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The fortress of Kuelap or Cuélap (Chachapoyas, Amazonas, Perú), associated with the Chachapoyas culture, consists of massive exterior stone walls containing more than four hundred buildings. The structure, situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, is roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width. It could have been built to defend against the Huari or other hostile peoples. However, evidence of these hostile groups at the site is minimal. Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). However, through the pre-Columbian, conquest and colonial periods we have only four brief references to Kuelap. In lieu of newly discovered documents, there exists no other testimony concerning the site until 1843.
This prime example of Chachapoyan architecture, Kuelap, remained ignored by the outside world until 1843, when Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, a Chachapoyas judge, made a survey of the area and took note of Kuelap's great size, guided by villagers who had known of the site for generations. Subsequently, Kuelap earned the attention of explorers, historians and archaeologists. Notable observers who helped publicize the site included Frenchman Louis Langlois (who wrote a description of Kuelap in the 1930s), Adolph Francis Alphonse Bandelier, Ernst Middendorf, Charles Wiener and Antonio Raimondi.
The ruins of Kuelap are located at the summit of a hill that rises on the left bank of the Utcubamba, at coordinates 6°25′07″ S 77°55′24″ W, according to the engineer Hernán Corbera. Access to Kuelap is gained via El Tingo, a town at approximately 1800m above sea level, near the bank of the Utcubamba. A horse trail also winds along the left bank of Tingo river and leads eventually up to Marcapampa, a small level upland near the site.
The monumental ruins of Kuelap are situated at 3000 metres above sea level. Judging from its sheer size, Kuelap's construction required considerable effort, rivalling or surpassing in size other archaeological structures in the Americas. The structure is almost 600 metres in length and its walls rise up to 19 metres in height.
There are multiple levels or platforms within the complex. Because of its extension, these flat elevations support about 400 constructions, most of them cylindrical. From them, only bases remain. In some cases, there are decorated walls with friezes of symbolic content that, in general, seem to evoke eyes and birds that take the form of a letter V in a chain. There are three structures that stand out from the hundreds of others within the complex:
- El Tintero is a structure at the southern end of the biggest anden and can be described as a circular turret in the shape of an inverted cone, a real challenge to the laws of gravity.
- La Atalaya is another structure shaped like a turret and is located at the northern end of Kuelap.
- El Castillo is a construction located in the most conspicuous sector of Kuelap and stands out on the top anden.
The best preserved portal, and probably the principal one, is located in the southern side of the frontispiece. It is 3 metres wide at its base and is flanked by high walls, resembling an alleyway. This narrows sharply as it rises, culminating in a space large enough for one person to enter, forming the shape of a slice of pie. Scholars believe this entrance was defensive in nature; it has also been speculated that this formation symbolizes an immense vulva. Archaeologists excavated the gateway in 2005/2006 and uncovered a tomb and various designs carved into the blockwork, including snakes and heads.
There are other aspects which merit consideration, including the colossal construction of Kuelap and the advanced engineering required to provide a sophisticated system of rainwater drainage. At present, because its drainage channels are obstructed, the ground under the monument has been swelling with water. As the great platform is dilated in this way, some stones forming part of the structure are becoming detached from the walls. It has not also been clarified how the water supply was provided; perhaps some of the enclosures that lacked access served as spaces where water was stored. Most of the other enclosures are thought to have been food storehouses, like the tambos of the Incas, providing a considerable volume of granaries.
Regarding the function that Kuelap had, there is not also a completely satisfactory response. Popularly it is thought of as a "fortress", because of its location and the high walls which support its primary level. Adolf Bandelier and especially Louis Langlois tried to demonstrate that Kuelap was more than a fortress, proposing that it might have been a fortified place destined to serve as a refuge for the population in emergency situations. They attributed to it, probably by analogy, the same function as medieval European boroughs.
The high walls that cover the outer surfaces of the platform, and the tightness of the access to the citadel in its final stretch, suggest that the monument of Kuelap could be constructed as having a defensive character, or at least that it provided a refuge that was protected against intruders. But this possibility does not necessarily annul the others, perhaps of major transcendency.
This way, taking into consideration the function served by the monumental architecture in the Peruvian archaeological past in general, the same one that was related to the socioeconomic needs, it can be concluded that Kuelap could be basically a pre-Inca sanctuary. A powerful aristocracy lived in it, whose primary mission was to administer food production and provide religious leadership.
Some time ago, diverse mausoleums were found by chance on the banks of a lagoon known as "Laguna de las Momias" (Mummies' Lagoon), located in an inaccessible and uninhabited locality of the district of Leimebamba in the province of Chachapoyas. The first exploratory expedition mounted by archaeologists was directed by Federico Kauffmann Doig Between May and June of 1997. Five mausoleums, that were protected by a cave that presents rock paintings, were found to be replete with funeral bundles, objects of ceramics, quipus, etc., attributable to the Chachapoyas culture.
The graves began to be plundered by stockbreeders who sighted them when they were walking around the area of the lagoon. When they realized that the mummies were not accompanied by any jewelry nor any other adornments of precious metals, they stopped pillaging them; this way, about thirty funeral bundles have been saved from the plundering, discoveries which have allowed the archaeologists to continue their work to establish new bases of knowledge.
In July 2010, remains of 79 human bodies dating back to the seventh century AD were found inside a stone wall believed to have been a secondary grave site, meaning that the remains had been removed from their original resting places, a widespread custom in pre-Columbian Peru. Most bones from human skeletons found to date are adult.
- Hagen, Adriana von. The Chachapoya from the Museo Leymebamba website.
- Presentations made by Kuelap Resident Archaeologist Alfredo Narvez
- Bradley, Robert (2008), "The Architecture of Kuelap", VDM Verlag Dr. Müller
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