Unearthing the Story of Tibes

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

The structures present at Tibes, while not as spectacular as the ones found in Mesoamerica and the Andes, are still considered monumental. The main central structure can be considered a sunken plaza whose construction consisted of removing a great amount of soil, leveling and the transportation of suitable rocks from the river and the nearby hills. Although it is difficult to determine precisely the activities that took place in the structures, in general most Caribbean archaeologists agree that round and square structures most probably were plazas used in communal activities such as areytos (or feastings) and the cohoba ceremony (a ritual that involved the use of a hallucinogen, cohoba, to contact the supernatural world). Rectangular structures are normally interpreted as ball courts; a game took place probably similar to the one registered by the early colonists for other parts of the Greater Antilles. This game was similar to a combination of soccer and volleyball, where the ball had to be passed from one side (or team) of the court to another without hitting the ground. The ball could not be touched with the hands, so legs, elbows, shoulders and buttocks were used to hit it. The game was played for ritual, social and/or entertainment purposes.

The site was first excavated during the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Sociedad Guaynia de Arqueologia e Historia, a local avocational organization. This society was responsible for unearthing and consolidating most of the monumental architecture and for convincing the City of Ponce to purchase the land and establish an archaeological park (visit online at http://ponce.inter. edu/tibes/tibes.html). It thereby preserved the site in its entirety. The original archaeological work was directed toward evaluating the site, discovering most of the monumental architecture and mapping the surface features. With these objectives in mind, excavations were performed in different areas of the site and a number of stone alignments were investigated to determine whether they were natural or cultural formations.

Based on radiocarbon (C-14) dates, Tibes seems to have been first inhabited around A.D. 400 and was abandoned around A.D. 1270, well before the Spanish arrived. Its ancient history can be roughly divided in two major periods: the Saladoid (A.D. 500–900) and the Elenoid (A.D. 900–1200). All monumental structures seem to belong to the late phase of the site, or the Elenoid period. In addition to the stone structures, excavations conducted in the 1970s uncovered two clusters of burials. The first one is located under Structure 6, the central, quadrangular plaza of the site, while the second one is 50 meters southeast of Structure 6, under Ball Court Number 3. Both clusters seem to belong to the Saladoid period and are thus older than the overlying stone structures. Other burials belonging to Elenoid were found dispersed over the site, in most cases in domestic contexts (refuse middens or possible house floors).

Based on the information from these initial excavations, many archaeologists began reconstructing the social and cultural changes that took place at the site. Many of these interpretations believed that during the first period of occupancy, Tibes was a farming village, and the social organization seem to have been egalitarian (i.e., without institutionalized social hierarchy) in nature. Later on, between A.D. 600 and 900, Tibes went through a re-structuration of the use of space, where old structures and deposits were moved or destroyed, new monumental structures were built and funerary practices changed. All these changes led many to argue that some form of political centralization and social stratification developed during this time. Around A.D. 1270 Tibes was practically abandoned.

While the original excavations from the 1970s and 1980s provided some information to develop some working hypotheses to explain the changes, this work emphasized mostly the ceremonial structures. In my case I was interested in studying these changes more from the perspective of the household, the basic unit of social organization. Our ideal expectation was that we would be able to discover elite and commoner households (and their corresponding trash) and trace them back in time in order to understand better the shift from an egalitarian to a stratified society.

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.)