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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: Chorrera (Ecuador)
Title: Anthropomorphic Bowl
Date: 1100-400 BC
Medium: Earthenware
Dimensions: 8 7/16 x 6 1/8 x 2 3/4 inches (21.5 x 15.5 x 7 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Thomas Carroll, PhD 1951
Object Number: 2006.070.023
This is a Chorrera bowl in the shape of a helmeted figure lying on its back with a foreshortened head, pointed tail, and blunt, rudimentary arms and legs. The vessel shape may be intended to evoke an overturned turtle with a human head.

This bowl was made in what is now Ecuador.

This bowl was likely made with a combination of coiling and hand modeling techniques. To begin making a coiled vessel, a base is made by shaping clay into a flat disc. Then hand formed coils of clay, like ropes, are successively added to one another, building up the walls of the bowl. A tool such as a wooden paddle is used to smooth the sides both inside and out, leaving no trace of the coils. Additional modeling of the clay would have been necessary to shape the face, arms, legs and tail of the figure, likely with the help of a stylus to add the finer lines of detail.

The helmet, arms, legs, and tail have burnished red slip decoration, while the body of the vessel is tan and unburnished. Slip is made of different colors of clay and minerals mixed with water. After the slip was applied and allowed to dry, some areas were burnished (rubbed to a high polish) with a stone. Then the vessel was fired in an earthen pit.

We believe this bowl was used to serve food. While we may be able to make educated guesses about what was served, except for contact-period ceramics and for some grave goods, it is very difficult to determine who used any given piece of pottery, and under what circumstances. Were some vessels reserved for special guests, or for use by high-status elders? Were they used during special religious ceremonies or rituals? Was their use avoided by certain classes of people, such as children and/or menstruating women? As we venture farther back into the past, answering these questions becomes increasingly difficult. Although it is tempting to draw on information from modern traditional societies and from contact-period chronicles, this must be done with care, especially when used to interpret objects distant in both space and time.

Although we don’t know what specific foods might have been served in this bowl, we do know what foods were consumed. Staples included maize (corn) and manioc (tapioca) in lowland areas and quinoa, potatoes, and other Andean tubers in highland areas. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables were eaten, including beans, peppers, avocados, sweet potatoes, and peanuts. Meats included domesticated llamas and guinea pigs, wild animals such as deer and rodents, and fish and shellfish. Trade with neighboring groups was widespread from very early times, so people had access to foods from distant locales.

The vessel seems to combine the features of a turtle on its back and a human. Notice the human facial features mixed with the foreshortened limbs and tail. Turtles played an important role in the cosmology of many pre-Columbian peoples; some native groups envisioned the world as being carried on the back of a giant turtle.

Aspects of many different animals can be found on pre-Columbian pottery, textiles, and metalwork. They depict wild and domesticated animals, creatures commonly encountered in everyday life, and creatures found rarely—or not at all—in the natural world. These animals are often mixed with human attributes in what may appear to us to be startling fantasy combinations.

The Chorrera culture’s extended sphere of influence incorporated all three major Ecuadorian ecological zones: the coast, sierra (mountains), and Amazonia. While the Chorrera culture had its origins in the earlier Machalilla culture of the coast, certain aspects of its ceramic technology may have been influenced by the Ocós culture of Mesoamerica. The Chorrera people lived in small communities of 100-120 people, which seem to have supported craft specialists despite their small size. Fishing and farming were distinct occupations. The economy of the Chorrera people was based on farming, hunting and gathering. Trade along rivers and over the sea, especially trade in valuable stones such as lapiz lazuli, obsidian, and rock crystal, played an important role in the florescence of this culture. The highly burnished redware ceramics were decorated with black resist decoration, and feature an assortment of naturalistic animals and stylized human figures. Whistling bottles make their appearance during this period. The first cultural horizon in Ecuador to be widespread over a relatively large geographic region, the Chorrera people laid down a common cultural foundation upon which later cultures were built.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.