Lost Kindoms of South America – People of the Clouds

Episode 1 of new BBC series, led by Dr Jago Cooper. In Peru, he searches for information about the Chachapoya – the Cloud People, who settled high in the Andean mountains for over 600 years. Very little is known about them despite the fact that they were once a civilisation of half a million people. The remnants of their settlements are almost inaccessible, buried in jungles and deep within cliff caves. Although this has made it difficult for archaeologists to access the huge amounts of artefacts that hold the secret to these people, it has also worked in their favour, protecting them from tomb raiders and treasure hunters.

The choice of location, appears to be greatly determined by rivers, but not just for water. Easy access to river networks, granted the Chachapoya fantastic trade routes, a journey that took several days on foot took just hours by raft or canoe. Evidence indicates that they traded  feather headdresses and medicines with the Amazonians and shells to make musical instruments from the Ecuadorian coastline. All this exposure to other groups made them a highly developed, knowledgeable and diverse community. Their art shows influence from both highlands and lowlands, with symbolism that mixes legends and belief systems into something unique.

Perhaps most intriguing of all are the Khipus – systems of strings and knots, once thought to be purely decorative, but now believed to be encoded messages, with the number of strings, the types of knots and their position varying greatly. With no written records from any of the ancient South American civilisations, they may hold the keys to the life of the Chachapoya or the legends and beliefs of the people.

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Some of the best insights we can get into their beliefs is through their dead. They did not bury or cremate their dead, but placed them in caves and sarcophagi, perched precariously on sheer cliff faces that are difficult to reach, even now with the help of modern climbing equipment and expertise. The reason for their location is unknown, but the cave floors are worn smooth in some places, suggesting that visits were frequent, or even that the dead were bought out and displayed. In 1996, a tomb containing over 200 mummies was stumbled across by cattle ranchers- the site was Laguna de los Condores. Eager to find treasure, people flocked from far and wide, unwrapping the bodies. It was ten days before the first archaeologist arrived, she was quick to gather the mummies and artefacts together and transport them to safety. They are wrapped in a foetal position – their hands covering their faces, adults, babies and even animals have been found. They are now on display in the museum in Leymebamba.

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Interestingly, the Chachapoya had no Kings or leaders, no hierarchy, they were egalitarian. There are no palaces, no buildings for families that are larger or more elaborate than another, but there is Kuelap. Built over several centuries, 10,000 feet above sea level and covering 15 acres, it’s walls are over 65 feet high in places and some of the limestone blocks weigh 3 tonnes. It looks like a fortress, but it is much more likely to be a ceremonial site and was home to 3,000 people. It is over 500 years older than Machu Picchu, likely to have been inhabited from around 400AD.

It was the mighty Incas that were to end this great civilisation. They entered Chachapoya territory in 1470, and captured the land dispersing  half the Chachapoyan people throughout Incan Empire and killing many others. The Chachapoya rebelled and had to be recaptured twice, until very few remained. In Kuelap, 200 skeletons of men, women and children, were found surrounded by daily items. They were not cared for in the usual way, not mummified or moved to safe places, it is likely they were the last of the native Chachapoya, victims of a massacre.

In 1535, the Europeans were able to persuade the exiled Chachapoya to join them in the fight against the Incas. Smallpox, measles and diphtheria claimed 90% of the remaining Chachapoya over the following 200 years. Their beliefs and culture destroyed by Spanish missionaries, the settlements on the hills were forgotten and lay undiscovered, many to this day.

This programme is available on BBC iPlayer until 11th February 2013.

The next episode in this 4 part series, “The Stone at the Centre” will focus on the origins of Bolivia’s temple city ruins – Tiwanku, it will be broadcast on Monday at 9pm on BBC 4.

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