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Peru, Andes Region

Date: Jul. 2000

Area: Laguna de Los Condores,  Andes-lake at an altitude of 4000 metres

Type: Survey

Goal: Search for votive offerings of the Chachapoya tribe 

Project leaders: Stefan Austermühle and Dr. Klaus Storch

Project partner: Mundo Azul

  • Luck, W. 2001. Der Schatz der Wolkenkrieger. Deutsche Archäologen auf Andenexpedition. WDR. Watch preview >
  • Stolpe, A. M. 2002. Die Chachapoyas. Eine verlorene Kultur im Amazonischen Berg-Regenwald der Anden, in: SKYLLIS 4.1, S.66-71. Pretzfeld: DEGUWA.

The Chachapoya, a lost civilisation in the Amazonian rainforest of the Andes

Author: Dr. Andreas M. Stolpe

On a spectacular expedition in the Peruvian rainforest a DEGUWA research team searched for remains of the Chachapoya tribe. With diving equipment and high-tech sonars bundled on horses and mules, the team sallied forth to the Laguna de Los Condores, which might have served as sacrifice lake for the "cloud-warriors".

The discovery history of the Chachapoya-civilisation

In the year 1843 the Peruvian Juan Crisostomo Nieto proclaimed the discovery of Kuelap, a colossal site of ruins, hidden in the rainforest of the Amazonian Andes. This pre-Colombian fortification site matches the renowned Inca-fortification Machu Picchu in size and is also not more poorly preserved. The builders of this site had to remain a mystery for a long time to come. Archaeological research revealed that Kuelap was inhabited for a period from 800 to 1500 A.D. The inhabitants belonged to several local cultures, which are summarised under the name Chachapoya. Around 1500 the Chachapoya were subjugated by the Inca empire. This circumstance was deduced from ceramic finds of the Inca culture.

After 1535 the Chachapoya supported the Spanish conquistadors in the bloody subjugation of the Inca, in the hope to regain their independence. This hope was however not fulfilled. According to the research of the Peruvian historian Waldemar Espinoza, the last remaining Chachapoya were expelled from Kuelap in 1572 by the Spaniards and moved to less well-defensive areas. A part of Kuelap was then pulled down by the Spanish and thence the fortress and the Chachapoya vanished in the consciousness of the people.

In 1996, a day's ride away from Leimebamba (Peru), a remarcable discovery of
Chachapoya-Archaeology was made by woodcutters. At a steep rock face, which was located above the Laguna de los Condores, Chullpas were discovered. Chullpas are mausoleums made of plastered and painted masonry. Over 200 mummies of the Chachapoya were found in these mausoleums, which were, after they were plastered and whitewashed, decorated with red ornaments. Red is the symbol for death in the culture of the historic Andes indians. The mummies found in the Chullpas were conserved through a special proceedure. After the mummification they were tied into a kind of embryonic posture, wrapped into several layers of cloth and finally sewed in. The mummificated Chachapoya are of far larger stature than present-day inhabitants of the Andes region. This fact was repeatedly noted in Spanish historical records. They often had a blue eye-colour and fair skin. The Inca feared the Chachapoya not only because of their physical superiority, but also because of their cruelty and their warfare, which was adapted perfectly to the mountainous region of the Andes. Nevertheless the Chachapoya were unable to withstand the superior numbers of the Inca lastingly.

In the Chullpas numerous burial objects were found. Apart from pottery, also textiles, leather, feather-adornment, engraved bones, shells, fire-engraved pumpkins, jewellery of bronze, silver and gold and several intact Khipu (texts encoded by knots) were found.

The explorers of the graves devasteted the site for the search of precious metals and thereby destroyed cultural treasures irrecoverably. The finding of the wealth led eventually to a clash amongst the looters, through which finally the police and archaeological authorities became aware of this discovery. In 1997 Peter Lerche of the Instituto National de Cultura did an inventory of the finds from the mausoleum. He was, shortly thereafter, followed by the archaeologist Frederico Kauffmann Doig, a TV-team and journalists. Now a tourist-boom set off and resulted in many unsupervised visits by tourists, who accessed the site, obliterated the traces of the past and took "souvenirs" back home. What has not been pillaged by tomb raiders yet became thence increasingly under threat to be ultimately destroyed by tourists. In July 1997 the Laguna de los Condores was finally declared a zona en emergencia through the engagement of Adriana von Hagen and the anthropologist Sonia Guillén and was only made accessible to authorised research groups. The financial support of the Discovery Channel enabled them to start the recovery and conservation of the remaining mummies and artefacts. At the moment they are analysed and evaluated in the Museum of Leimebam by Sonia Guillén.


The DEGUWA-expedition and its results

In collaboration with the Peruvian ecology organisation Mundo Azul the DEGUWA had the opportunity  to carry out a survey in the Laguna de los Condores in July 2000. The goal was to set the basis for possible future research in the lagune. The aim was to study the geographical conditions of the lagune and to find out if traces of pre-Colombian settlement could be detected beneath the present water level.

Preview of:  
Deutsche Archäologen
auf Andenexpedition

(WDR 2001, 30 min.)

A film by Wolfgang Luck
Camera: Michael Lange
Cut: Dorothee Plass
Sound: Jens Grumpelt
Editing: Barbara Alexander,
Birgit Keller-Reddemann,
Helmut Grosse [WDR]
The DEGUWA dive team (Photo
: K. Storch)

The tasks were carried out with a sonar system (SOSO Sonartechnik, Jena), which could be used in the deep water of the lagune, but also at shallow depths of few decimetres. Through frequency-modulation the sonar generated sub-botton and bathymetric profiles of the sea bed. Through systematic measurements from the water surface, a first promising image of the Laguna de los Condores was generated. The south-east bank, in which mausoleums were built into the rock face, continues under water to a depth of 60 metres with the same steepness as above. In the lowermost section of the rock face is a rubble trail.

