Pre-Columbian ruin discovered in Peru
to be featured in Discovery Channel's new series Chasing
Public release date: 17-Jan-2007
Contact: Joshua Weinberg
Silver Spring, Md. -- Explorer Keith Muscutt has
announced the existence of a previously unknown
pre-Columbian ruin in Peru: the Huaca La Penitenciaría
de la Meseta, which will be featured in Discovery
Channel's new series, CHASING MUMMIES, premiering
Located in the cloud-forested eastern slope of the Andes
mountains, the ruin is believed to belong to the ancient
Chachapoya -- a civilization that flourished in the
upper Amazon, between its Huallaga and the Marañón
tributaries, from about the ninth to the fifteenth
century AD. Muscutt delivered the news at the annual
Institute for Andean Studies conference (http://www.instituteofandeanstudies.org
) at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Chachapoya are renowned for their mountain-top
citadels, such as Kuelap, Gran Pajatén and Vira Vira,
and for well-preserved mummies recovered from cliff
tombs at the Lake of the Condors and Lake Huayabamba.
The ruin, consisting of a ceremonial platform
(approximately 100 ft. x 200 ft. x 24 ft.) overlooking a
plaza (approximately 200 ft. x 300 ft.), as well as
numerous rectangular and circular buildings, is of
particular interest because of its unprecedented form,
size, and the remoteness of the area in which it was
First discovered by local pioneers, Octavio, Merlin and
Edison Añazco, the site was nicknamed the "Huaca La
Penitenciaría" (Penitenciary Ruin) because of its
impregnable appearance. News of their discovery was
relayed by them to Muscutt who, guided by the Añazcos,
arrived at the site and made a preliminary survey of it
in August of 2006.
"This is an exciting development for Chachapoya
archaeology. The main building is a stepped, rectangular
structure made up of three tiers. This building is about
two-hundred feet long, a hundred feet wide, twenty-four
feet high, and oriented to the cardinal points of the
compass. As far as I can tell, apart from some drainage
shafts, it's completely solid. I imagine it served as a
ceremonial platform -- a stage for Chachapoya rituals,"
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Summary of Facts
Discoverers: Octavio, Merlin and Edison Añazco,
descendents of the pioneer Benigno Añazco, who first
reached and settled La Meseta in the 1980s.
Members of the August 2006 Expedition: Eyner
Añazco, Robinson Añazco, Patrocino Añazco, Clever Añazco,
Alan Añazco, Merlin Añazco, Edison Añazco, Cheyver
Garrido, Keith Muscutt.
Location: La Meseta, a plateau in otherwise
mountainous territory, between the Río Verde (also known
as Río Chilchos) and Río Huabayacu, both tributaries of
the Río Huallabamba, in the Department of San Martín,
Peru; approximately 7 degrees South of the Equator, and
77 degrees and 30 minutes West of Greenwich. The village
of La Morada, an annex of Chuquibamba, Chachapoyas,
Amazonas, is two days on foot or by mule from La Meseta.
Muscutt comments on the structure and design: "It
supports the foundations of several rectangular and
circular buildings – presumably religious buildings or
elite residences. An extension adds another thirty by
sixty feet to the main building, making it L-shaped.
This has the remains of what might have been a look-out
tower on it. Projecting horizontally from the main
building, starting about half way up it, is an elevated
masonry platform, apparently a plaza, two hundred feet
wide, and three-hundred feet long -- roughly the shape
and size of a football field. A seam between the main
building and the plaza indicates that they were built at
"The plaza has tumbled structures on it too, although
these look somewhat improvised, so I wonder if they were
part of the original design. After centuries of
overgrowth as well as damage from frequent earth tremors
(the area was hit by a 7.5 Richter-scale earthquake as
recently as 2005) it's hard to trace the outlines of
these buildings. At the far end of the plaza, the ground
rises up to the level of its surface, and it gradually
transforms into a maze of low stone walls that look like
the results of clearing land for agriculture.
Overlooking the plaza, the upper facade of the main
building incorporates a typical Chachapoya frieze
consisting of two parallel rows of recessed masonry, so
there's no doubt in my mind that this is Chachapoya
handiwork; but without the architectural detail I
wouldn't be sure what culture to attribute it to.
There's only one Chachapoya building that even remotely
resembles it. That's Pirca Pirca, near Chivani, above
tree line at around 11,000 feet – a far cry from La
Penitenciaría, which is 6,000 feet above sea level, with
spider monkeys in the forest canopy. Other than Pirca
Pirca, and now La Penitenciaría, almost all known
Chachapoya buildings are round or curvilinear. With the
exception of the colossal retaining wall of the
Chachapoya citadel, Kuelap, I can't think of a
Chachapoya engineering project as ambitious as La
Penitenciaría. Over 25,000 cubic yards of dressed stone
and rubble were needed to build it."
