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The fortress of Kuelap or Cuélap (Chachapoyas, Amazonas, Perú), is a walled city associated with the Chachapoyas culture built in 6th century AD. It consists of more than four hundred buildings surrounded by massive exterior stone walls. The complex is situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru and roughly 600 metres long and 110 metres wide. It could have been built to defend against the Huari or others, but evidence of hostile groups at the site is minimal.
The monumental ruins of Kuelap are situated at 3000 metres above sea level. 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.
Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and the complex was occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). Through the pre-Columbian, conquest and colonial periods, there are only four brief written references to Kuelap.
It was rediscovered in 1843, when Juan Crisóstomo Nieto, a judge in Chachapoyas, made a survey of the area and took note of Kuelap's great size; he was guided by villagers who had known of the site for generations. Subsequently, Kuelap gained 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 first exploratory expedition mounted by archaeologists was directed by Federico Kauffmann Doig between May and June 1997. Five mausoleums, protected by a cave filled with rock paintings, were found to be replete with funeral bundles, objects of ceramics, quipus, etc., attributable to the Chachapoyas culture.
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. The remains had been removed from their original resting places, a widespread custom in pre-Columbian Peru. Most of the human bones found to date are adult.
Site description and layout
Judging from its sheer size, Kuelap's construction required considerable effort, rivaling 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. Of 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.
Three structures stand out from the hundreds of others within the complex:
- El Tintero, at the southern end of the biggest anden, it is a circular turret in the shape of an inverted cone, a real challenge to the laws of gravity.
- La Atalaya, a turret structure located at the northern end of Kuelap.
- El Castillo, a structure located in the most conspicuous sector of Kuelap 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 of Kuelap, there is not a scholarly consensus. 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 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. It likely also had religious or sacred function.
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 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 looting. 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.
- Hagen, Adriana von. The Chachapoya, 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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