Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Chachapoya Mummies


Where they were found

Chachapoya mummies are related to Inca mummies: that is, National Geographic (September 2000)the Chachapoya people lived in an area of what is now northern Peru--an area that the Inca wanted for their own. The Inca at first tried to persuade the Chachapoya to become part of the empire peacefully. When that failed, the Inca fought for (and eventually won) the Chachapoya land. Three important archaeological sites related to the Chachapoya are Kuelap, Gran Pajatén and Vira Vira.

A cache of more than 200 mummies was found in Peru in late 1996 by machete wielding grave robbers (they cut through the cloth wrappings, looking for jewelry and other treasures). Local officials tried to stop the looters and cleaned up some of their mess before scientists arrived. One mistake they made was removing the mummies from their burial site and lining them up side by side. By the time Peruvian archaeologist Sonia Guillen arrived in July 1997, many items (decaying, opened mummy bundles, discarded by the grave robbers) and clues to the past (the arrangement of the bodies)  were lost because of the grave robbers and the well-intended officials.

The mummies were discovered in cave-like niches set in a cliff in an area of northern Peru called Laguna de los Cóndores near Leymebamba. The people of this cold, wet, and rainy area  seemed to have purposefully selected dry caves for the burials. [NOTE: It is possible that "Chachapoya" is derived from "sacha puya", which in an Incan language means "cloud people." Sometimes, therefore, these mummies are referred to as "Mummies of the Cloud People."]

Another group of Chachapoya mummies was discovered in late 2006 by a farmer in a burial cave complex some 82 feet below the earth's surface (the cave is known as Iyacyecuj, or enchanted water, by local people). When team leader and archeologist Herman Corbera was interviewed, he remarked: "This is a discovery of transcendental importance. It is the first time any kind of underground burial site this size has been found belonging to Chachapoyas or other cultures in the region." According to an article in the London Daily Mail, the "walls near the mummies in the limestone cave were covered with paintings of faces and warrior-like figures which may have been drawn to ward off intruders and evil spirits." Initial reports are somewhat contradictory, indicating that between five and twelve mummies were found.

Finally, the ruins of a Chachapoya town (or perhaps ceremonial center) were recently discovered (see articles below for more information). When explored, further mummies may be found there.

When they were made

The mummies should be about 500 years old or so, but no precise dating has yet been given. A recent article indicated that at least two of the mummies may be a thousand years old. Peruvian archaeologist Sonia Guillen was quoted as saying, "Two of the mummies are more than a thousand years old. Some of the mummies have become skeletons, others were preserved in funerary bundles" (channel4.com).

How they were made

The mummies were not made accidentally, but a detailed analysis has not been released of the mummification methods they used. Some treatment had been done to embalm the skin, and the internal organs had been removed through the anus. The facial cavities had also been filled with cotton. They were placed in a flexed (fetal) sitting position and bundled in cloth. According to one account, a face was stitched onto the cloth over the head. Most of the bundles were placed in a two-room two-level stone mausoleum built against the back wall of the cliff overhang (entry was through the roof only). Elite burials appear to have involved coffins made from cane.  The Chachapoya also ensured preservation (whether knowingly or not) by choosing a dry, well-protected site covered by a ledge.

How many were made

Unknown, but so far at least 200 have been discovered.

What's special about them

(1) Most of the mummies were Chachapoya people, but a few (perhaps 12 according to some reports) may have been members of an elite Incan class.  This would enable scientists to make some comparisons between the two groups.

(2) Despite the fact that grave robbers cut through some of the wrappings to remove jewelry and other grave goods after the burial site was discovered, the mummies seem to be remarkably well-preserved (including their textiles, musical instruments, special ornaments, etc.).

(3) Could these mummies have been made after the Inca conquered the Chachapoya? By studying the mummification methods, scientists may come up with an answer.

Where to see them

The Leymebamba Museum in Chachapoyas, Peru displays some of the mummies. Others are now on display at the National Museum in Lima. You can also find some photos of Chachapoya mummies at author Keith Muscutt's website.

Where to find more information

Chachapoya Textiles: The Laguna de los Cóndores Textiles in the Museo Leymebamba, Chachapoyas, Peru is not just about Chachapoya textiles, but about the mummies and their discovery as well. The book is an excellent introduction to the Chachapoya.

Warriors of the Clouds: A Lost Civilization in the Upper Amazon of Peru by Keith Muscott was the first book on the subject of the Chachapoya mummies (with just a few pages devoted to them at that). The book also served as the main source of the Discovery Channel's documentary on the Chachapoya Mummies. 

The Scientific Study of Mummies by Arthur Aufderheide has five pages of up-to-date information about the Chachapoya mummies along with five photos (three of the mummies).

Diary of an Amazon Jungle Guide: Amazing Encounters with Tropical Nature and Culture. Expanded and Revised Edition by Paul Beaver devotes a chapter to Dr. Beaver's early expedition to the mummies with a Discovery Channel film crew.

An Overview of Chachapoya Archaeology and History by Adriana von Hagen is available from the Leymebamba Museum website (.pdf file; no photos).

Striking photographs and the complete story of the discovery can be found in the 1998 March/April issue of Archaeology magazine (Tombs with a View, pp. 48-54) as well as in The New York Times (p. F3, 12/16/97). ALso of interest is Quest for the Lost Tombs of the Peruvian Cloud People, National Geographic, September 2000.