The seabed consists of a sediment layer of several metres thickness. It is predominantly composed of organic material, which originated from the bank vegetation. The rock face under water is very steep and has - apart from few exceptions - no organic sediments. Artefacts were not found in the ledges of the investigated areas. Only a stack of unworked, flat, palm-sized stone plates, which were found in a horizontal cavity of the rock in a depth of ca. 15 metres, suggests to be placed here by humans. The stone plates were of a different rock than the rock face above. Moreover it is physically impossible that they may have simply fallen into this cavitiy by chance. It is, however, on the basis of the currently available data not possible to explain how this stack was piled up in a depth of 15 metres. The significance of these stone plates is not clear either, for no similar finds are known. On Chachapoya buildings stone plates were often in use to feature horizontal rhombus-motifs. But those were normally decisively larger that the stone plates found under water.

Moreover a deep-water survey was carried out with an echo-sounder. The likelihood to find artefacts with the echo-sounder in a depth of 60 m was quite low; diver surveys did not advance to these depths. Nevertheless artefacts could lie concealed beneath the sediments.
The sonar data detected the existence of different sediment layers of varying geological properties at the northern outlet of the lake. It could not be excluded that this had been a former river-bed, which eventually silted up. It could not be ascertained on the basis of the data if the course of the river was regulated by the Chachapoya, but it is not unlikely.

Investigations of the bank on the opposite side of the rock face, below the ruin of a citadel from
the Chachapoya era, yielded no anthropological evidence. However due to the traces found on land it is not unlikely that some artefacts got into the lagune by purpose or accidence during the period of Chachapoyan settlement.

For the evaluation process it is important to note that the Andes lie in a zone of high geodynamic activity. The subduction of the Nasca Plate beneath the South American Plate leds to a doming of the Andes range to a height of up to 4000 metres. Landslides occur in this region quite frequently. The subsiding of great rock masses was also detected by the sonar: the massive rubble trail at the base of the "condor-rock". The origin of these rock masses could be traced through lesions on the upper rock face. Such a landslide at the outlet of the lake could have led to water impounding. This could be a possible reason for the finding of the stone slates and could serve as explanation why the former river-bed had been located at a lower level.


Conclusive remark

Peru is a country with long periods of advanced civilisation and culture. Over thousands of years many highly developed cultures emerged and went down here. The land is rich in a great number of sites, which could be easily accessed by land archaeology. What is more, a protection of easily accessible cultural possessions against looting and destruction through tourism and souvenir hunting is urgently needed. Therefore is is exigent to study and protect endangered sites first, before material-intensive research of remote mountain lakes are envisaged. Nevertheless these lakes offer an opportunity to make spectacular finds, for organic artefacts in anaerobic sediments of such lakes would be well preserved.

The mausoleums of the Laguna de los Condores are in the care of experts today. However many mausoleums are not discovered yet or not known to the authorities. I consider the most urgent task to be the localisation and study of terrestrial sites through archaeologists in oder to counter the imminent threat of destruction by looters, which is currently higher on land than under water.

Further reading

  • Muscut, K. 1998. Warriors of the Clouds: a lost civilization in the upper Amazon of Peru. University of New Mexico Press.
  • Cavatrucini, C. 1983. I Chachapoya del Peru Settentrionale: Archeologia e Storia. In: Antisuyo, ultimo sogno Inca. Pp. 99 – 107. Venice: Mirano.
  • Corbero Valdiva, H. 1987. Estudio del Suelo y Delimitacion del Area de Protection y Reserva del Complejo Arqueologico de Kuelap. MS . Chachapoyas: INC Amazonas.
  • Davis, M. 1985. Chachapoyas: The Cloud People: An Anthropological Survey. Monetville, Ontario, Canada (Self-published).
  • Lerche, P. 1986. Häuplingstum Jalca: Bevölkerung und Resourcen bei den vorspanischen Chachapoya; Peru. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.
  • Lerche, P. 1995. Los Chachapoya y los Simbolos de su Historia. Lima: Servicios Sitoriales Cesar Gayoso.
  • Lerche, P. 1996. Chachapoyas, Guia de viajeros. Lima: Intigrafica Cesar Gayoso.
  • Muscutt, K. et al. 1993. Vira Vira: A "New" Chachapoyas Site. Wilson WY: Sixpac Manco Publications.
  • Muscutt, K. et al. 1994. Vira Vira: A "New" Chachapoyas Site. In: South American Explorer 39: 5-30.
  • Ruiz Estrada, A. 1985. Los Monumentos Arqueologicos de Leimebamba. In:  Boletin de Lima 7:42: 69-82.
  • Schjellerup, I. 1992. La agricultura prehispanica en sl territorio de la Provincia de Chachapoyas, Departmento de Amazonas, Peru. In: Revista del Museo de Arqueologia 3: 142-157. Trujillo.
  • Schlellerup, I. 1997. Incas and Spaniards in the Conquest of the Chachapoyas, Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Research in the North-eastern Andes of Peru. GOTARC, series B, Gothenburg Archeological Theses, 7. Göteborg University.
  • Von Hagen, A.; Guillén, S. 1997. Tombs with a view. Archaeology 51(2): 48-54.
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