Cotúa Island-Orinoco Reflexive Archaeology Project

Cotúa Island panorama

Now in its third year, this four-year research project (2015-19), funded by The Leverhulme Trust (RPG 2014-234), focuses on the archaeology of Cotúa Island and its immediate vicinity of the Atures Rapids in the upper reaches of the Middle Orinoco River in Venezuela.

Colonial period European and aboriginal beads were used as currency (quiripa)

During the Colonial period (16-18th century AD) Cotúa Island was an entrepôt visited by traders from diverse ethnicities and distant regions. Archaeological evidence, however, hints that Cotúa was a multi-ethnic trade ‘center’ that evolved over two millennia prior to European colonization. The project seeks to elucidate the characteristics of these regional longue durée interactions, as well as to shed light on the role that Cotúa Island’s inhabitants played in processes of pre-Columbian ethnogenesis.

This project charts a novel pathway—a ‘reflexive’ archaeological approach— between Western and non-Western traditions of knowledge, as it seeks to apprehend and explicate dimensions of the past (archaeological theory, practice, and interpretation) through a hands-on engagement between academic archaeologists and the indigenous peoples that have been invited as stakeholders in the production of archaeological knowledge.


  • To establish the longue durée historical processes that shaped Cotúa Island as a cross-roads in pre-Columbian times, especially how it was involved in ethnogenesis of the study region;
  • To examine how these factors link to ethnohistorical, ethnographic and linguistic evidence, i.e. to the post-Columbian history of the region; and
  • To explore the interplay between archaeology, the involvement of indigenous communities, and public interpretation in the production of archaeological knowledge.


  • To develop an intercultural research team that will tackle the field-based archaeological process, from field activities to interpretation of archaeological evidence.
  • To conduct a systematic archaeological survey and limited archaeological testing in selected islands of the Atures Rapids, as well as in adjacent river terraces near Puerto Ayacucho.
  • To investigate the abundant rock art present in the Atures Rapids area (embracing Cotua, Picure and Sardina Islands) and the adjacent mainland (e.g. Cerro Pintado).
  • To implement large open-area excavations and a systematic programme of soil augering on Cotúa Island and other nearby islands to support archaeological and environmental sampling.
  • To examine regional patterns of exchange through the study of technical and stylistic dimensions of material culture obtained through excavations.

Update (to February 2017)

Archaeological excavations have been conducted at three key sites, Culebra (AM-1) in the mainland (Cataniapo-Orinoco River confluence), and the islands of Picure (AM-2) and Rabo de Cochino (AM-3).  Excavations have identified pre-colonial occupations ranging from the pre-ceramic Archaic period to the Formative (Ronquinan Saladoid and Cedeñoid ceramic traditions), followed in time by the large settlement occupations associated with the Arauquinoid and Valloid ceramic traditions.  The rich and abundant rock art (mainly petroglyphs, but also pictographs) in the Atures Rapids area have been exhaustively recorded using drone (Pantom II) photography for the large scale carvings and Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to capture additional surface details. In addition clay sources for pottery manufacture were located as part of a study of traditional, but current, Hiwi pottery-making techniques to compare with pre-colonial techno-stylistic attributes identified from the excavated ceramics. One key finding was the extraordinarily abundant manufacture and production of stone beads and pendants at Picure Island.  The  the abundance of beads, together with the unparalleled concentration of rock art and the density of artefact debris, strongly suggests that Picure Island was the famous Isla de Los Adoles (or Atures) first mentioned by Antonio de Berrío (1538) and then by the Jestuits (1695-1770s).  In 2016 and 2017, we conducted workshops in Puerto Ayacucho with indigenous teachers coming from diverse ethnic communities through Amazonas State, embeded with the Ministry of Education's programme "Memory, Territory and Citizenship", where the production of historical knowledge through archaeology vis-a-vis traditional oral  transmission (memories) were debated and discussed.  The workshops were also held at Picure and Rabo de Cochino Islands where the indigenous teachers commented on field archaeological methods, western interpretations of the ancient remains, and on the meaning and interpretation of the landscape, particularly the rock art.  A synopsis of the research (to 2016) can be consulted in Archaeology International, Issue 19, pp. 70-77, 2016. Preliminary results will be presented by members of the project in the forthcoming 82nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Vancouver (Symposium "Connectivity and |Communities of Practice in Lowland South America").

