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Tombs with a View Volume 51 Number 2, March/April 1998
by Adriana Von Hagen and Sonia Guillén

[image] Chachapoya mummy bundles ripped apart by looters spill out over the roofs of several stone mausoleums built into a cliff overlooking the Laguna de los Cóndores on the eastern flanks of the Andes. (Ron Wagter) [LARGER IMAGE]

Tucked onto a narrow ledge on a cliff 325 feet above the Laguna de los Cóndores (Lake of the Condors), deep in the cloud forest blanketing the eastern flanks of the Peruvian Andes, is a row of stone burial houses, or chullpas, containing more than 200 mummy bundles, mortuary offerings of ceramic pots, carved wooden figures with stylized human faces, and string baskets holding gourds. Discovered in November 1996, the site was a final resting place of the Chachapoya people, one of the Inka Empire's fiercest enemies.

From the writings of Spanish chroniclers, archaeological surveys and excavations, and accounts of explorers we know that the Chachapoya once controlled some 25,000 square miles of territory between the Marañon and Huallaga rivers, the latter a major tributary of the Amazon. The region embraces a dry tropical forest along the valley of the Marañon, cloud forests along the Utcubamba River, the windswept jalca, or high grasslands flanking the easternmost cordillera of the Andes, and the lowland rain forest of the Amazon basin. From ca. A.D. 800 to their defeat by the Inka in the 1470s, the Chachapoya lived mainly on ridges and mountaintops in settlements of circular stone houses that ranged in size from more than 400 structures to as few as 20. Some scholars believe that the term Chachapoya is a corruption of sacha puya. In Quechua, the language of the Inka aristocracy, the words mean "cloud people," a fitting name for a culture that thrived on cloud-cloaked mountaintops.

Archaeologists from the Centro Mallqui-the Bioanthropology Foundation Peru, began salvage operations at the site in August of 1997. The more than 200 bodies from the site afford a rare opportunity to study the health and pathologies, demographic profiles, causes of death, DNA, and physical attributes of these people during the period of the Inka conquest. This information, along with further work at the site and at a nearby settlement, will provide a wealth of information about the Chachapoya and their interaction with the Inka on the eve of the Spanish invasion.

Adriana Von Hagen is coauthor with Craig Morris of The Inka Empire and its Andean Origins and The Cities of the Ancient Andes. Sonia Guillén, a bioarchaeologist, directed the excavations at the Laguna de los Cóndores and heads Centro Mallqui-The Bioanthropology Foundation Peru. Funding for the project was provided in part by the Discovery Channel.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America