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Silver cups from ancient Peruvian

Silver cups from ancient Peruvian civilization change Chachapoya history


Two decorated silver cups found in the Chachapoyas region of Peru may rewrite the history of the enigmatic ancient people, who had never been known to do metalworking before this discovery.

Though the “people of the clouds,” as the name Chachapoya means, had cities, a form of Inca writing, and long-distance trade, they were not known as metalsmiths. It is still possible, however, that the two cups were from the Inca people, with whom the Chachapoya had warred.

The silver vessels were excavated by an archaeological team in the Soloco Purunllacta in Chachapoyas of the Amazonas department. They are unlike anything found there before.

“The finding of these vessels will change the story about Chachapoyas,” Jose Santos Trauco Ramos of the Decentralized Department of Culture of the Amazonas, told El Comercio.

The vessels, which have similar, raised decorations, each weigh 152 grams (5.36 ounces) and are 112 millimeters (4.4 inches) high and 117 millimeters (4.6 inches) in diameter. They are between 0.8 and 1 mm thick and show no corrosion of any type. They will go display at the Museum of Chachapoyas, which has yet to open.

The Chachapoya city of Kuelap was huge and rivals other architectural feats in the ancient Americas.

The Chachapoya city of Kuelap was huge and rivals other architectural feats in the ancient Americas. (Photo by Martin St-Amant/Wikimedia Commons)

The decorations in relief on the cups show male and female characters with hands joined and wearing headdresses, dressed in clothing with geometric designs. Some of the figures carry a bag and some an ax.  There are points and notches as decorations, also in relief.

“The two vessels have recently finished a 60-day restoration period at the conservation area of the Museo Arqueologico Nacional Bruning of Lambayeque. Trauco says it is too early to be sure, but there is a possibility that the vessels with Inca influence, could have been offerings,” says Peru This Week.

The Chachapoya people, who had a type of circular architecture and zig-zag decorative motifs, lived in a large, inaccessible territory at the headwaters of the Amazon River between the Huallaga and Marañon rivers in the cloud forests of the slopes of the eastern Andes mountains. Their culture flourished between 900 and 1500 AD.

Archaeologists know it was an egalitarian society because of the equal concern shown to people of all societal strata who were mummified. The society of more than 500,000 people controlled trade routes between the peoples of the Andes and the Amazon, says the British Museum, which has several Chachapoya artifacts.

An accurate knowledge of the fate of the local population has been largely based on Inca oral histories. Unfortunately, these stories were only written down (and probably altered) decades after the Spanish conquest. That is part of why a 2017 study, published in Scientific Reports, is so important. An international team, which included researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, have studied the genetic material of the Chachapoyas people. They found that the population has remained genetically distinct – suggesting the Inca were unsuccessful in assimilating that group into their own.

It is also known that the Chachapoya used the communication system called Quipu, which used twining and knots in different colors that conveyed information that could be read by a person literate in Quipu. The British Museum calls Quipu, or Khipu, “one of the great mysteries of archaeology as they have never been deciphered.”

Quipu in the Museo de La Nacion in Peru

Quipu in the Museo de La Nacion in Peru (Photo by Jorge Mori/Wikimedia Commons)

Kuelap, a walled city of the Chachapoyas, was huge and comparable to other architectural feats in the Americas. The city, now in ruins, was 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) above sea level. Its walls were 600 meters (1,980 feet) long and 19 meters (62 feet) high. It may have been built to defend against Huari or other people bent on attacking the peaceful Chachapoyas. More than 2,000 slingshot stones were found in a tower at Kuelap, possibly to defend from attacking Inca warriors in the 15th century.

The British Museum says of mummified Chachapoyas: “How the Chachapoya prepared their dead provides one of the best indications of the egalitarian nature of their society. The same reverent conditions were provided for each person and the way they were mummified, preserved and often visited suggests that the link between the living and the dead was always maintained.”

A human mummy of the Chachapoyas

A human mummy of the Chachapoyas (British Museum photo)

Featured image: The two silver cups that may change archaeologists' understanding of Chachapoyas culture (Photo by Wilfredo Sandoval/El Comercio newspaper)

By Mark Miller



Hi Mark, I wonder if the bags are a standard weight to apportion commodities fairly. The Sumerian rules also carried them, they are perceived as a symbol of power, but a quick calculation estimating there size from the iconography of 20x20x5 cms and assuming that they were made of stone would suggest they weighed approximately 16kgs. This is half a talent in weight (28-32kgs varied by city-state but all similar it is the weight a man can carry). It's quite an important principle to standardise the fair exchange of commodities (such a cloth, grain and so on). They used a sexagesimal (base sixty) subdivisions for smaller decision called mina (about 0.5kg), useful as it highly devisable into halves, quarters, eighths, tenths, twelfths and so on. I wonder if they had the same idea, which would make sense as without them everyone argues and ends up the ruler's court to resolve a dispute. It would make sense that it became a symbol of authority (as we use today justice holding a balance scale). Just an idea.
I enjoyed your article on wave piloting stick maps. The Minoans seem to record the currents in their pottery, probably for a similar reason, you need to understand the natural currents and winds if your rowing under oar or sailing. I’ve been looking at meteorological data recently and realised that their deities which express cardinal direction and time of day are also relevant to the changes in wind pattern in the day too, it’s a superb system for those that want to navigate the high seas. Eg. North is also midnight (Mother Earth) - North, Day break (Venus) - East, Midday (Sun) – South and Sunset (Moon) – West. You can see this today on wind roses and diurnal changes in wind direction. The changes in daily wind direction are influenced as they change through each house throughout the day, clever or what – it’s such an elegantly simple system to navigate. I’m so impressed with the ancient technology, they knew much more than they are given credited for and knew a lot about how the world and solar system actually works.

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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