The Chachapoyas, also called the Warriors of the Clouds, were Andean people living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas Region of present-day Peru. The Inkas conquered their civilization shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in Peru in the 16th century. Their incorporation into the Inka Empire was fraught with constant resistance to the Inka troops. The name Chachapoya is the name that was given to this culture by the Inka; the name that these people may have used to refer to themselves is not known. The meaning of the word Chachapoya may have been derived from sach’a-p-qullas, the equivalent “people who live in the woods” (sach’a = tree, p = of the, qulla = nation; in which Aymara is spoken). Some believe the word is a variant of the Quechua construction sach’a phuya (tree cloud).The Chachapoyas were devastated by the 18th century but remain as a strain within general indigenous ethnicity in modern Peru.
The Chachapoyas’ territory was located in the northern regions of the Andes. It encompassed the triangular region formed by the confluence of the rivers Marañón and Utcubamba in the zone of Bagua, up to the basin of the Abiseo River, where the ruins of Pajáten are located. This territory also included land to the south up to the Chuntayaku River, exceeding the limits of the current Amazonas Region towards the south. But the center of the Chachapoyas culture was the basin of the Utcubamba River. Due to the great size of the Marañón River and the surrounding mountainous terrain, the region was relatively isolated from the coast and other areas of Peru, although there is archaeological evidence of some interaction between the Chachapoyas and other cultures.
According to the analysis of Chachapoyas artifacts made by the Antisuyo expeditions of the Amazon Archaeology Institute, the Chachapoyas did not exhibit Amazon cultural tradition but one more closely resembling an Andean one. The anthropomorphous sarcophagi in the area resemble imitations of funeral bundles provided with wooden masks typical of the Horizonte Medio, a dominant culture on the coast and highlands, also known as the Tiahuanaco–Huari or Wari culture. The “mausoleums” may be modified forms of the chullpa or pucullo, elements of funeral architecture observed throughout the Andes, especially in the Tiahuanaco and Huari cultures.
Population expansion into the Amazonian Andes seems to have been driven by the desire to expand agrarian land, as evidenced by extensive terracing throughout the region. The agricultural environments of both the Andes and the coastal region, characterized by its extensive desert areas and limited soil suitable for farming, became insufficient for sustaining a population like the ancestral Peruvians, which had grown for 3000 years.
The conquest of the Chachapoyas by the Inkas took place, according to Garcilaso, during the government of Tupac Inka Yupanqui in the second half of the 15th century. He recounts that the warlike actions began in Pias, a community on a mountain on the edge of Chachapoyas territory likely to the southwest of Gran Pajáten. According to de la Vega, the Chachapoyas anticipated an Inka incursion and began preparations to withstand it at least two years earlier. The chronicle of Cieza also documents Chachapoya resistance. During the time of Huayna Capac’s regime, the Chachapoyas rebelled: “They had killed the Inka’s governors and captains and soldiers and many others were imprisoned, they had the intention to make them their slaves.” In response, Huayna Capac sent messengers to negotiate peace. But again, the Chachapoyas “punished the messengers and threatened them with death”. Huayna Capac then ordered an attack. He crossed the Marañón River over a bridge of wooden rafts. From here, Inka troops proceeded to Cajamarquilla with the intention of destroying “one of the principal towns” of the Chachapoyas. From Cajamarquilla, a delegation of women came to meet them, led by a matron who was a former concubine of Tupac Inka Yupanqui. They asked for mercy and forgiveness, which the Inka granted them. In memory of this event, the place where the negotiation had taken place was declared sacred. To assure the pacification of the Chachapoyas, the Inkas installed garrisons in the region. They also arranged the transfer of groups of villagers under the system of mitmac, or forced resettlement. The Inka presence in the territory of Chachapoyas left structures at Cochabamba in the outskirts of Utcubamba in the current Leimebamba District as well as other sites.
The architectural model of the Chachapoyas is characterized by circular stone constructions as well as raised platforms constructed on slopes. Their walls were sometimes decorated with symbolic figures. Some structures such as the monumental fortress of Kuelap and the ruins of Cerro Olán are prime examples of this architectural style. Chachapoyan constructions may date to the 9th or 10th century; this architectural tradition still thrived at the time of the arrival of the Spanish until the latter part of the 16th century. The Inkas introduced their own style after conquering the Chachapoyas, such as the ruins of Cochabamba in the district of Leimebamba. The presence of two funeral patterns is also typical of the Chachapoyas culture. One is represented by sarcophagi, placed vertically and located in caves that were excavated at the highest point of precipices. The other funeral pattern was groups of mausoleums constructed like tiny houses located in caves worked into cliffs.
