Researchers would have never guessed what they would find inside a seven-foot-tall statue when it came crashing down the Peruvian cliffside in the Utcubamba valley in 1928. The sculpture was a sarcophagus holding a carefully wrapped mummy. Its discovery was just the beginning to the fascinating story of the Cloud Warriors.
Chachapoya mummies. (pmoroni/CC BY SA 2.0)
As more of the sarcophagi were found, they became known as the purunmachu, where the ‘ Warriors of the Clouds ’ placed their dead. Although looters had reached many of the sarcophagi before archaeologists, several purunmachu were discovered intact, hidden high up on cliff ledges.
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Sarcophagi on a cliff face, Chachapoyas, Amazonas, Peru. (Jorge Gobbi/CC BY 2.0)
The Chachapoya people, commonly known as the Cloud Warriors, began living in the cloud forests of the Amazonas region of present day Peru as early as 200 AD. The Inca culture conquered their region shortly before the Spanish arrived. It only took about a decade for the Chachapoya people to lose most of their cultural traditions following the Inca conquest. Then the Spanish arrival decimated the remainder of the Cloud Warriors. Yet the purunmachu remained patiently standing on the cliffsides.
The Karajía Six, Chachapoya sarcophagi. (A. Davey/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Purunmachu sarcophagi were made in a series of steps. First, clay was sculpted around the carefully wrapped bodies of the dead. Then a mixture of mud and straw was applied. Finally, the sarcophagi were painted cream colored of white and decorative details such as necklaces, feathered tunics, and faces were painted on in yellow and red. When placed on a ledge of a high cliff, the sarcophagi look like sentries guarding the dead.
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Chachapoya mummies wrapped in cloth. (C-Monster/CC BY NC 2.0)
Eventually, the Chachapoya people were forgotten, what they held sacred had been lost in the years that passed, and many of their sarcophagi were destroyed by looters in search of treasure.
Top Image: The sarcophagi of Carajia, emblematic of the lost Chachapoya culture. Source: BigStockPhoto