Image Gallery

  • Panorama Atures
  • Map of Sites-Orinoco
  • Rabo de Cochino Island Aerial View (drone)
  • Rabo de Cochino Site- Trench A, Profile 1
  • Rabo de Cochino Site Trench C Stratigraphy
  • Rabo de Cochino Site- Excavation Trench A
  • Rabo de Cochino Site- Excavation Trench A
  • Picure Island Aerial (drone)
  • Picure Island petroglyphs (drone photo 1)
  • Picure Island petroglyphs (drone photo 2)
  • Picure Flute Player Petroglyph
  • Petroglyphs Varaiven Rapids
  • Petroglyph Varaiven and Arauquinoid Design
  • Picure Site beads
  • SEM photo of Picure bead No.55
  • Picure site pendant
  • Rabo de Cochino site, bead
  • Rabo de Cochino -Ronquinan ceramic
  • Rabo de Cochino Site, Cedeñoid Ceramic
  • Rabo de Cochino Site, Arauquinoid ceramics
  • Rabo de Cochino Site, Arauquinoid adorno
  • Rabo de Cochino Site, Arauquinoid polychrome ceramic
  • Rabo de Cochino Site, Arauquinoid polychrome ceramic
  • Rabo de Cochino Site, Arauquinoid ceramic red painted
  • Rabo de Cochino Site, Arauquinoid Valloid ceramic
  • SEM photo of cauixi (sponge spiccule) temper
  • Parmula spp. freshwater sponges used for cauixi temper in ceramics
  • Modern Hiwi potter, Aura Chiapa (La Reforma, Venezuela)
  • Indigenous Teachers at Picure Island, 2016
  • Indigenous Teachers at Rabo de Cochino Island, 2017
  • Atrchaeology Fieldwork Team at Picure, 2016
  • Archaeology Fieldwork Team, Puerto Ayacucho, 2017

Related outputs

  • Two edited monographs (one in Spanish, the other in English) will be produced toward the end of the project along with several peer-reviewed articles during the project’s term, and one PhD dissertation. In addition a book aimed at the general public and, particularly, the indigenous communities in the study area will be published by the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (Editorial IVIC).
  • Seminars (workshops) involving the participation of our indigenous partners will be held in Puerto Ayacucho as well as at archaeological sites. A range of themes about how archaeology formulates its questions, tackles its sources (including indigenous ones such as oral histories, songs and myths), and interprets its evidence will be unpacked and discussed. The first  seminar series (2016-17) will be structured as a set of workshops taking place at various times during the first two years of the project. For the final Seminar 2 (2018) particpants will be first engaged in their home communities for discussions, and then selected members of these source communities will be invited to a broader discussion focusing on the interpretation of the project´s archaeological data as well as the experiences accumulated during the preceding three years at a multi-ethnic form in Puerto Ayacucho.  Subsequently, the latter participants and members of the project will present their evaluations and conclusions to a public audience at the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de Venezuela, in Caracas.
  • Details of the original research project proposal are available for downloading from (open access): https://ucl.academia.edu/JoseOliver
Leverhulme Trust logo


  • Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant (RPG-2014-234)

Project Leaders:

Project Members:

Project Partners:

  • Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (IVIC), República Bolivariana de Venezuela
  • Dr Lilliam Arvelo (Research Associate in Archaeology at the Centre of Anthropological Studies and Head of the Archaeology Laboratory-IVIC)
  • Dr Hortensia Caballero (Research Associate in Social Anthropology at the Centre of Anthropological Studies, IVIC -from 2018)
  • Dr Jaime Pagán-Jiménez (Researcher, Faculteit Archeologie, University of Lieden)


Further information:

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