80 Ancient "Cloud Warrior" Skeletons Found in Peru Fort

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"They aren't mummies but bodies found on inside floors and outside near a group of dwellings located very close to the fortress's main temple, once known as Tintero," Narváez said.

Early press reports also quoted Narváez as saying that some of the artifacts found were of Inca origin. The researcher, however, did not confirm by press time whether that was the case.

The Chachapoya were known as fierce fighters, staving off Inca invasions in strongholds like Kuélap until falling to the empire in A.D. 1470.

Experts praised the news of the discovery, noting that it may shed light on the poorly understood civilization.

"This is a truly important new find," said Daniel H. Sandweiss, an anthropologist at the University of Maine.

"The apparently violent deaths of these individuals and potential association with Inca pottery, as press reports suggest, could shed light on either the Inca conquest of the Chachapoya or on the events at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca."

Others agreed.

"I can only say that the finds strike me as tremendously important, as the ultimate fate of Kuélap's residents remains poorly known," said Warren B. Church, anthropologist at Columbus State University.

"This find is really as important as any similar discovery might be at Machu Picchu," he added. "However, where the two mountaintop sites rival one another in scale and majesty, we probably know considerably less about Kuélap."

Epidemic or Violent invasion?

The job of teasing out the forensics of the newfound remains falls on bioarchaeologists like Marla Toyne, a doctoral candidate at Tulane University.

Toyne, who worked with Narváez for four years at Kuélap and has spoken with him by telephone in recent days, said she was told the bodies were found in a residential section of the fortress near Tintero but not at the temple itself.

"We've had a similar finding earlier to the south of the Tintero when we found three children sprawled on the floor," Toyne said.

"When I examined them, there were no signs of cut marks or evidence of trauma that I could observe."

Toyne said she could possibly determine whether the newly found bodies suffered from violent trauma, but it is much more difficult to determine if they died from a fast-moving epidemic.

Under normal conditions, people at Kuélap were buried in floors, caves, or walls, she added.

"It is clear they practiced a form of ancestor reverence," she said. "The deceased were treated with care. These individuals were not."

The victims have been killed by someone wanting to deny them a proper burial, or they may simply have lacked family members to bury them.

"But there still remains the question of who they were," she said.

"Were they Incas against whom the locals rebelled and killed off? Or were they locals whom the Incas attacked and killed to conquer the site? As always there are more questions raised than answers."

Keith Muscutt, an assistant dean at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has studied the Chachapoya culture.

"So little scientific excavation has occurred in this remote region, and even less published," he said, "that this report from Narváez, an experienced and highly respected Peruvian archaeologist, promises to open an important new chapter in Chachapoya archaeology."

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