Mummy’s been the word for 500 years: Peru’s Kuelap is ‘Machu Picchu of the north’
A remote northern Peruvian region famed for its Inca mummies and home to one of South America’s most important ancient cities is on a fast track to becoming a tourism hot spot.
The mummies — Peru’s largest undisturbed collection of the preserved bodies of the Inca civilisation’s elite — were discovered in 1997 south of the walled city of Kuelap in the Laguna de Los Condores area.
Laguna de los Condores has allowed us to look at the other side of the moon, archaeologically speaking, but very few studies have been developed so far
Now Peru’s first cable car will be built and the local airport upgraded for commercial flights to improve access to the region.
The Peruvian government is hoping the project will help the 1,300-year-old city, in the Andean Amazon region of Chachapoya, become the Machu Picchu of northern Peru — attracting as many tourists as the world famous southern Inca landmark.
The steep mountains and dramatic cliffs across the Chachapoya region are littered with ruins, elaborate burial sites, mummies, sarcophagi and other artefacts left behind by the Chachapoya and Inca people.
“Approximately 90 per cent of Chachapoyan archaeology is undiscovered,” says Peter Lerche, a historian and former mayor of the provincial capital Chachapoyas.
“Every week you could have a new story about a newly discovered site.”
Bio-anthropologist Dr Sonia Guillen, who is Peru’s leading expert on mummies, says the significance of the region should not be underestimated.
“Laguna de Los Condores has allowed us to look at the other side of the moon, archaeologically speaking,” Dr Guillen says.
“It has allowed us to look into organic human remains while in the past we could only look at architecture, pottery and the few elements that had survived.
“Suddenly, not only did we look at skeletons, but we had mummies where we looked at their organs and we could trace diseases.”
Dr Guillen and her team documented the collection on location, but were forced to remove the mummies after many were damaged and looted.
The stolen mummies were recovered a year later.
The 219 mummies are now conserved in Leymebamba Museum, south of Kuelap, as part of a project funded by the British Museum.
Skeletons discovered in walls and foundations
The dєαd were very important to both the Inca and Chachapoya people, something that is evident in the fortified city of Kuelap.
To date more than 100 skeletons have been found in the 20-metre high perimeter walls and the foundations of homes.
The burial tradition was replaced by the mummification of the dєαd by the invading Inca.
The city is 700 years older than the Inca site of Machu Picchu and was built on a mountain top, 3,000 metres above sea level, by the Chachapoya around 800AD.
Construction continued until the arrival of the Incas around 1470AD.
“They (the Chachapoya) were exceptional warriors who were headhunters and eventually scalpers too, shamans, farmers, traders, architects, climbers and cavers,” Mr Lerche says.
Archaeologists have called Kuelap the pre-Columbian Vatican, and believe it was a political and religious centre of the Chachapoya people, who built hundreds of kilometres of tracks for their trade between the Amazon, the Andes and the Pacific.