The Kuelap Ruins: A Chachapoyas Fortress and Religious Center in Peru

On May 4th, 2016, I was able to visit the ruins of Kuelap, Peru. WP_20160504_010The fortress of Kuelap or Cuélap is associated with the Chachapoyas culture, and consists of a walled city, with massive exterior stone walls surrounding more than four hundred buildings. Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and the complex was occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). It was rediscovered in 1843.The complex, situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, is roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width. It could have been built to defend against the Huari or other hostile peoples. However, evidence of these hostile groups at the site is minimal. Judging from its sheer size, Kuelap’s construction required considerable effort, rivaling or surpassing in size other archaeological structures in the Americas.WP_20160504_004

There are multiple levels or platforms within the complex. Because of its extension, these flat elevations support about 400 constructions, most of them cylindrical. Of them, only bases remain. In some cases, there are decorated walls with friezes of symbolic content that seem to evoke eyes and birds that take the form of a letter “V” in a chain. On my visit I had an indigenous Chachapoyas guide who said the site supported 3,000 people and was the home of ruling elites and shamans. The “V” pattern reliefs with 3 levels symbolized the levels of the world- below, ground, and above. These were also represented by the animals serpent, puma, and condor respectively. He also said the elites lived on the upper-most level and the other people lived below. There is also a double diamond pattern which represented duality.WP_20160504_023

The shamans lived in round houses on the upper level. These houses contained many obsidian artifacts as well as many llama bones, suggesting sacrificial activity; there were no human bones found in these areas. There is a stone structure on the site which is aligned with the cardinal directions. There is a pictograph face on one of the shaman’s houses.

WP_20160504_048There is not a scholarly consensus regarding the function of Kuelap, it is thought of as a fortress because of its location and the high walls which support its primary level. Adolf Bandelier and especially Louis Langlois tried to demonstrate that Kuelap might have been a fortified place destined to serve as a refuge for the population in emergency situations. The high walls that cover the outer surfaces of the platform, and the tightness of the access to the citadel in its final stretch, also suggest that the monument of Kuelap could have been constructed as a defensive sanctuary, or at least that it provided a refuge that protected against intruders. It likely also had religious or sacred functions. It is suggested that Kuelap could have been a pre-Inka sanctuary, and that a powerful aristocracy lived in it, whose primary mission was to administer food production and provide religious leadership.WP_20160504_037

My Chachapoyas guide said that the Chachapoyas people allied themselves with the Spanish conquistadores because the Inka had begun trying to make slaves and indentured servants of the Chachapoyas, moving them away from their homelands to work on projects for the empire. He said the Chachapoyas area including Kuelap was the last area conquered by the Inka and it took 100 years for the Inka to build roads into the area.

Soon the conquistadores began enslaving the residents and forcing then to work in the silver mines. Disease from the old world also took its toll, with some researchers estimating as much as 90% of the population dying from smallpox, flu, and other illnesses previously unknown in the Americas. However, the elites of the Chachapoyas culture intermarried with the conquistadores and their bloodlines became mixed with those from Spain.

Note: I use the spelling “Inka” because Wade Davis suggests it is more accurate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *