Chachapoyas culture

Chachapoyas culture

The Chachapoyas, also called the "Warriors of the Clouds", were an Andean people living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas region of present-day Peru. The Incas conquered their civilization shortly before the arrival of the Spanish in Peru. When the Spanish arrived in Peru in the 16th century, the Chachapoyas were one of the many nations ruled by the Inca Empire. Their incorporation into the Inca Empire had not been easy, due to their constant resistance to the Inca troops.

Since the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors were the principal sources of information on the Chachapoyas, unbiased first-hand knowledge of the Chachapoyas remains scarce. Writings by the major chroniclers of the time, such as El Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, were based on fragmentary second-hand accounts. Much of what we do know about the Chachapoyas culture is based on archaeological evidence from ruins, pottery, tombs and other artifacts.

The chronicler Pedro Cieza de León offers some picturesque notes about the Chachapoyas:

"They are the whitest and most handsome of all the people that I have seen in Indies, and their wives were so beautiful that because of their gentleness, many of them deserved to be the Incas' wives and to also be taken to the Sun Temple (...) The women and their husbands always dressed in woolen clothes and in their heads they wear their "llautos", which are a sign they wear to be known everywhere." "

Cieza adds that, after their annexation to the Inca Empire, they adopted customs imposed by the Cuzco-based Inca.

The name "Chachapoya" is in fact the name that was given to this culture by the Inca; the name that these people may have actually used to refer to themselves is not known. The meaning of the word Chachapoyas may have been derived from "sacha-p-collas", the equivalent of "colla people who live in the woods" ("sacha" = wild "p" = of the "colla" = nation in which Aymara is spoken). Some believe the word is a variant of the Quechua construction "sacha puya," or people of the clouds.


The Chachapoyas' territory was located in the northern regions of the Andes in present-day Peru. It encompassed the triangular region formed by the confluence of the rivers Marañón and Utcubamba in the zone of Bagua, up to the basin of the Abiseo river, where the ruins of Pajáten are located. This territory also included land to the south up to the Chontayacu river, exceeding the limits of the current department of Amazonas towards the south. But the center of the Chachapoyas culture was the basin of the Utcubamba river. Due to the great size of the Marañón river and the surrounding mountainous terrain, the region was relatively isolated from the coast and other areas of Peru, although there is archaeological evidence of some interaction between the Chachapoyas and other cultures.

The contemporary Peruvian city of Chachapoyas derives its name from the word for this ancient culture as does the defined architectural style. Garcilaso de la Vega noted that the Chachapoyas territory was so extensive that,

"We could easily call it a kingdom because it has more than fifty leagues long per twenty leagues wide, without counting the way up to Muyupampa, thirty leagues long more (...)"

The league was a measurement of about 5 kilometers.

The area of the Chachapoyas is sometimes referred to as the Amazonian Andes, due to it being part of a mountain range covered by dense tropical woods. The Amazonian Andes constitute the eastern flank of the Andes, which were once covered by dense Amazon vegetation. The region extended from the cordillera spurs up to altitudes where primary forests still stand, usually above 3500 m. The cultural realm of the Amazonian Andes occupied land situated between 2000 and 3000 m altitude.

Origin of the Chachapoyas

Accounts such as that of Cieza de León indicate that the Chachapoyas had 'lighter' skin than other Native Americans of the region, and as with other anomalous populations (such as the Guanche people of the Canary Islands or the Tarim mummies), their origins and appearance are subject to speculation and exaggeration.

According to the analysis of the Chachapoyas objects made by the Antisuyo expeditions of the Amazon Archaeology Institute, the Chachapoyas do not exhibit Amazon cultural tradition but one more closely resembling an Andean one. Given that the terrain facilitates peripatric speciation - as evidenced by the high biodiversity of the Andean region - the physical attributes of the Chachapoyas are most likely reflecting founder effects, assortative mating, or related phenomena in an initially small population sharing a relatively recent common ancestor with other Amerind groups.

The anthropomorphous sarcophagi resemble imitations of funeral bundles provided with wooden masks typical of the Horizonte Medio, a dominant culture on the coast and highlands, also known as the Tiahuanaco-Huari or Wari culture. The "mausoleums" may be modified forms of the "chullpa" or "pucullo", elements of funeral architecture observed throughout the Andes, especially in the Tiahuanaco and Huari cultures.

Population expansion into the Amazonian Andes seems to have been driven by the desire to expand agrarian land, as evidenced by extensive terracing throughout the region. The agricultural environments of both the Andes and the coastal region, characterized by its extensive desert areas and limited soil suitable for farming, became insufficient for sustaining a population like the ancestral Peruvians, which had grown for 3000 years.

This theory has been described as "mountainization of the rain forest" for both geographical and cultural reasons: first, after the fall of the tropical forests, the scenery of the Amazonian Andes changed to resemble the barren mountains of the Andes; second, the people who settled there brought their Andean culture with them. This phenomenon, which still occurs today, was repeated in the southern Amazonian Andes during the Inca Empire, which projected into the mountainous zone of Vilcabamba, raising examples of Inca architecture such as Machu Picchu.

Incorporation into the Inca Empire

The conquest of the Chachapoyas by the Incas took place, according to Garcilaso, during the government of Tupac Inca Yupanqui in the second half of the 15th century.

He recounts that the warlike actions began in the slope of Pias. If this is true, it was to the south-west of the Gran Pajáten, whence it is deduced that the area of Pias was already considered as a Chachapoyas territory.

About the resistance that the Chachapoyas put up against the Inca's penetration in the times of Tupac Inca Yupanqui, there is abundant historical information, especially in the chronicle of Cieza.

During the sovereign Huayna Capac's government, the Chachapoyas rebelled:

"They had killed the Inca's governors and captains (...) and (...) soldiers (...) and many others were imprisoned, they had the intention to make them their slaves."

As an answer, Huayna Capac, who was in the Ecuadorian cañaris land and while he was gathering his troops, sent messengers to negotiate peace. But again, the Chachapoyas "punished the messengers (...) and threatened them with death".

Then Huayna Capac ordered to attack them. He crossed the Marañon river over a bridge of wooden rafts that he ordered to be built probably in the surroundings of Balsas, next to Celendín.

From here, the Inca's troops went to Cajamarquilla (Bolivar), with the intention of destroying this town that was "one of the principal towns" of the 'Chachapoyas. From Cajamarquilla, an embassy consisting of women came out to meet them. In front of them there was a matron, who was a former concubine of Tupac Inca Yupanqui. They were asking for mercy and forgiveness, which the Inca granted them. In memory of this event of peace consecration, the place where the negotiation had taken place was declared sacred and closed so from now on "(...) neither men nor animals, nor even birds, if it were possible, would put their feet in it."

To assure the pacification of the Chachapoyas, the Incas installed garrisons in the region. They also arranged the transfer of groups of villagers under the system of "mitmac", or change of territories of human groups:

"(...) it gave them grounds to work and places for houses not much far from a hill that is next to the city (Cuzco) called Carmenga."

Of the Inca presence in the territory of Chachapoyas remain the architectural rests of Cochabamba, placed in the outskirts of Utcubamba in the current district of Leimebamba.


The architectural model of the Chachapoyas is characterized by circular stone constructions as well as raised platforms constructed on slopes. Their walls were sometimes decorated with symbolic figures. Some structures such as the monumental fortress of Kuelap and the ruins of Cerro Olán are prime examples of this architectural style.

Chachapoyan constructions may date to the 9th or 10th century; this architectural tradition still thrived at the time of the arrival of the Spanish until the latter part of the 16th century. To be sure, the Incas introduced their own style after conquering the Chachapoyas, such as in the case of the ruins of Cochabamba in the district of Leimebamba.

The presence of two funeral patterns is also typical of the Chachapoyas culture. One is represented by sarcophagi, placed vertically and located in caves that were excavated at the highest point of precipices. The other funeral pattern was groups of mausoleums constructed like tiny houses located in caves worked into cliffs.

