Jan 17, 2007
A sculpture from the Chachapoya site higher up in the mountains from Huaca la Penitenciaria de la Meseta, where the Anazco family members discovered the platform plaza ruin.
A massive ruin offers fresh clues about the culture of Peru's vanished Chachapoya, the "cloud warriors" who battled the Inca Empire more than 500 years ago.
Best known for building mountainous cliff-side tombs and filling them with bundled mummies, the Chachapoya (cha-cha-POY-ah) were once rulers of the northern Andes. Aside from cliff tombs and stone houses, they have left archaeologists few large ruins to study.
The ruin was first discovered in August by Peruvians, four local men, who live in the remote, heavily forested area. They got in touch with Keith Muscutt, a scholar and author they knew because he has explored the region for three decades and is godfather to some of their children. Muscutt, an expert on the Chachapoya, is the author of 1998's Warrior of the Clouds: A Lost Civilization in the Upper Amazon of Peru.
"I was shown to what seems likely the biggest free-standing Chachapoya structure in the world, and just about in the last place I would ever expect it," says Muscutt, an assistant dean at the University of California-Santa Cruz, who described the site last week at the Institute of Andean Studies meeting in Berkeley, Calif.
The structure was nicknamed the "Huaca la Penitenciaria de la Meseta" (The Penitentiary) by its discoverers because of its tall stone walls. It consists of two rectangular ceremonial platforms on one side of a plaza in the middle of a plateau called La Meseta — not the mountaintops usually associated with the Chachapoya — about 6,000 feet above sea level on the eastern side of the Andes. The site, likely a town or ceremonial center, has been covered for centuries by forest.
"Extraordinary, a real head-scratcher, so enormous and isolated, it doesn't compare to anything else," says archaeologist Warren Church of Columbus (Ga.) State University. "The structure is mystifying, rather austere and blocky, unusual for the Chachapoya."
Broadly rectangular, the largest platform is 24 feet high, 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. Atop it are the remains of small homes or ceremonial buildings. A second building, 30 by 60 feet, abuts the main one, holding the apparent remains of a lookout tower.
Below, a plaza, about 200 feet wide and 300 feet long, rests on 12-foot-high walls. Marked by a distinctive Chachapoya frieze, smooth stones sandwiching rocks zigzagged in traditional Chachapoya fashion, the site was measured by Muscutt in August, but no other exploratory work has been done. Muscutt has registered its location with Peruvian authorities, he says, who will control any archaeological work on the site.
The Chachapoya, one of South America's little-known pre-Columbian civilizations, ruled northeastern Peru's Andean mountaintops until their conquest by the Inca around 1475. Spanish conquest of Peru in the 1500s wiped out the rest of their civilization. The high forests surrounding their homeland differ from the Amazonian rainforests most often associated with South America, Muscutt says, but offer equally impassable and difficult terrain.
The find upsets conventional thinking about the ancient Chachapoya kingdom, Church says, suggesting its mountain people had more extensive links to the Amazonian lowlands than previously supposed. The structure was likely last used at least five centuries ago, he suggests, when the region was heavily depopulated by the Inca and Spanish conquests.
One smaller, squared-off Chachapoya structure exists at a mountain site called Pirca Pirca. Honeycombed with rooms, that site has been extensively looted. Muscutt says the new site is too overgrown to tell if any inner chambers exist.
Muscutt is working with The Discovery Channel to plan an archaeological investigation of the ruin, which will require a large team due to its size. The site will be featured in a Discovery Channel documentary series, Chasing Mummies, planned for next year.