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Above. Sculptures from Chachapoya sites higher up in the mountains. Left sculpture shows a coca leaf wad in the cheek. Right sculpture: Coquero El Lirio. The Chachapoya often carved human heads of stone, incorporating them into walls, perhaps as a form of ancestor worship or to signify war trophies, suggests, archaeologist Warren Church of Columbus (Ga.) State University. The site where the sculptures were found is the perfect altitude for growing high-quality coca.


Pre-Columbian ruin discovered in Peru

Find to be featured in Discovery Channel's new series Chasing Mummies

Public release date: 17-Jan-2007
Contact: Joshua Weinberg
Discovery Channel

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 January 2008.

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 found.

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," said Muscutt.

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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 different times."

"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. 6,000 feet).

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

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

 January 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.

Until now.

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.


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Last updated: February 14, 2007