorge Marcos, Silvia Alvarez, and others in their studies in coastal Ecuador. Documentation of the living traditions of Santa Elena is as important as the archaeological studies; much of the information one can gather from elderly people today has not been transmitted to the younger generations, and thus, customs traceable to the Colonial and prehistoric periods are disappearing daily. Artisans frequently say "Write this down, señorita, because when I die nobody will pay any attention to this profession." Working together with elderly informants, we have created a body of information that not only pleases people, but is educational and stimulates pride.

In the late 1970s and 1980s the indigenous movement in Ecuador and the ideology of the left contributed to the development of the connection between the existing campesino communities of the coast and their aboriginal and archaeological past. For example, in the town of Valdivia a celebration of "6,000 years of Valdivia" became, the next year, a celebration of 6,001 years, and then 6,002 years. A small museum celebrating the ethnic identity of the people of the Valley of Chanduy with ethnographic, historical, and archaeological materials was opened at an important Valdivia archaeological site. In the town of Agua Blanca archaeologists Colin McEwan and María Isabel Silva began working together with the residents in an integrated program of archaeological research and community development, making it possible for the community, which once survived by making charcoal from the forest and digging up ruins to sell ancient artifacts, to find a new, sustainable economic focus in ecocultural tourism.


In a workshop below the traditional house, Adela Borbor and Rosa Camaton, the last campesino bronze casters of Santa Elena, cast metal for visitors to the museum. Photo by Ralph Howell.

By the mid-1990s the Santa Elena Peninsula had become a regional economic center with a population that had doubled four times in 20 years, but the proposed site museum was still under discussion. Meanwhile, a new generation of socially engaged professionals, such as archaeologist Ana Maritza Freire of the Central Bank Museum, began to publish illustrated archaeological reports for popular distribution. I continued to give lectures in rural churches and schools, combining the results of archaeological and ethnographic studies, and I delivered some motivational lectures as part of community development projects. In these slide talks I expressed my admiration for the people of rural coastal Ecuador as I described the skill of their elderly artisans and farmers, their knowledge of the environment, and their long history and prehistory, filled with achievements comparable to those of the ancient peoples of Mexico and Peru. As a foreigner, I apologized for lecturing to them about their own ancient culture, but the information about prehistory was new to them, and people were impressed that a foreign professional was interested in their traditional crafts and customs. One man shook my hand after a lecture and said that he felt proud to be a cholo. This term, often applied in a deprecating sense, is now being adopted by people who value the unique identity and aboriginal heritage of the people of the southwest coast of Ecuador.

In 1993 I worked with Clarice Strang, director of the community development programs of Pro-Pueblo Foundation, a dependency of a private cement company (La Cemento Nacional del Ecuador), and we presented the idea for a site museum in Santa Elena to the general manager of the company. A year later, La Cemento decided to build a museum building, and we were launched into the roles of promotors and entrepreneurs. With the commitment of the cement company, Fredy Olmedo, director of the Anthropology Museum of the Central Bank in Guayaquil, agreed to install the proposed exhibit; the City of Santa Elena donated land for the museum; and the Fulbright Commission offered to sponsor a scientific consultant. In addition, we formed a private foundation (Fundación Los Amantes de Sumpa)--made up of natives and residents of the Peninsula of Santa Elena, including educators and community activists of various political stripes--the role of which is to administer the new museum, raise funds, and make it serve the community. Together we developed a museum philosophy, and in 1994, with the president of Ecuador presiding, the cooperating institutions signed an agreement specifying their participation. Shortly thereafter commenced an unprecedented cooperation between La Cemento and Fulbright, the Museum of the Central Bank, local government, and a private foundation.

As the project began in earnest, it was clear that both a museum and cultural center were desired by all. By working together with the members of the foundation, my ideas about how to interpret the past evolved rapidly; we developed a new rhetoric and hammered out ideas about how to celebrate ethnic identity, teach children pride in their roots, and protect the environmental and cultural resources of Santa Elena. This kind of creative activity seems to be associated with societies at a developmental stage where older community-based traditions are in crisis. Similarly, a focus on the protection of archaeological and environmental resources in Santa Elena has materialized in the course of economic development just when the destruction of those resources has reached an advanced state. Our mission successfully attracted support from both private and public sources because it satisfied a variety of political, personal, and institutional needs: the new museum generated publicity for the cement company and for the mayor of Santa Elena; the opening of the museum was perceived as beneficial for the growing tourist industry; and neither the Lovers of Sumpa nor the foreign archaeologist who played focal ceremonial roles in the process were politically aligned.


Upstairs in the traditional house, Ulberta Filomena Soriano Lainez weaves cotton textiles on a vertical loom using techniques that have persisted since the prehistoric period. Photo by Ralph Howell.

Today, on entering the Museo Los Amantes de Sumpa you are invited to visit the archaeological site that is protected so that future study can result in a more complete interpretation of the early people who lived there from 10,000 to 6700 B.P. A small building on the hill shelters three burials, displayed in situ in glass cases, surrounded by giant photos of the excavations and interpretive texts. Here, in the oldest cemetery in Ecuador, Ecuadorians marvel at the depth of their history and the success the Las Vegas people had over a period of 4,000 years. The remains of the Lovers, named for the region that once may have been called Sumpa, seem to communicate across time the importance of human affection, and the burial has become an emblem of the first inhabitants of Santa Elena, the people who may have originated the great cultural tradition of coastal Ecuador. The image of the Lovers has inspired poets, musicians, sculptors, and choreographers in Ecuador and beyond. On Sundays, schoolchildren bring their families to see the Lovers.