"It's totally unexpected that such a massive monument
would show up on the periphery of Chachapoya territory,
in an area that has usually been thought of as a buffer
zone between the highland Chachapoya and the tribal
cultures of the Amazon Basin. But La Penitenciaría was
definitely not a fortress -- so either their territory
extended further East, or the Chachapoya relied more on
cooperation than conflict with their neighbors.
Compounding the puzzle, there don't seem to be any other
buildings in the immediate vicinity. Unlike most
ceremonial platforms in the Americas, it doesn't seem to
be the nucleus of a population center. It just sits
there in the middle, or the edge, of nowhere. Like
London Bridge in Arizona – it's really there, but very
hard to fathom. Someone put a tremendous amount of
energy into Huaca La Penitenciaría de la Meseta's
construction, but exactly who, why, and when is
anybody's guess. My own guess is that it had something
to do with ancient coca leaf production at La Meseta.
But for the time being it's an architectural and
archeological enigma -- one that promises to open a new
chapter in the history of the Chachapoya."
Elevation: 2,000 meters above sea level (approx.
Natural Environment: Lower mountain cloud forest. High
rainfall and humidity. Vegetation: trees, thorny shrubs,
bamboos, palms, vines, bromeliads, orchids, tree-ferns.
Large animals include jaguar, spectacled bear, spider
monkey. Birds include toucans, turkeys and parakeets.
Cultural Affiliation: Chachapoya
Date: 850AD to 1475AD.
Who were the Chachapoya?: An agriculturally-based,
stone-building, metal-working culture that occupied the
highlands and the cloud forests, or "ceja de la montaña"
(eyebrow of the jungle), along the spine of the Andes,
between the Marañón and Huallaga drainages, in
North-Eastern Peru. They flourished for several
centuries, probably acting as middle-men in the trade of
items such as coca leaves and feathers between the
lowland tribes and the coastal civilizations. They were
overwhelmed by the Inca empire in the late 15th century.
Always rebellious, they quickly allied themselves with
Spanish conquistadores to throw off the Inca yoke, but
they themselves soon fell victim to European epidemic
diseases. Their population decimated, their culture
disappeared entirely except for the ruins and artifacts
they left behind. Archaeological research into the
Chachapoya is scant. Scarcity of scientific information
about them has unfortunately caused them to become the
object of much speculation and fantasy – with
unsubstantiated reports of vast Chachapoya metropolises,
claims that the Chachapoya realm was El Dorado, and so
forth. They have also been fictionalized in Clive
Custler's novel "Inca Gold."
Keith Muscutt, a British citizen resident in Santa Cruz,
California, USA, was born in England and educated in
England (Oundle School and University of Sussex) and the
USA (Phillips Andover and UC Davis). He is the
author/photographer of an illustrated book about the
Chachapoya "Warriors of the Clouds: A Lost Civilization
of the Upper Amazon of Peru." His expeditions to find,
study and conserve ancient Chachapoya remains were the
subject of a two-hour History Channel documentary "Cliff
Mummies of the Andes." He has been exploring the upper
Utcubamba, Pusac, Huabayacu, Huayabamba, Yonan, Huambo,
Imaza, and Lejia drainages, in the Peruvian Departments
of Amazonas, San Martín and La Libertad since 1981.
Among the sites he was the first to document are: the
walled citadel of Vira Vira; Pampa Hermosa; and the
cliff tombs of Laguna Huayabamba, Cueva de Osiris, Casa
de Oro, Brillante Luna, Tres Ojos, and Casa Blanca. He
was a member of the official reconnaissance expedition
that recorded the looted Chachapoya-Inca burial sites at
the Lake of the Condors. Founder of an NGO, Fundacíon
Benéfica Niños Pobres de Chuquibamba, he is Assistant
Dean of the Arts at UC Santa Cruz, a member of the
Institute for Andean Studies, and a Research Associate
of the Museum of Man in San Diego.
The fortress of
Kuelap consists of massive exterior stone
walls containing more than four hundred
buildings. The structure, situated on a
ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in
northern Peru, is roughly 600 meters in
length and 110 meters in width. It was
likely built to defend against the Huari or
other hostile peoples. Archaeological
evidence shows that the structure was built
around 800 AD and occupied until the Early
Colonial period (1532-1570).
Discovery could bring Peru's 'cloud warriors' to earth
17, 2007. Source:
USA TODAY by Dan Vergano
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,
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
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
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.