CULTURES IN CONTEXT
The Incas and Prehistoric Cultures
III: CHACHAPOYA CULTURE
3.5: Funeral Practices and 3.6: The Area Today
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3.5 FUNERAL PRACTICES
077. Two distinctive funeral practices were characteristic
of Chachapoyan culture. One is represented by sarcophagi, placed vertically
and located in caves that were excavated at the highest point of precipices.
These imitation funeral bundles have been equipped with wooden masks.
(Models of sarcophagi at the museum in Leimebamba)
078. Elsewhere the Chachapoya built groups of
mausoleums resembling tiny houses, located in caves excavated from the
faces of high cliffs, which are difficult to access even today.
(The approach to the mausoleums at Revash.)
079. The preservation of human remains among
the Chachapoya was, in itself, an extraordinary accomplishment in an area
of high rainfall and high humidity. Most bodies were placed in cliff shelters
protected by a rock overhang, and the resultant dry and cold microclimate
helped preserve the organic remains. (Funeral bundles in the Museum
080. They did not embalm their dead originally
but selected areas with microclimates that enhanced preservation. Later,
processes of embalming and evisceration were introduced by the Incas and
were developed skilfully.
081. The skin of the embalmed mummies was tanned
to preserve it, eventually turning it into leather. The organs were extracted
through the anus to prevent rotting. They refilled these holes with cotton,
and also stuffed cotton into the cheeks to maintain the body’s facial features
082. After a drying period, the corpse’s remains
were bound together tightly in a foetal position and placed within a decorated
cotton shroud. This technique allowed mummies to defy the centuries and
they can be found with hair and teeth in good condition even today.
083. The most accessible of the Chachapoyan mausoleums
are those at Revash 50 kms south of Kuelap and overlooking the same valley.
They were carved from a limestone cliff and resemble small houses grouped
into miniature villages.
084. They are located in a straight line on a
narrow shelf excavated in the wall of an imposing canyon. The walls of
these “houses” are made of stones placed on mud mortar, and they have painted
mouldings at the tops of the walls
085. Each “house” has one or two rectangular
floors; and instead of a front door, they have side doors. The cliff-face
forms their back wall. The sloping roofs are purely symbolic, since they
were protected by the overhanging roof of this man-made cave and were spared
exposure to rain or sun.
086. These funeral mansions remain almost intact
except for the mummies located inside them, which were destroyed long ago
by rodents and/or pillaged. From their size and degree of decoration, and
their protective location, it is thought that these were a collection of
residences destined to bury the rich and the powerful.
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3.6 THE AREA TODAY
087. Close by Revash, the Sunday Market in the
village of Yerba Buena offers a window into times past, when there were
no department stores and people sold their own produce and bought most
of their other supplies from neighbours. Hundreds of years ago the ancestors
of these same people would have travelled here on foot. Today many still
do, but others arrive on buses or in the back of trucks; and some come
088. The city known as Chacapoyas today was founded
by the Spanish following their conquest of the region. Its original name
was San Juan de la Frontera de los Chachapoyas. (Centre of city during
089. On the east side of the city in Independence
Square there’s a statue dedicated to the local heroes of the battle of
Higos Urco in1821 which was part of Peru’s struggle to win independence
from Spain. Sadly, little of the culture of the actual Chachapoyan people
survived even then.
090. The much earlier defeat of the Chachapoya
by the Incas had been fairly swift; though smaller rebellions continued
for many years. Using a system of ethnic dispersion, the Inca sought to
quell these rebellions by forcing large numbers of Chachapoya people to
resettle in remote corners of the Inca Empire. Any Chachapoyans who mix
with the tourists here today will have travelled great distances.
091. In much the same way, after Spanish soldiers
arrived in 1547, effectively ending all vestiges of Chachapoyan independence,
the occupants of Kuelap were relocated to Spanish-style towns and villages
elsewhere: and disease, poverty, and attrition led to a dramatic decrease
in population. By some accounts, following the arrival of the Spanish,
the population of the Chachapoyas region decreased by 90% in the course
of 200 years. (Leimebamba village.)
Text and photos by John Tyman
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