Unearthing the Story of Tibes

Unearthing the Story of Tibes: New Looks at an Ancient Society

Hurricane Eloise may have been a disaster for many in Puerto Rico, but it was a boon for the understanding of the island’s indigenous heritage. When it brushed the southern coast of Puerto Rico in 1975, it brought floods and mudslides, but it also uncovered an ancient site buried for more than seven centuries.

On the terraces of the Portugues River on the southern coast of the island, the floods produced by Eloise removed alluvial sediments. After the hurricane had passed, a farmer looking for wood to make charcoal found the remnants of an indigenous culture. Within few years, the Indigenous Ceremonial Center of Tibes, as it was later named, became one of the most important and, to date, the oldest sites of its kind in the Caribbean. Today, Tibes is an archaeological park managed by the City of Ponce with a museum and guided tours.

I have been working at Tibes since 1995, directing a multidisciplinary project that includes a paleoethnobotanist, zooarchaeologist, paleopalinologist, geologists, geoarchaeologist, stone tool analyst and a number of volunteers.

The main aim of the project is to understand the social and cultural changes between A.D. 600 and 1100. For many years I have been interested in understanding, not only human behavior, but also why and how this behavior changes. Particularly, I was concerned with the socio-cultural processes that were involved in the development of social stratification from originally egalitarian societies. Why and how have societies changed from a condition where most people with the right abilities had access to resources and status to a social organization where these resources and status were controlled by small elite group of people? In theory, this issue goes to the heart of the development of social classes and social inequality.

Because of its old age and the presence of monumental, ceremonial structures Tibes seemed to be ideal for this type of study. The site seemed to have distinct deposits associated with the very early, kinship-based social organization and a later emerging stratified sociopolitical structure. Unfortunately, the site had a whole different story to tell. As we discuss below, after years of work and collection of invaluable data, the results not only disproved our hypotheses but also made it clear that our premises and assumptions were wrong. The positive outcome is that we had to regroup and re-interpret the evidence, resulting in what we think can be a more realistic view of the past.

Tibes is located near the south-central coast of Puerto Rico just north of the modern city of Ponce, approximately eight kilometers from the shore. The site was established on the alluvial terraces of the Portugues River in a biogeographic and geological transitional zone between the Southern Coastal Plains and the Southern Semiarid Hills of the piedmonts of the Cordillera Central. Geologically, it lies between the limestone sedimentary rocks of the coastal plains and the volcanic formations of the central mountains. The settlement is composed of a variety of highly distinctive archaeological features, including several discrete cultural deposits and nine stone structures (ball courts, plazas and “causeways”) which have been restored for the enjoyment and education of the public.

L. Antonio Curet is an archaeologist who specializes in Caribbean and Mesoamerican ancient history. He is currently the Curator of Archaeology at the National Museum of the American Indian - Smithsonian Institution. This project has been conducted in collaboration with the City of Ponce and it includes specialists from several American universities and colleagues and students from Puerto Rico, the U.S., the Netherlands and Colombia. Funds for the project have been provided throughout the years by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Heinz Foundation and more recently by the 2015 Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Awards Programs in the Arts and Humanities. For more information on Tibes and the archaeological project, see: Luis A. Curet and Lisa M. Stringer. Tibes: People, Power, and Ritual at the Center of the Cosmos. (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa: 2010.)