Your visit to the museum continues in the main building where there are 15 colorful, thematic exhibits, including eight large-scale dioramas and walk-in environments, which explain how history is written in the ground, the value of archaeology as compared to huaquerismo (looting), what archaeological analysis reveals, the nature of the environment before recent deforestation, and the way of life of each of the prehistoric peoples/cultures of the region with emphasis placed on the great achievements of each prehistoric group. The museum is alive with inspirational texts and other audio-visual devices, and visitors are given opportunities to converse with guides, participate in activities, and enjoy live performances.

The origins of the modern petroleum industry are shown in an exhibit of colonial tar boiling, and then five rooms are designed to represent the ethnographic present (ca. 1935 to modern times). First there is the workshop of campesino bronze casters and blacksmiths, and you then enter a house in which spinning, weaving, and dyeing activities are explained. A colorful storefront display shows that while the campesino ceramic tradition is virtually extinct, a new industry produces replicas of ancient vessels for sale to tourists. Through the windows of an old house you can see a mannequin laid out in an old-fashioned coffin, wearing handmade white clothing, and bearing a cordón, a kind of belt fabricated during the wake for the protection of the dead individual. This exhibit celebrates a special custom, characteristic only of the people of this part of Ecuador, which has roots in both the Precolumbian past and in the Colonial period. Finally, one sees a replica of the food offerings set out on a table for enjoyment by dead relatives on the Day of the Dead, celebrated every year in Santa Elena. This custom is another disappearing aspect of the local ethnic identity.

Outside the main building are several exhibits, the most important of which is the reconstructed campesino house, furnished as it might have been in 1935. Here, elderly workers perform traditional activities and converse with the public. Bronze casters fabricate metal artifacts in the workshop below the house, and a cooper makes wash tubs. Upstairs, women spin, weave, and grill plantains and roast sweet potatoes to serve visitors. An elderly gentleman makes hats from palm fiber (so-called Panama hats, which used to be the principal cottage industry in Santa Elena). Our museum guides report that sometimes older visitors to the house exclaim, with tears in their eyes, that this is just like their grandmother's house and they remember!

The theme that unites the entire museum is the celebration of dead ancestors--the skillful and knowledgeable people who merit our admiration because they successfully confronted the challenges of life and made this history. The most important contribution of the project is that the museum now functions as an educational resource in a region where few facilities serve thousands of schoolchildren. Working together with educators and community development specialists has raised my consciousness about the value of making the results of anthropological research available for children, the community, and tourists. I had once worried that most Santa Elena residents did not know what a museum was and had never wished for one. I now believe that the museum and cultural center was a good use of scarce resources because the exhibits serve to communicate ideas that educators value. Furthermore, the people with little education who work in the living exhibits are pleased to tell curious visitors about their crafts and the old days. The experience makes the near past accessible to people who have been accustomed to deprecate it. Also, the deep past is accessible for the first time. People enjoy the museum and return when they can.

The foundation is now working to bring a full-time educator onto the museum staff and to integrate museum visits into school curricula. Visitors may acquire a guidebook to the museum, as well as other related publications. Currently we are producing a film celebrating ancestors, and we hope to build a library and commercialize the production of local crafts in order to contribute to the economic development of the most disadvantaged sector of the population.

As this project developed, and as we planned the museum displays and outlined the texts, I worried whether the content reflected community thought, or my own, derived from my understanding of the importance of roots developed in my own society. I had verified the contents of the ethnographic exhibits with elderly informants, but campesino informants did not ask the question "Who are we?" Museologists and educators ask this question and it appears on the walls of the museum; we answer the question using evidence from the past and from the campesino present. I cannot be sure that the museum speaks for campesinos and nonprofessional people, but because those people generously told me their stories, showed me the tables for the dead, and explained the use of funerary belts, I felt that they were telling me who they were. Natives of Santa Elena consistently have voiced their pleasure with what is expressed in the Museum.

The most difficult part of this project has been finding the financial support to build and, more importantly, to operate the museum long term. A few conflicts arose as we struggled within our budget to design appealing, didactic, and enjoyable exhibits suitable for sophisticated urban viewers, native and foreign tourists, schoolchildren and the less-educated public. Today the museum expresses eloquently the mission of the members of the foundation, chiefly educators. These people donate their time to a degree beyond expectation, and act as guides themselves in order to maintain contact with their audience. They are proud of the excellent educational facility which we have built, and its content meets their expectations, serves their purposes as educators and as members of a community that has found few ways to express its being and its history. I am no longer concerned that we are distorting anyone's view: rather, we have created a viewpoint where one did not exist, and no sector of the public has been disquieted. Recently the National Congress of Ecuador officially recognized my collaboration in the museum project, and in investigating and promoting the cultural heritage of Ecuador.

In the course of my association with the Anthropology Museum of the Central Bank, I have taken on that institution's educational mission and have worked with Ecuadorians to apply the results of anthropological and archaeological research to the educational and social needs of the community in Santa Elena. Archaeology can play a big role in the modernization process. In the new Museum of the Lovers of Sumpa it is wonderful to listen to volunteer guides, including members of the foundation, local high school students, and some of the former workers who excavated the archaeological site, as they teach and share with visitors the museum's message.

Karen E. Stothert is a research associate at the Center for Archaeological Research, University of Texas at San Antonio, an investigator for the Museo Antropológico, Banco Central del Ecuador (Guayaquil), and honorary lifetime president of the Fundación Museo Los Amantes de Sumpa.

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