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Vast "Cloud Warrior" Ruin Found in Amazon

Kelly Hearn in Lima, Peru
for National Geographic News
January 19, 2007
 
Discovered in a surprising Peruvian location, a vast ruin is shedding light on an ancient civilization known for taking on the Inca Empire.

The newfound ceremonial stone structure, made public this week, was likely built by the Chachapoya Indians, a stone- and metalworking culture that thrived in Amazonian cloud forests from the 9th to the 15th century A.D.

(Related: "Tombs of Pre-Inca Elite Discovered Under Peru Pyramid" [November 27, 2006].)

The Chachapoya are known for building mountaintop citadels and leaving behind well-preserved mummies. Examples include cliff tombs near Peru's Lake of the Condors and Huayabamba Lake (photo of a Chachapoya mummy).

Called the Warriors of the Clouds, the battle-hardened Chachapoya were famed for their stiff resistance to Inca attacks. Nevertheless, the Inca eventually overtook the Chachapoya shortly before the arrival of Spanish explorers to Peru in the 16th century.

Found by Farmers

Originally stumbled upon by a family of farmers, the structure is exceptionally large. The stepped, three-tiered, rectangular construction is about 200 feet (70 meters) long, 100 feet (35 meters) wide, and 24 feet (7 meters) high.

The ruin's vast, impenetrable appearance prompted the farmers to call the find Huaca La Penitenciaría, or Penitentiary Ruin.

But while Penitentiary Ruin seems to have been topped by a plaza and other buildings, including a lookout tower, it was surprisingly unfortified, said Keith Muscutt, an explorer and assistant dean at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Muscutt announced the find Wednesday at an Institute for Andean Studies conference in Berkeley, California.

(See a diagram of what the structure may have looked like in its heyday.)

Perhaps more intriguing is the ruin's location.

The vast, unprotected structure was built on what has been thought to be the vulnerable eastern edge of the civlization's range—a sort of demilitarized zone between the mountain-dwelling Chachapoya and tribes of the Amazon Basin.

"It is odd that a building of this extraordinarily large size would be located on their territorial frontier and that it would not be fortified," Muscutt said.

"It does not appear to be a military installation. And you would think that on the frontier they would be more interested in defensibility." So, Muscutt added, Chachapoya extended farther east than experts have suspected.

"What it is showing is that we don't really know what their territory was," he told the Reuters news service.

"Amazing Find"

Muscutt said another oddity is that the structure doesn't seem to be the "nucleus of a larger site."

"You basically find a big building sitting there with nothing else in the immediate vicinity," he said. "Ordinarily when you find a significant monument it's usually central to a residential or administration complex. The fact it sits on its own is baffling."

Muscutt said the penitentiary resembles only one other Chachapoya building, a structure known as Pirca Pirca.

But he added that one feature has never before been seen in a Chachapoya find: an elevated masonry plaza about the size of a football field that projects horizontally from the main building.

Muscutt added that almost no other Chachapoya structure is as large as La Penitenciaría.

Adriana von Hagen is co-director of Peru's Leymebamba Museum in the city of Chachapoyas. She said, "It's an amazing find that is hard to relate to anything we've known about the Chachapoya."

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