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Chacha Picchu, New Discoveries in Amazonas, Peru


Author: Gary Ziegler

As a sometime archaeologist and dedicated adventurer, I have been poking around backcountry Peru since the1960s. While making an income by guiding adventure programs, I have been compiling data on Inca roads and sites associated with the last Incas. For the past several years, I have focused my interest on Choquequirao, an unusual Inca ceremonial site located spectacularly high above the Apurimac river some thirty miles west of Machu Picchu. I believe it to be the ceremonial center of the last Incas following their retreat from Cusco in 1536.Choquequirao is constructed from worked rectangular blocks of brittle metamorphic schist and Quartzite giving the site a distinctively different appearance from the Limestone/andesite construction of Inca Cusco or the polygonal granite temples of Machu Picchu. Because of this and difficulties reaching the site, it has largely been overlooked since Machu Picchu discoverer, Hiram Bingham visited it in 1909.

Intrigued by the apparent similarity of construction in photos of Chachapoya sites in northern Peru to that of Choquequirao and a nearby temple site, I discussed my observation with Cusco archaeologist Perci Paz. He shared his thinking that Chachapoya mitayos, workers imported by the Inca from distant parts of the empire, may have helped construct Choquequirao. This was all the motivation that I needed to organized a June expedition to explore this thesis.

The northern Andes mountains of Peru were home to the Chachapoya culture, one of several powerful city states absorbed by the Inca during imperial expansion under Topa Inca in the late 15th century. First visited by a detachment of Spanish under Hernando de Soto in December, 1532, Chachapoyas was not completely conquered until the capture of the last Inca, Tupac Amaru, in the jungles of Vilcabamba in 1572. Little is known about the Chachapoya and their massive archaeological monuments. Only vague references from Garcilaso de La Vega and early historical writers have survived the ensuing centuries. We hoped to unravel a part of the mystery that remains of this enigmatic region and its lost civilization.

In 1995, Frank Ciampa, an American explorer sponsored by Gene Savoy's Andean Explorer's Club, located a pre-Inca temple/city complex in a remote high cloud forest in northern Peru. Frank and I found each other through the internet which soon led to a plan to combine a visit to Frank's unreported find along with my proposed studies.Library research and a review of sources soon revealed that very little information is available and few serious studies have been undertaken. The best known work is American explorer Gene Savoy's interesting `Antisuyo', the account of his El Dorado Expeditions of the late 1960s which, unfortunately, most researchers believe lacks credibility. Peter Lerche, a German anthropologist who has lived and studied in the area for many years has published two short books and Peruvian archaeologist, Federico Kauffmann Doig has written several papers.

The most informative material that I happened upon was a well researched composite paper by Keith Muscutt, Douglas Sharon and Vince Lee about their investigations at a site called Vira Vira. This paper published in `The South American Explorer' and in a Instituto Nacional de Cultura bulletin references other sources and contains Architect Lee's excellent detailed site maps and drawings.

In the short time that we had to prepare, I was unable to obtain a copy of the results of a five year study by the University of Colorado at another large site, Gran Pajaten. This undoubtedly would have made interesting reading for our daily happy hour sessions in the cook tent.

Prepared or not, departure day soon arrived. Frank Ciampa, photo journalist Peter Frost (`Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary' and `Exploring Cusco'), our Cusco field team of cooks, wranglers and a small group of participants met me in Lima in early June.

As traditional funding is rarely available for archaeological exploration, we invited paying participants to help pay the costs. Although frowned upon by professional scholars, I firmly believe that tourism funded research can be a valuable research method and perhaps the only way to finance exploration and subsequent protection of archaeological areas that would otherwise remain unknown until they are located and looted as local populations expand.

Our small team consisted of Gill Hazel from Sydney and Fiona McKone from Dublin, veterans of the epic 1996 expedition to Choquequirao. On that trip, we were forced to retrace our way from the site by the way we had come, some seven days over a most remote and precipitous part of the Andes. A massive landslide destroyed the shorter trail out to our waiting transport as we slept the last night at the ruins. The result was a forced march retreat on very short rations adding an unplanned week to everyone's vacation. Robin Kraemer, recently retired (and relocated) police inspector from Hong Kong and his good humored wife, Chris completed the team.

Starting with a visit to Cajamarca, where Atahualpa Inca was captured, ransomed and executed by the Pizarros in 1532. we continuing over the Andes to the Maranon River, great tributary to the Amazon. Following a day of preparations at the mountain town of Chachapoyas, we visited the massive, impressive hill top fortress site of Kuelap before plunging on foot and horseback into the wild cloud forest mountains of the eastern most range of the Andes.