Chachapoyan handmade ceramics did not reach the technological level of the Mochica or Nazca cultures. Their small pitchers are frequently decorated by cordoned motifs. As for textile art, clothes were generally colored in red. A monumental textile from the precincts of Pajáten had been painted with figures of birds. The Chachapoyas also used to paint their walls, as in San Antonio, in the province of Luya, reveals. These walls represent stages of a ritual dance of couples holding hands.
Although there is archaeological evidence that people began settling this geographical area as early as 200 AD or before, the Chachapoyas culture is thought to have developed around 750-800 AD. The major urban centers, such as Kuélap and Gran Pajáten, may have developed as defensive measures against the Huari, a Middle Horizon culture that covered much of the coast and highlands. In the fifteenth century, the Inka Empire expanded to incorporate the Chachapoyas region. Although fortifications such as the citadel at Kuélap may have been an adequate defense against the invading Inka, it is possible that by this time the Chachapoyas settlements had become decentralized and fragmented after the threat of Huari invasion had dissipated. The Chachapoyas were conquered by Inka ruler Tupac Inka Yupanqui around 1475 AD. The defeat of the Chachapoyas was fairly swift; however, smaller rebellions continued for many years. Using the mitmac system of ethnic dispersion, the Inka attempted to quell these rebellions by forcing large numbers of Chachapoya people to resettle in remote locations of the empire. When civil war broke out within the Inka Empire, the Chachapoyas were located on middle ground between the northern capital at Quito, ruled by the Inka Atahualpa, and the southern capital at Cuzco, ruled by Atahualpa’s brother Huáscar. Many of the Chachapoyas were conscripted into Huáscar’s army, and heavy casualties ensued. After Atahualpa’s eventual victory, many more of the Chachapoyas were executed or deported due to their former allegiance with Huáscar. It was due to the harsh treatment of the Chachapoyas during the years of subjugation that many of the Chachapoyas initially chose to side with the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in Peru. Guaman, a local ruler from Cochabamba, pledged his allegiance to the conquistador Francisco Pizarro after the capture of Atahualpa in Cajamarca. The Spanish moved in and occupied Cochabamba, extorting from the local inhabitant whatever riches they could find.
During Inka Manco Cápac’s rebellion against the Spanish, his emissaries enlisted the help of a group of Chachapoyas. However, Guaman’s supporters remained loyal to the Spanish. By 1547, a large faction of Spanish soldiers arrived in the city of Chachapoyas, effectively ending the Chachapoyas’ independence. Residents were relocated to Spanish-style towns, often with members of several different ayllu occupying the same settlement. Disease, poverty, and attrition led to severe decreases in population; by some accounts the population of the Chachapoyas region decreased by 90% over the course of 200 years after the arrival of the Spanish.
With this historical background in mind, I visited two burial sites in the Chachapoyas area. The first stop was Caverna de Quiocta. This cave has a petroglyph on a wall near the entrance. Inside there are various piles of skulls and bones.
Further back, there are many stalagmites and stalactites. Among some of the bones there are also some remains of pottery. The people who existed within the Chachapoya cultural sphere believed in an afterlife, so goods were buried along with the remains.
The next stop was Carajía or Karijia, in the Utcubamba Valley where there are eleven Chachapoyan mummies in sarcophagi in three groups on the cliffside. These were constructed by the chilloos people who were a subgroup of the chachapoya. The largest group contains seven (originally eight) sarcophagi which stand up to 2.5 meters tall. There is also a group of three which have holes in them from looters, and another which sits alone and is smaller. The sarcophagi are constructed of clay, sticks and grasses, the larger group having exaggerated jawlines. An earthquake toppled one of the original eight in 1928.
They have been radiocarbon dated to the 15th century, coincident with the Inka conquest of the Chachapoyas in the 1470s. The sarcophagi are of a type particular to the Chachapoyas called purunmachus. The construction is painted white and overlaid with details of the body and adornment in yellow ochre and two red pigments, such as the feathered tunics and male genitalia visible on the Carajía purunmachus. Often the solid clay head will boast a second, smaller head atop it. Two of which also have human skulls on top of them. The purunmachus of Carajía are unique because of this. It is thought that the skulls were war trophies.
I fell in love with the Chachapoyas countryside and people and can’t wait to return to Peru; hopefully beginning a new research project in the future.
Note: Be sure to check out my earlier post on the Chachapoyas fortress of Kuelap