The Pre-Inca civilisation of Chachapoyas

The spooky burial sites of Chachapoyas in Peru are not for people who need their mummy, unless your mummy lives in an ancient tomb that is

4 mins

I was, perversely, heading north. The Gringo Trail receding in the opposite direction, I was drawn on across the plains by a place some say rivals Machu Picchu, enticed by a culture more mysterious than the Incas. I was delving into a land where, according to my guide Jose, all a man needs is a machete, a horse and a pair of Wellingtons.

Chachapoyas is nowhere near Cuzco, the Sacred Valley or Lake Titicaca. The former realm of the Chachapoyan people, a region in Peru’s vast Amazonas Department, is far north of Lima and the country’s headline acts. Yet up here, I’d been told, there were enough forest-cloaked ruins to keep budding Indiana Joneses busy for months. And few other tourists.

A warrior cult bent on building

Penetrating Chachapoyas was a tough expedition for the 16th-century Spanish conquistadores. Not so now: from the coastal city of Chiclayo we drove east through dry forest, then among lush hills to the Porculla Pass – the lowest route over the Andes into the Amazon basin. We passed bare canyons, stark cliffs, green hills and even lush rice paddies.

Mud-brick villages and tiny stores lined the road; we paused at one to buy chocolate before crossing the broad Marañón River, passing the dark mountains around Bagua Grande and joining the Utcubamba River to climb its narrowing valley. Our winding road was only blasted through these hills in the 1960s by a government keen to end the region’s centuries of isolation.

It was the Incas who named the Chachapoyans the ‘people of the clouds’, after conquering them in the 1470s. That victory ended a fierce warrior cult that had kept outsiders at bay for more than 600 years and created one of the most advanced civilisations in the area. The Incas’ own tenure on their patch was short-lived: the Spanish arrived a mere 60 years later.

Another 300 years elapsed before the ‘rediscovery’ of the Chachapoyans’ astonishing legacy. Not only had they been enthusiastic and skilled builders, leaving an awe-inspiring collection of sophisticated hilltop fortifications and roundhouse remains, but they carefully preserved their dead: in the past 15 years, several caches of mummies have been found in extraordinarily inaccessible spots, high up in the cliffs and in underground vaults. Little by little, each new find reveals more about the Chachapoyans, and both the ruins and the remains continue to intrigue archaeologists.

Keen to enter the world of the cloud people myself, I was up early the next morning to explore Kuélap, the most striking, best preserved and easiest to reach of their fortresses.
Pronounced ‘kwaylap’, this ruined citadel stands high on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba, at the heart of the Chachapoyans’ domain. Shaped rather like a long ship with rounded ends and a broad mid-section, its pale stone walls, built of colossal limestone slabs, rise to 20m high.

The fortress soundtrack

We reached a trapezoid gateway to a passageway that rose to a second, smaller opening just wide enough for one – a clever defensive structure that forced incomers (or attackers) to approach single-file. Alfredo, my guide, explained that when the Spanish arrived, one of the last Inca kings, Manca Inca, is said to have considered fleeing here to take advantage of its remoteness but instead made his last stand at Vilcabamba, in the south of the country, 150km north-west of Cuzco.

Alfredo showed me around to the surreal soundtrack of a women’s choir – it was Sunday and they had come to sing from the walls. Within the gates sat the remains of roundhouses, with one recently rebuilt and re-thatched with a tall conical roof. It didn’t take much imagination to see how impressive this must have looked in its heyday, when 3,000 people lived here and the lofty ridge bristled with up to 500 such houses.

The fortress had distinct quarters, with a sentry tower at one end and a peculiar sacrificial ‘inkwell’ at the other. In the raised mid-section Alfredo moved a rock from a wall, reached into the nook and extracted a human bone. “Post-mortem burial,” he announced.

After lunch, when I returned to the fortress alone and had its still, brooding atmosphere to myself, I reflected how odd it was that Kuélap lay ‘undiscovered’ for so long. Though villagers hadn’t forgotten the place, it was brought to the attention of the wider world by a district judge, who, guided by locals, was making a survey of the area in 1843.

Sitting by the watchtower gazing across to muscular sun-dappled hills, I thought how deceptive the landscape looked. I was at 3,000m yet all was lush and green. There was an European softness to the scenery, dotted here and there by grazing cows. Though cloud forest still crowns most of the hilltops, lower down, where the Chachapoyans cleared tracts to grow potatoes and high-altitude grains, I could see groves and thickets full of orchids, bromeliads and velvety fuchsia.

The following day I was to delve deeper into the landscape with my new guide Jose to slash the way.

In to the jungle, machete in hand

When Jose declared that our only requirements were machete, horse and Wellingtons, it sounded straightforward. He had a substantial knife and, in the tight grid of streets that made up Leymebamba – the largest settlement in the upper Utcubamba Valley – horses did seem to outnumber people. There was an anxious moment as Javier and Sineceo, our principal horsemen, pondered my size-11 feet, but a pair of rubber boots was eventually produced and off we set, climbing steeply above town on a broad track.

The skies of Chachapoyas are fickle: you think it might rain, and the sun shines; you think the sun will shine, and it rains. Now, a drizzle enveloped us. “Lluvia mujer,” said Jose. Female rain?"Because,” continued Jose, “it annoys you all day long…”

Javier oiled our progress with a fistful of coca leaves. I chewed them to a cud-like paste that numbed my mouth and may even have hastened our progress across the cow meadows and along the damp forest trails.

