The Cloud People and the Ancient Mummies of Peru
High in the Andes mountains there was once a fierce tribe of people that fought the Inca rule. They were known as the the Chachapoya or people of the clouds as the region they occupied was at such a high elevation that the clouds frequently covered the steep mountain slopes. Weakened by fighting with the Inca, by fighting in the Inca civil wars, and then by helping the Spanish against the Inca, the Chachapoya were wiped out by the diseases brought by the Spanish conquistadors.
There are some very curious things about the tribe that leave anthropologists, archeologists and everyone else interested in discovering more about their origins and history. First, Spanish accounts called them the tallest and lightest-skinned people of the region. Secondly, their culture – art, architecture, musical instruments, ceramics and clothes – seem to be very distinct when compared to other groups of the area. Third, this tribe mummified their dead, leaving hundreds of mummies and sarcophagi in the caves, nooks and crannies of the peaks of their former region of the Andes which are still being found and studied. These details have led some to speculate that the tribe could have perhaps come from a whole different wave of migration than the rest of the Amerindian people populating the Americas at that time. Could they have been descended from the people of the Indian legends such as Viracocha, Quetzalcoatl or Kulkulcan, the light-skinned gods, who arrived from across the ocean?
One of the most advanced tribes of the region, from at least 800 to about 1500 AD their kingdom extended across a large part of the Andes until they were conquered by the Incas. They may have originally found their homeland seeking refuge or defense in the mountains and building settlements hidden in the clouds. It is known that Chachapoya were also farmers, and carved their fields out on mountain terraces. The mountain climate forced them to become excellent weavers and their neighbors treated them with caution and had respect for their shamans.
But most of the history of these people is still full of mystery. Almost all the written sources about them have been lost after the conquest of the Incas by Spanish conquistadors in 1512. The first firm evidence of the existence of “cloud people” dates back to around 600 AD which is 600 years ahead of the appearance of the Inca Empire. Chachapoya are first known to have occupied the forested mountains between the rivers Marañón and Huallaga in Peru. They built hundreds of settlements in inaccessible regions. It is possible that they built a settlement called Gran Pajáten where some ceramics have been dated to 200 BC. Some of their settlements consisted of several dozen buildings, and in others they were as little as four. Many of the settlements were strengthened by powerful fortifications as defense against their enemies.
Their largest city or citadel found so far is called Kuelap. It is at an altitude of 3000 meters above sea level. It consists of more than 400 buildings and defensive towers, many of them have decorative moldings and murals on the walls. It was discovered in 1843 but has been very hard to get to because of the difficult terrain and the 20 meter high walls and collapsed fortifications that left stones strewn all over covering much of the city inside. The Incas eventually were able to destroy the city and well-preserved mummies have been found in the ruins. Once conquered, the tribe was forcibly relocated from their homes to some of the furthest corners of the vast Inca Empire.
One controversial explorer named Gene Savoy claimed that the Chachapoya had light hair and blue eyes but there is really no evidence for this. Others have claimed that some of the mummies have red or reddish blond hair. A few have thought they might be descended from Phoenician sailors, King Solomon’s gold miners, or from Egyptians. However, the analysis of the mummy skeletons and testing of DNA samples so far has shown that the people were probably related to other Native Americans of the region. They were definitely a very distinct culture and we can still look forward to more discoveries and theories as researchers are still uncovering interesting facts about them.
Perhaps you will have a chance to visit the mummy museum in Peru – Museo Leymebamba.