Unearthing the Story of Tibes: New Looks at an Ancient Society
Aerial photograph of the Indigenous Ceremonial Center of Tibes

Aerial photograph of the Indigenous Ceremonial Center of Tibes, Ponce, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of City of Ponce, P.R

Aerial photograph of the Indigenous Ceremonial Center of Tibes, Ponce, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of City of Ponce, P.R

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.

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.

Keeping this purpose in mind, our field efforts were directed toward discovering houses. This is not an easy task in the tropics, since the structures were built of perishable materials. Most of the time the only observable remains are the hard, compacted dirt floors and the post-holes. Thus, to ensure some degree of success in finding the households I decided to conduct a number of “probing” strategies that included using different techniques and methods. These were successful in the discovery of at least three structures that, at that time, we thought might have been houses, a cooking area and its trash midden, with burnt shells, bones, cooking pottery, charcoal and ashes. Further, we were able to find one of the earliest deposits of the site belonging to the early Saladoid period (around A.D. 490), as well as a possible area near the entrance of the main plaza where ritual paraphernalia was disposed of and also boulders buried at the entrance of a ball court as possible offerings (cache).

After identifying these areas, we began expanding our excavations. It was in this stage that the project began producing results that are groundbreaking in Caribbean archaeology. For example, the radiocarbon or C-14 techniques are producing dates indicating that the site may have been turned into the ceremonial center as we see it today more likely around A.D. 1000–1100, not necessarily around A.D. 600–900. Thus, the changes involved in the process of shifting from a farming village to a civic-ceremonial center may have occurred later than we thought.

Also, archaeobotanical analyses of the charcoal obtained from different units have detected the presence of the cohoba tree (Peptedina peregrina, a hallucinogen used in ceremonies), the first positive archaeological identification of this species in the Caribbean. Faunal analysis has also indicated the presence of guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus), a rodent species not endemic from the Caribbean, but originally domesticated in South America. The small number of guinea pigs in our samples suggests they were a high-status food, used in rituals, or both. Both the guinea pigs and the cohoba come from deposits that are predominantly Elenoid, supporting the evidence from the structures that ceremonialism intensified during this period. We also found clear evidence of a major flood event some time between A.D. 900 and 1000 that impacted the western side of the site in a catastrophic way.

As mentioned above, however, most of the new evidence discredited some of our expectations and debunked the premises of our hypothesis. First, the project has not been able to find any clear evidence of social stratification or the accumulation of wealth and sumptuary objects by any segment of society. Although some valued objects were found, such as exotic food (guinea pigs) and shell and stone ornaments, they are scarce and do not seem to have been concentrated in any particular sector of the site. And, second, the results of the excavation of the structures and the cooking area suggest that they are not necessarily domestic in nature. Most possibly they were related to the ceremonial role of the site, where the structures seem to have been used more during festivals and gatherings and the cooking area was possibly used in the preparation of food during feastings.

Nevertheless, the information obtained from this project and the 1970s excavation is helping us to reconstruct a new, unexpected and more accurate view of the history of the Ceremonial Center of Tibes. Instead of the traditional perspective that equated ceremonial centers and monumental architecture with social stratification and centralization of power, we now believe that these centers represent more the development of communal, ritual space built under egalitarian conditions. In this scenario, groups of different backgrounds or interests could meet to solidify their social bonds through communal rituals or performances represented by the plazas. At the same time, these groups could reinforce their different identities in the face-offs represented by the ball courts and the ball game.

We also now know that the development of this ceremonial center happened gradually and not rapidly; most probably in stages involving the destruction of old structures, and the construction and re-construction of new ones, leading eventually to the spatial distribution of structures that we see at Tibes today. This suggests that the relations between groups may have changed through time, as well.

Despite these advances, there is still much work to be done. The information collected to date has helped develop new working hypotheses based on new premises. But, at the end of the day, it has helped us get closer to the real story of the rise and fall of the Ceremonial Center of Tibes.

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.)