We were heading for La Congona, a Chachapoyan settlement in the hills above farmsteads and fields. Ninety minutes later we reached a ramshackle house. A beaming farmer collected the fee (one sol each, plus the same per horse) before we ducked into undergrowth and climbed to a cluster of ruined roundhouses. Some were entangled in dense vegetation, which Jose swiped here and there with his machete.

Around 60 such houses stand buried in the forest, though you can make out only a fraction. Here, unusually, I saw all three Chachapoyan decorative motifs – rhomboid, zigzag and step-fret stonework – on a crumbling roundhouse. They looked purely abstract until Jose explained that some experts believe the rhomboid patterns with centre stones resemble the eyes of a puma – perhaps a kind of talisman for when the vast forests were more intimidating places.

We descended to Molinete, an overgrown site of high, terraced walls that resembled Kuélap’s. Matted shrubbery and festoons of creepers were strangling the site (a touch of Angkor Wat, I thought) and bromeliads had colonised the trees. I could make out a slender main entrance and, later, a peculiar tunnel between roundhouses.

As we headed back, Jose’s machete came to the fore. As he happily hacked a way through the thickest and darkest forest of the day, it almost sang with a metallic yet satisfying chime.

Show me the mummy

Back in Leymebamba, I visited one of the region’s highlights, the Museo Leymebamba. The museum’s inauguration, in 2000, crowned the discovery of more than 200 mummies in tombs in the cliffs above Laguna de los Cóndores (Lake of the Condors), which firmly put Chachapoyas on the map. A large picture in the museum neatly sums it up: a grinning skull juts jauntily from grave debris high above a lake amid steep hills.

No one believed that such a rich burial site, mummies and all, could have survived the elements. However, the Chachapoyans appear to have chosen burial sites with care, using natural topography – caves, overhangs and so on – to protect their dead from the wet, and also used embalming treatments.

The mummies had also been at the mercy of looters. Though the explorer Gene Savoy missed this particular cache, when farmhands found the tombs in 1996, they cut apart wrappings in a hunt for jewellery and other treasures, and tried to sell bits and pieces.

Local authorities got wind, Lima woke up and before long international media were interviewing excited archaeologists. A Discovery Channel documentary followed in 1998. Incredibly, a handful of determined tourists fiddled with the site, reputedly even re-positioning mummies – which were originally bound in a foetal position – for ‘better’ pictures. The authorities intervened in time to save what was left, while the people of Leymebamba asserted their interest in the relics, as opposed to seeing them whisked away to Lima.

The museum distils what little is known of Chachapoyan culture and its conquest by the Incas. Along with textiles, utensils, ceramics and musical instruments, more than 200 mummy bundles were preserved – these are now kept at the museum in a dehumidified room with a large glass window.

Respecting your elders

A few tourists still visit Cóndores – a muddy and arduous three-day round trip on horseback and foot from Leymebamba – even though the real interest of the place has shifted to the museum. In 2006, another cache of 12 well-preserved mummies was found by a farmer – this time, in a massive underground cave system.

One archaeologist from the team that explored the cave observed that the remoteness of the burial site showed that the Chachapoyans had enormous respect for their ancestors, because they hid them away for protection.

An archaeology student I came across, who was studying at the museum, told me about the challenges faced by archaeologists. The vast Amazonas has few of them to tend its numerous sites, she said, plus money is tight and logistics difficult. Moreover, many remains now lie on private land, making surveys awkward, and ancient masonry has long been re-used for building.

The next day I was reunited with Jose and Javier for a three-day jaunt to see burial sites in situ. Under leaden skies we climbed, our horses plodding stoically through beautiful scenery reminiscent of the Highlands. As we reached Tajopampa, a lofty meadow where a farmhouse was our home for two nights, the afternoon sun burst forth, lighting up a cliff opposite.

“Look!” exclaimed Javier, pointing. Suddenly, I made out the implausible burial niches of La Petaca tucked into overhangs and clefts. There was a pictograph, too: an ochre figure wearing a headdress of antlers and clutching a decapitated head. Even in this inaccessible spot, when archaeologists rappelled in, they found the tombs already looted.

Dipping into the Devil’s House

Our final stop was Diablo Wasi, the Devil’s House. My foray into Chachapoyas was turning more gothic by the day. “Why the name?” I asked. Jose indicated a cave at the cliff’s foot – locals believed malevolent spirits inhabited such spots.

A telescope was produced so we could study Diablo Wasi in all its macabre glory. Assorted
human bones, rib cages and skulls lay on cantilevered platforms. Strands of beige mummy wrap dangled here and there. I was astonished anything could be built in such a precipitous place. And amazed I found bits of old bone and bandage so compelling.

That night, as the rain closed in, Javier recalled the heady days of 1997 when he’d been charged with shifting Cóndores’s precious relics to Leymebamba. I asked what they thought of Savoy. “The great looter,” spat Jose, though he agreed it was more complicated. Savoy paid locals as guides and horsemen, and helped put the region on the map.

Yet his exploits, locals felt, had precipitated looting once trails were cut, long-held fearful beliefs overcome and the white man’s interest had suggested that wealth lay deep in the forest. I felt privileged to have seen a fraction of those riches.

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