Remarkably, a major discovery of a cave site with more than 80 intact mummy bundles was happening nearby at Lake of the Condors. We were able to view uncategorized items brought from the cave and Peter make a quick photo trip resulting in excellent slides of the untouched remains.A cursory examination revealed what appeared to be ceramics and very intact textiles from several cultures and periods. The mummies and Textiles were late Inca. style. The assorted pots were Inca, Chimu, Chachapoyan and very curiously, early colonial. Our concern which proved well founded, was that without prompt government protection, the cave would be looted. Fortunately, through a grant from the Discovery Channel which filmed the site in July, the area is now under guard and most of the material safeguarded.

Traveling on foot with a train of pack horses and mules following behind, we trekked west from Kuelap over a 11.000 ft pass to drop steeply into cloud forest vegetation lining the upper slopes of the Vilaya drainage. Following Frank's notes and information that we had obtained from a chance and very interesting meeting with Gene Savoy in Lima, we examined various sites along the way that Frank identified as part of Savoy's Gran Vilaya complex. These sites consisted of many circular buildings and associated terraces made from carefully cut and coursed rectangular Limestone blocks which I now knew to be traditional Chachapoya style.

Small villages and isolated farms became more numerous as we descended the valley. We noticed evidence of recent slash and burn clearing. Frank pointed out that one of the negative results of exploration is that trails are cut into previously inaccessible areas allowing expansion of farming and livestock grazing into archaeological zones. Unfortunately, many sites have been looted by local residents long before being 'discovered' by expeditions. We listened with dismay as a villager explained that He had seen locals blasting inaccessible cliff burials with a shotgun to dislodge objects of value. Too often, we found walls and buildings damaged or destroyed by recent conversion to corrals and shelters.

Clearing overgrown trails, we climbed to the ridge where Frank's team had previously located a large complex of structures that they called Calpunta after a regional name for the area. As a preliminary examination, our objective was limited to locating, identifying and attempting to ascertain the extent of the various sites that we examined. Unless one has attempted travel in this type of steep and dense vegetation, it is impossible to visualize the difficulty in simply measuring a building. Most of our time and effort was spent clearing a path to crawl or walk through. I did manage a number of GPS (global positioning computer) readings and sufficient measurements to produce a rough sketch map. Because of the difficulty of gaining distance for perspective, photography is of limited value.

Locating ruins in a dense cloud forest is limited to on the ground exploration. Multiple layers of thick vegetation, up to more than 20 meters high, renders areal reconnaissance and satellite photography useless. Perhaps specifically targeted Infra-red imagery might differentiate between vegetation and cooler stone walls but who could afford that? Even surface identification is difficult. It is possible to be as close as a meter from a moss covered structure and fail to recognize it.

Continuing on via machete for several miles past the furthest point of previous exploration, we discovered a remarkable complex of Chachapoya style buildings located on the crest of a cloud forest mountain overlooking the Maranon river. In the three days available we counted hundreds of structures with more visible below in the dense vegetation. A square mound that I suspect to be a mausoleum was unopened and the site showed no signs of being visited by huaqueros (grave robbers). We may well be the first to enter this forgotten cloud city since its inhabitants vanished more than four hundred years ago. The highest summit was crowned by a seven walled terrace inclosing an unusual T shaped temple. My final last hour effort was a hopeless attempt to follow a stone walled, intrenched trail gracefully curving serpentine like down into the impenetrable forest below. Torn, scratched, bitten by insects, covered with mud, we stumbled exhausted into camp, greatfully accepting the waiting Martini (shaken of course) and popcorn.

Reflecting now on our adventure, I realize that finding new sites in Chachapoyas is no big deal. One simply has to climb almost any high point and Eureka...!, there it is. But somehow, I have the feeling that we may have stumbled upon a major Chachapoya center, maybe the largest and most important. Perhaps this is the adventurer in me speaking and not the archaeologist but then life is too short to really care. I have always thought that the discipline of archaeology is way too stuffy. That final euphoric evening at high camp produced the name for our discovery: Chacha Picchu. Gee, that has a ring to it! Chacha is the ethnic group and Picchu is the Inca word ( quechua) for hill top or summit. What could be more fitting for a mountain top city whose name is lost to eternity. Of course, the similarity to Machu Picchu was not lost to us.

I am still undecided if Chachapoyas had a hand in the building of Choquequirao. Curiously, Chacha Picchu is also constructed from metamorphic schists and quartzite. But then, How many different ways can you build with this stuff? I guess the answers must wait as they have for centuries until we return next June.