Chachapoyan handmade ceramics did not reach the technological level of the Mochica or Nazca cultures. Their small pitchers are frequently decorated by cordoned motifs. As for textile art, clothes were generally colored in red. A monumental textile from the precincts of Pajáten had been painted with figures of birds. The Chachapoyas also used to paint their walls, as an extant sample in San Antonio, province of Luya, reveals. These walls represent stages of a ritual dance of couples holding hands.


Although there is archaeological evidence that people began settling this geographical area as early as 200 A.D. or before, the Chachapoyas culture is thought to have developed around 800 A.D. The major urban centers, such as Kuélap and Gran Pajáten, may have developed as a defensive measure against the Huari, a Middle Horizon culture that covered much of the coast and highlands.

In the fifteenth century, the Inca empire expanded to incorporate the Chachapoyas region. Although fortifications such as the citadel at Kuélap may have been an adequate defense against the invading Inca, it is possible that by this time the Chachapoyas settlements had become decentralized and fragmented after the threat of Huari invasion had dissipated. The Chachapoyas were conquered by Inca ruler Tupac Inca Yupanqui around 1475 A.D. The defeat of the Chachapoyas was fairly swift; however, smaller rebellions continued for many years. Using the mitmaq system of ethnic dispersion, the Inca attempted to quell these rebellions by forcing large numbers of Chachapoya people to resettle in remote locations of the empire.

When civil war broke out within the Inca empire, the Chachapoyas were located on middle ground between the northern capital at Quito, ruled by the Inca Atahualpa, and the southern capital at Cuzco, ruled by Atahualpa's brother Huascar. Many of the Chachapoyas were conscripted into Huascar's army, and heavy casualties ensued. After Atahualpa's eventual victory, many more of the Chachapoyas were executed or deported due to their former allegiance with Huascar.

It was due to the harsh treatment of the Chachapoyas during the years of subjugation that many of the Chachapoyas initially chose to side with the Spanish colonialists when they arrived in Peru. Guaman, a local ruler from Cochabamba, pledged his allegiance to the conquistador Francisco Pizarro after the capture of Atahualpa in Cajamarca. The Spanish moved in and occupied Cochabamba, extorting what riches they could find from the local inhabitants.

During Inca Manco Capac's rebellion against the Spanish, his emissaries enlisted the help of a group of Chachapoyas. However, Guaman's supporters remained loyal to the Spanish. By 1547, a large faction of Spanish soldiers arrived in the city of Chachapoyas, effectively ending the Chachapoyas independence. Residents were relocated to Spanish-style towns, often with members of several different ayllu occupying the same settlement. Disease, poverty, and attrition led to severe decreases in population; by some accounts the population of the Chachapoyas region decreased by 90% over the course of 200 years after the arrival of the Spanish.

Archaeological Sites

The Chachapoyas people built the great fortress of Kuélap, with more than four hundred interior buildings and massive exterior stone walls, possibly to defend against the Huari around 800 AD. Referred to as the 'Machu Picchu of the north,' Kuélap receives few visitors due to its remote location.

Archaeological sites in the region include the settlement of Gran Pajáten, Gran Saposoa, and the burial sites at Revash and Laguna de los Condores (Lake of the Condors), among many others.

ee also

*Amazonas before the Inca Empire


*von Hagen, Adriana. "An Overview of Chachapoya Archaeology and History" from the [ Museo Leymebamba] website.
*Hemming, John. "Conquest of the Incas". Harcourt, 1970.
* Muscutt, Keith. "Warriors of the Clouds". University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1998.
* Savoy, Gene. "Antisuyo: The Search for the Lost Cities of the Andes". Simon & Schuster, 1970.

External links

* [ Ethnography and Archaeology of Chachapoyas]
* [ Archaeological conservation dilemmas in Chachapoyas]
* [ Peru North map including Chachapoyas]
* [ Incas in Chachapoyas]
* [ Chachapoyas underground burial site discovered]

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