The sarcophagi of Carajia, emblematic of the lost Chachapoya culture

Cloud Warriors: The Mysterious Power of the Lost Chachapoya Culture

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In pre-Columbian America, the Incas had the largest empire and a flourishing civilization. They called their empire Tawantinsuyu, meaning The Four United Provinces , and they worshiped the sun god Inti. Their ruler was believed to be the Sapa Inca, the “child of the sun”, an earthly king of divine right.

The Inti Raymi Solstice Festival in Cusco, Peru.

The Inti Raymi Solstice Festival in Cusco, Peru. ( Flickr/CC BY 2.0 )

The Incas had obtained dominion over many of the other peoples in their region, either by conquest or by peaceful assimilation, and they had imposed their sovereignty over other religious cults, thus incorporating a large part of western South America to their own empire. However, some resisted the Incas more notably than others and some even managed to inflict fear into their hearts. Such was the case of the Chachapoya, the Cloud Warriors, who managed to resist Incan assimilation for quite some time with a little help from shaman sorcerers and living mummies.

The Cloud Warriors of Peru

Ancient sources described the Chachapoya, the famous Cloud Warriors of Peru, as individuals with lighter skin than that of other peoples from the region, such as the Incas. Also, they stood apart not only by their physical characteristics, but by the unique culture which they left behind.

Sarcophagi on a cliff face, Chachapoyas, Amazonas - Peru

Sarcophagi on a cliff face, Chachapoyas, Amazonas - Peru (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

The Cloud Warriors were head hunters and they used to keep the heads of their enemies as trophies. The term “sarcophagus” first appeared in Greek, where it meant “flesh eater”, but when it came to the Chachapoya, not only did they bury their dead in sarcophagi, but also in the walls of their constructions. On a cliff at Carajia, Peru, northeast of the city of Chachapoyas, a number of figures with human faces can be seen from afar. The interesting part about these statues is the fact that they are also sarcophagi containing mummified bodies.

The Dead Among the Living

In the vision of this civilization, the body and the soul were not considered separate, and to be dead actually implied to keep on living in the world of the dead. This was why they built houses for the dead where they would place the mummies of their deceased.

Massive exterior walls, eastern facade of the Kuelap citadel, Peru.

Massive exterior walls, eastern facade of the Kuelap citadel, Peru. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Their sorcerers were feared throughout Mesoamerica as they were believed capable of shape shifting into any kind of wild animal and of placing terrible curses on the mummies of the deceased. The Incas feared the mummies of the Chachapoya, viewing them as the living dead who could rise and inflict death upon all those arrogant or ignorant enough to disturb them.

Inside the walled city of Kuelap.

Inside the walled city of Kuelap. (José Porras/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )

The most relevant example of Chachapoya sacred landscape can be found at Kuelap where the dead have been buried in the walls of the great construction. Dozens of people have been buried there as part of the predilection the Cloud Warriors had for burying their dead on high cliffs. The zenith was considered as having a special importance, especially for ceremonies, so the entire construction was built in such a way that the sun rises on one side of the site and it sets directly opposite. The shamans of the Chachapoya knew the exact dates when the sun would shine upon the construction, such as March 4, and that was when they performed the sacred rituals, festivities and celebrations. The sun always had to be at the zenith for the ceremony of communion between the souls of the living and of the dead.

Sacrifice and Resistance

The function of the temple also included ritual sacrifice. At Kuelap, archaeologists have found bones of numerous animals which were ritually sacrificed in the central chamber of the temple, as well as evidence of bodies left to rot where they had fallen after having been killed in a violent manner.

Interior of a circular building in Keulap, Peru.

Interior of a circular building in Keulap, Peru.  (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

In the end, the Incas finally made the decision to confront the Chachapoya. The result was disastrous for the Cloud Warriors who tasted defeat. However, fear still resided in the hearts of the Incas. They avoided the sacred burial grounds of the Chachapoya as the souls of the cloud warriors were still believed to roam the region and to keep on living in the mummified bodies interred in the area.

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