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Research and Exploration

Tombs of Peru's Cloud People

Shoulder to shoulder and nearly naked, gnome-like statues have stood for centuries at Los Pinchudos, a stone-and-plaster complex of nine tombs built into a high rock cleft in one of Peru's northern cloud forests. The two-foot-tall (half-meter-tall) mahogany carvings bore silent witness as waves of looters hiked up to ransack the burial chambers. Vandals even hacked down one of the six unusual statues, whose robust male anatomy inspired the name Los Pinchudos (slang for "the big penises").
By the time locals led researchers to the site in 1980, the tombs were nearly empty. Yet the absence of mummies hasn't deterred archaeologist Warren Church, who's worked for 19 years to save Los Pinchudos and learn its secrets.
Little is known about the hill tribes that in the tenth century began carving settlements out of the dense cloud forests in the mountains between the Marañón and Huallaga Rivers. Inca contemporaries called them Chachapoya, the Cloud People. Although they left no written language, they did leave scores of stone ruins in this vertical wilderness of orchids, butterflies, and jaguars, where thick brush and mists camouflage sheer drop-offs. "You can literally find your legs dangling over empty space, your armpits supported by tree branches," says Church.
For more than 500 years the Chachapoya cut farm terraces and villages into these steep slopes, raised llamas and guinea pigs—and fought each other. Around 1470 the Inca conquered the region. When Spaniards arrived in 1535, the surviving Chachapoya joined them to rout the Inca, impressing the Europeans with their battle prowess. By 1700 smallpox and other diseases had killed most of the Chachapoya.
Los Pinchudos is a vital link to this lost people. Researchers don't know who was buried here but think the tombs relate to Chachapoya ruins nearby at Gran Pajatén. Even in its looted state the site has yielded tantalizing artifacts such as shell jewelry, which suggests contact with coastal people. Most surprising are the statues. Wood artifacts rarely survive the cloud forests' extreme humidity. Scientists attribute the figures' preservation to the site's location in an arid microclimate.
The tombs might have been lost without Church and Peruvian conservator Ricardo Morales Gamarra, who, with World Monuments Fund support, restored the eroding foundations. Church believes Los Pinchudos and its surroundings will teach volumes about this extinct culture: "My mind races, thinking of what the forests still hold."
—Peter Gwin

Web Links

Museo Leymebamba
This Peruvian museum's website has extensive information on the  Chachapoya—their art, their language and their religion.

World Conservation Monitoring Centre
The cliff tombs are just one reason Rio Abiseo National Park is spectacular. The park's landscape is so rugged that some slopes are greater than 50 degrees. There are two tributaries to the Amazon on either side of the park and diverse flora and fauna. Find out all the details on this WCMC site.

Columbus State University
Discover more details about the Los Pinchudos site on National Geographic grantee Warren Church's website.

Free World Map

Davies, Nigel. The Ancient Kingdoms of Peru. Penguin USA, 1998.
Muscutt, Keith. Warriors of the Clouds: A Lost Civilization in the Upper Amazon of Peru. University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
Schjellerup, Inge. Incas and Spaniards in the Conquest of the Chachapoyas: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Research in the North-Eastern Andes of Peru. Gèoteborg University, 1997.


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