Mysterious cloud people

6. December 2008 19:21
The huge walls at Kuelap

The Spanish generally get a bad rap for wiping out various indigenous civilisations in central and south America, including the Inca. But the Inca themselves weren't averse to pushing other people around when it suited them. For example, a few decades before the Spanish turned up in the 16th century, the Inca conquered a little-known mountainous people called the Chachapoya, who had inhabited the cloud forest of the Peruvian Andes since the 8th century.

This is my first post for a few days as I've been off exploring deepest Somerset, and one of the most interesting pieces of archaeology news to break while I was away is the discovery of the remains of a town built by the Chachapoya, in the remote Jamalca district of northern Peru. The newspapers are calling the town a "citadel" but that's probably a bit strong. The site covers around 5 hectares and includes a group of stone circular houses, as well as big flat stones that may have been used to grind seeds and wild plants. It's next to an abyss, complete with 500-metre high waterfall, and there are paintings on the cliffside. According to a Peruvian news agency, local people discovered the site, and showed it to Peruvian archaeologists last weekend.

So what do we know about the Chachapoya? Overall they are pretty mysterious because not that many sites from them are known.  The Inca took over their territory in around 1470, but when the Spanish turned up in 1532, the Chachapoya allied with them against the Inca. The Chachapoya lived on for a while under their new masters but were eventually killed off by European diseases such as smallpox and the measles.

According to contemporary Spanish reports, they were taller than other local peoples, and had pale skin (meaning their women were particularly desired by the Inca). This has led to suggestions that they could have been of European descent, but DNA analysis of skeletal remains has ruled this idea out. Apart from their colouring, the Chachapoya are best known for digging tombs in the sides of cliffs. They painted the bones of their dead red, and wrapped them in tight bundles of cloth. They regularly brought these bundles back into town to take part in various rituals and festivals - that's one way to remember the dead I suppose!

The whole region is very remote today and covered with thick forest, but some archaeologists believe that when the Chachapoya lived the area was thriving and densely populated. One of the best-known Chachapoya sites is Kuelap (pictured) - a fortress discovered in 1843. It's bigger than the Inca's famous mountain city Macchu Picchu, but has never been fully explored. Then in 1996, a set of Chachapoya cliffside tombs was found by looters. The authorities mounted a rescue mission and recovered hundreds of funeral bundles and mummies. Results of carbon dating published last year showed that the bundles dated from before the Inca takeover, whereas the mummies dated from afterwards, suggesting that the Chachapoya got the idea of making mummies from the Inca (this paper has some amazing photos by the way, it isn't free access but you can at least see thumbnails here).

According to the Daily Telegraph, the remoteness of the site appears to have protected the site from looters, and the archaeologists have found ceramics and undisturbed burial sites. If it really is untouched that would be very exciting, but I fear it's just too good to be true. Looting - along with unregulated archaeological expeditions and adventure tourism - is a huge problem in this region. A few years ago, Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alka estimated that there are a mind-boggling 200,000 unregistered monuments and archaeological sites in Peru, dating from the last four millennia. He believes that all of them, no matter how distant or how overgrown, have been at least partially affected by looting.