Three of the mummies Leymebamba at the museum.

Peruvian Necropolis Destroyed by Looters and Tourists is Preserved by Salvage Archaeology

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The Laguna de los Condores (aptly known also as the Laguna de las Momias) is an archaeological site where a great number of mummies were found. This site is located in Leymebamba, in the northern Peruvian region of Amazonas. The site is a lagoon, as its name indicates, and the cliffs surrounding it were used as a necropolis by the Chachapoya (who are known also as the ‘Warriors of the Clouds’), a Pre-Columbian culture that inhabited the cloud forests of the Amazonas Region. It may be indicated that some have claimed that these mummies belong to the succeeding Inca civilisation. The site was discovered in 1997, and the mummies found there were removed to the nearby Leymebamba Museum, where they are now conserved. It is believed that many more of these Chacapoya mummies are to be found interred in such necropoli spread across the surrounding jungle-covered mountains.

Laguna de los Condores

Laguna de los Condores ( CC BY NC-SA 2.0 )

It was in 1997 that the Laguna de los Condores caught the attention of archaeologists. In the previous year, workers for a Leymebamba-based cattle rancher named Julio Ullilén stumbled upon the necropolis. As they found it to be full of mummies, they began to hack the bodies up, in the hopes that they would find precious metal artifacts that they could sell. The local police had to intervene when a fight broke out amongst the looters over the spoils, and many of the artifacts, which had been taken by Ullilén, were later confiscated by the police. In April of the following year, an archaeologist by the name of Peter Lerche was sent to the site as an official representative of Peru’s National Institute of Culture to conduct a preliminary survey of the damage that had been done to the mummies. Lerche’s initial estimation was that there were about 60 or 70 mummies interred in the necropolis, and hundreds of associated artifacts scattered on the cliff ledge. In September of the same year, funding was provided by the Discovery Channel (who filmed the event) for archaeologists to remove the discovered mummies and their artifacts, and bring them to Leymebamba.

Chachapoya mummies wrapped in cloth at Leymebamba Museum.

Chachapoya mummies wrapped in cloth at Leymebamba Museum . (C-Monster/ CC BY NC 2.0 )

In the intervening months, however, the publicity generated by the looting incident resulted in further damages to the site. It has been pointed out that salvage archaeology carried out at the site later revealed that the tourists who had come to the site moved the mummies around, and posed them for photos. As a consequence of these actions, some of the mummies were exposed to the rain, which was highly detrimental to their preservation. Additionally, some tourists were even casually taking artifacts from the site to keep as souvenirs. Thus, archaeologists, in consultation with the local and regional authorities, took the decision to have the mummies (about 200 in total) and their artifacts removed from the site, so as to prevent their further destruction.

Cliffs where some of the mummies tombs are found.

Some of the wrapped mummies and one that has been exposed by looters. (YouTube Screenshot)

Initially, the mummies were kept in the house belonging to a local person. Specialists came to study the mummies, and they realised that this discovery was so special that the mummies ought to be housed in its own museum. Therefore, in 1998, construction began on the Leymebamba Museum, which was completed in 2000. Since then, this community-run rural museum has been the home of the Laguna de los Condores mummies.

Studies conducted on these mummies by experts have revealed much information about them. For instance, by studying these mummies, experts are able to understand the manner by which they were embalmed. As another example, by studying a mummy’s teeth, the age of death may be obtained, as these are indicators of age. Additionally, artifacts associated with each mummy may be used to infer the role they played in society whilst they were alive. For example, a mummy wrapped in nets may be said to belong to a bird catcher, a prestigious job in this ancient society, as bird feathers were highly prized. Due to the cold and dry environment these mummies were placed in, much has been preserved, including organic remains, which may be further studied to understand these mummies.

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