Chachapoya mummies are related to Inca
mummies: that is, the Chachapoya people lived in an area of what is now northern Peru--an
area that the Inca wanted for their own. The Inca at first tried to persuade the
Chachapoya to become part of the empire peacefully. When that failed, the Inca fought for
(and eventually won) the Chachapoya land. Three important archaeological sites
related to the Chachapoya are Kuelap, Gran Pajatén and Vira Vira.
A cache of more than 200 mummies was
found in Peru in late 1996 by machete wielding grave robbers (they cut through the cloth
wrappings, looking for jewelry and other treasures). Local officials tried to stop the
looters and cleaned up some of their mess before scientists arrived. One mistake they made
was removing the mummies from their burial site and lining them up side by side. By the
time Peruvian archaeologist Sonia Guillen arrived in July 1997, many items (decaying,
opened mummy bundles, discarded by the grave robbers) and clues to the past (the
arrangement of the bodies) were lost because of the grave robbers and the
The mummies were discovered in cave-like
niches set in a cliff in an area of northern Peru called Laguna de los Cóndores near
Leymebamba. The people of this cold, wet, and rainy area seemed to have purposefully
selected dry caves for the burials. [NOTE: It is possible that "Chachapoya" is
derived from "sacha puya", which in an Incan language means "cloud
people." Sometimes, therefore, these mummies are referred to as
"Mummies of the Cloud People."]
Another group of Chachapoya mummies
was recently discovered (late 2006) by a farmer in a burial cave complex some 82
feet below the earth's surface (the cave is known as Iyacyecuj, or enchanted
water, by local people). When team leader and archeologist Herman Corbera was
interviewed, he remarked: "This is a discovery of transcendental
importance. It is the first time any kind of underground burial site this size
has been found belonging to Chachapoyas or other cultures in the region."
According to an article in the London Daily Mail, the "walls near the
mummies in the limestone cave were covered with paintings of faces and
warrior-like figures which may have been drawn to ward off intruders and evil
spirits." Initial reports are somewhat contradictory, indicating that
between five and twelve mummies were found.
Finally, the ruins of a Chachapoya
town (or perhaps ceremonial center) were recently discovered (see articles below
for more information). When explored, further mummies may be found there. The
Discovery Channel will be featuring the find in a new series entitled
"Chasing Mummies" (to premier in January 2008)
The mummies should be about 500 years
old or so, but no precise dating has yet been given. A recent article indicated
that at least two of the mummies may be a thousand years old. Peruvian archaeologist Sonia Guillen
as saying, "Two of the mummies are more than a thousand years old. Some of
the mummies have become skeletons, others were preserved in funerary
The mummies were not made accidentally,
but a detailed analysis has not been released of the mummification methods they used. Some
treatment had been done to embalm the skin, and the internal organs had been
removed through the anus. The
facial cavities had also been filled with cotton. They were placed in a flexed
(fetal) sitting position and bundled in cloth. According to one account, a face was
stitched onto the cloth over the head. Most of the bundles were placed in a two-room
two-level stone mausoleum built against the back wall of the cliff overhang (entry was
through the roof only). Elite burials appear to have involved coffins made from
cane. The Chachapoya also ensured preservation (whether knowingly or not) by
choosing a dry, well-protected site covered by a ledge. More study will be done in coming
months and years.
Unknown, but so far at least 200 have
What's special about them
(1) Most of the mummies were Chachapoya people, but a
few (perhaps 12 according to early reports) may have been members of an elite Incan
class. This would enable scientists to make some comparisons between the two groups.
(2) Despite the fact that grave robbers
cut through some
of the wrappings to remove jewelry and other grave goods after the burial site was
discovered, the mummies seem to be remarkably well-preserved (including their textiles,
musical instruments, special ornaments, etc.).
(3) Could these mummies have been made after the Inca
conquered the Chachapoya? By studying the mummification methods, Guillen may come up with
Museum in Chachapoyas, Peru displays some of the mummies. Others are now on
display at the National Museum in Lima.
You can find some photos of
Chachapoya mummies at author
Keith Muscutt's website. Photos are also available at the Museo
Where to find more information about them
Scientific Study of Mummies by Arthur
Aufderheide has five pages of up-to-date information about the
Chachapoya mummies along with five photos (three of the mummies). Mummy
of an Amazon Jungle Guide: Amazing Encounters with Tropical Nature and Culture. Expanded and Revised Edition by Paul Beaver
devotes a chapter to Dr. Beaver's early expedition to the mummies with a
Discovery Channel film crew. Be sure to get the 2008 revised edition.
Warriors of the
by Keith Muscutt has a few pages devoted to the mummies.
Disease and Ancient Cultures by
Aidan and Eve Cockburn and Theodore Reyman
has a brief mention of the mummies on
page 171. Mummy
Overview of Chachapoya Archaeology and History by Adriana
von Hagen is available from the Leymebamba
Museum website (.pdf file; no photos).
Schjellerup, Inge R. Incas
and Spaniards in the Conquest of the Chachapoyas: Archaeological and
Ethnohistorical Research in the North-eastern Andes of Peru. Goteborg
University, Department of Archaeology, 1997.
Striking photographs and the complete
story of the discovery can be found in the 1998 March/April issue of Archaeology
with a View, pp. 48-54) as well as in The New York Times
(p. F3, 12/16/97).
for the Lost Tombs of the Peruvian Cloud People, National
Geographic, September 2000.
(1/17/2007) published an article about the most recent (and so far,
non-mummy) find: the "biggest free-standing Chachapoya structure in
the world" (according to author Keith Muscutt). USAToday says:
"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." Since the site is still mostly unexplored, it remains to
be seen whether any mummies are inside, though they may well have been
prepared here. The National Geographic website provides a
diagram of the structure.
Discovery Channel aired an episode of "Chasing Mummies"
in January 2008 featuring the discovery by three farmers and exploration by author Keith