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Realm of the Cloud People Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
text and photographs by Victor Englebert

A trek through the remote outposts of a lost pre-Columbian civilization

[image] On a cliff ledge overlooking the vast Utcubamba Valley I spot five-foot-tall anthropomorphic sarcophagi of six ancient Chachapoya, gazing at the rising sun, as if the dead were watching over the living. The capsulelike coffins, made of clay and grass, and built into the cliff face between A.D. 1100 and 1300, are shielded from the rain by overhanging rock. Within them are mummy bundles holding the remains of Chachapoya elite. To reach the cliff heights, the Chachapoya may have used natural ledges, which were destroyed when they withdrew. Scholars believe a stone wall was erected around each mummy bundle. Cane poles were inserted into the walls, sort of teepee-style, and the capsules were built up and then painted. The effigies were finally "dressed" in feathered tunics and adorned with necklaces and trophy heads. The skulls may have been part of the decoration. The site is called Karijia, after a canyon below; the sarcophagi are known to locals as "ancient wise men."

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.

While some Chachapoya elite were buried in standing clay and grass effigies, as at Karijia, others were entombed in chullpas, brightly painted cliffside tombs, such as those found at the site of Revash. Painted in shades of red and cream, many of the chullpas have gabled roofs and are embellished with cross-shaped niches. Local farmers call the red markings and targetlike circles ojos, or eyes--ancestors keeping tabs on the living. [image]

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.

[image] It may not be Machu Picchu, but the Kuelap citadel, the largest Chachapoya fortress-city by far, is an impressive place built more than 1,000 years ago. Protected on one side by a sheer drop, it stands at an elevation of 9,500 feet and is surrounded by a dense forest. A 65-foot wall of pale yellow stones surrounds some 420 houses and ceremonial structures, many of them still buried under trees and vegetation that include colorful bromeliads and orchids. Three funnel-like entrances further protected the site from intruders. Many of the walls within the 15-acre fortress display friezes that may be stylized eyes of a puma, one of the Chachapoya's four animal deities. With some 3,500 inhabitants at its height, Kuelap (the name suggests a fortified settlement) was a big town for its time. While it was known to the Spanish, who collected tribute from the people who lived there, the first archaeological investigation of the site was carried out by an Italian, Antonio Raimondi, in 1860.

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 Allentown, Pennsylvania.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America