A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A trek through the remote outposts of a lost pre-Columbian civilization
Back in 1976, at the end of an assignment in northeastern Peru's Amazonas Province, a farmer with whom I had been speaking suddenly pointed to the top of a nearby mountain. "There are ancient ruins up there," he said. I was intrigued and after a considerable hike found the remains of a huge rectangular stone building, almost flush with the summit. It commanded a sweeping view of the countryside. "A great military observation post," I remember thinking. I would later learn that it had belonged to an enigmatic, warlike people known as the Chachapoya, who flourished in the region from the beginning of the ninth century until their subjugation by the Inca in the 1470s.
Since the Chachapoya left no written record, we still don't know how they referred to themselves. Their name is a Spanish corruption of one the Inca used, possibly sacha puyu, meaning cloud people, after the clouds that drift up from the Amazon tributaries in the deep valleys below. We do know, from Spanish chroniclers, that the Chachapoya were tall warriors who settled along a 10,000-square-mile stretch of mountainous territory between the Maranon and Huallaga rivers in northeastern Peru until the Inca conquered them--no small feat considering the locations of their settlements. In fact, they were still battling the Inca when the Spanish arrived in 1535. Wars, epidemics, the Inca custom of transplanting conquered people to other areas of their empire, and the absorption of the Chachapoya into other societies, including that of the Spanish, all help explain their sudden disappearance.
I took the photographs on this page during a wet, two-week trek through Chachapoya country, by horse and by foot, along nearly vertical stony paths. Being a photographer, I was particularly intrigued by the jungles I had to navigate, for the light was green and sepulchral. Nothing moved, not a bug, not the slightest breeze. It was as if everything had died with the Chachapoya.
Victor Englebert's articles and photography have appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, and International Wildlife. Born and raised in Belgium, he lives in