YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Clues from the mists of time

Peru's ancient 'cloud warriors' put their dead in towering walls. The Chachapoya gave way to the Inca and Spanish, but first they flourished.

January 05, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

Kuelap, Peru

The broken skeletons were scattered like random pottery shards, rediscovered where they had fallen centuries ago.

Were these ancient people cut down in some long-forgotten battle? Did European-introduced diseases cause their demise? Were they casualties of some apocalyptic reckoning at this great walled citadel?

The "cloud warriors" of ancient Peru are slowly offering up their secrets -- and more questions. Recent digs at this majestic site, once a stronghold of the Chachapoya civilization, have turned up scores of skeletons and thousands of artifacts, shedding new light on these myth-shrouded early Americans and one of the most remarkable, if least understood, of Peru's pre-Columbian cultures.

Among the arresting findings: the practice of incorporating the dead into defensive walls; the use of stone missiles to repel invaders; the discovery of gargoyle-like stone carvings; and the civilization's sudden collapse, possibly in a final, purifying conflagration.

Though almost everyone knows about the Inca and Machu Picchu, relatively few have heard of the Chachapoya or visited their domain, a vast swath of Amazon headlands and breathtaking cloud forests on the slopes of the Andes. This walled settlement, among the largest monuments of the ancient Americas, rivals the Incas' Machu Picchu in scale and grandeur.

Getting here requires a lengthy, bone-crunching journey on roads less traveled, near-vertical jeep tracks featuring better-not-to-look drops of 1,000 yards or more. Kuelap is in the middle of nowhere, and there is no midday buffet, five-star hotel or luxury locomotive -- amenities found at Machu Picchu, 600 miles to the southeast.

"You have to have an adventurous spirit to come to Kuelap," said Alice Cook, 25, a schoolteacher from Alaska who was hiking down after a day's visit. "It's not like just getting on the train and you're here."

The Chachapoya civilization is believed to have thrived from around 800 to about 1540, the last 70 years or so under the domination of their empire-minded neighbors, the Inca, and then the Spanish. The Chachapoya, historians say, were a loose confederation with settlements spread across a 25,000-square-mile swath of north-central Peru -- an area about the size of West Virginia -- and may have numbered 300,000 people or more at their height.

Serious scholars and swashbuckling, would-be Indiana Joneses alike have set out to find "lost cities" long reclaimed by forest and jungle, succumbing to the allure of a civilization that dominated for centuries, then mysteriously disappeared.

But dubious assertions about Chachapoya origins have sometimes trumped sober research. Colonial-era reports that the Chachapoya were somewhat lighter-skinned than other groups have fanned improbable theories about their origins.

"It's a place plagued with ideas that it was colonized by everyone from blue-eyed Phoenicians to Irishmen paddling their cow-skin boats across the Atlantic," said Keith Muscutt, a Santa Cruz-based explorer, academic and author who has written a book about the Chachapoya. "For a generation or two there have been absurdly sensational claims that have acted to the detriment of archaeology."

Known from colonial chronicles as tall and fierce warriors who long resisted the Inca, the Chachapoya were also far-ranging merchants and powerful shamans.

Exotic plumage and intricate jewelry carved from seashells found here and elsewhere attest to their position as strategically placed traders who probably roamed from the Amazon jungle to the Pacific coast. Items bartered included prized coca leaves, feathers of tropical birds and hallucinogenic plants. Their archaeological legacy, however, points to something more profound than a mercantile society.

"Although the Chachapoya played a part in the greater Andean cultural sphere, their art and architecture convey a bold, independent spirit that distinguishes them from their neighbors," wrote Adriana von Hagen, a Peruvian journalist and scholar.

The Chachapoya typically built on high ground, which offered defensive position and drainage in a region where enemies were abundant and rains torrential. Farmers terraced hillsides below for potatoes, maize, and other crops, sustaining large populations where few live today.

Though many stone-built Chachapoya sites have been found, and others probably remain concealed by lush vegetation, the citadel here, with walls approaching 60 feet in height, radiates an unsurpassed grandeur. The wall, which varies in height as it snakes along a verdant ridge, is composed of dozens of rows of limestone blocks of varying sizes and shapes, some weighing several tons, all precisely cut and wedged into place in an impressive feat of meticulous construction.

Los Angeles Times Articles