Chachapoyas: Cultural Development at an Andean Cloud Forest Crossroads

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At the cloud forest juncture of the northeastern Peruvian Andes and the upper Amazon basin, the pre-Columbian societies subsumed under the label “Chachapoya culture” occupied the Colonial-period threshold to mythical El Dorado and the feral lowland rainforests. To scholars and the public, the region evokes images of abandoned jungle cites and the quintessential “lost civilization,” cloaked in impenetrable forest and mystery. Today, the northern Peruvian cloud forest is remote, with large uninhabited expanses representing archaeological terra incognita and reputedly “some of the last forested wilderness of South America” (Young and León 1999: 11). Yet paradoxically, these montane forests harbor archaeological evidence of dense pre-Hispanic populations and spectacular monumental archaeological sites. Mounting evidence shows that, far from being isolated, the Chachapoya thrived at a cultural crossroads that once connected distant Andean and Amazonian societies.

Scholars have repeatedly argued that the challenging eastern Andean tropical forests cannot sustain dense settlement or support independent development of complex societies. History shows that when presented with such settlement anomalies, archaeologists typically resort to migration theories (Adams et al. 1978). Literature about the region is largely descriptive, but interpretations reflect an obsession with population origins; indeed, every cardinal direction has been suggested as a point of origin. From the highlands, migrants were purportedly driven by droughts, or served as state-sponsored, agricultural colonists. The lowlands and highlands allegedly contributed migrants responding to population pressure. We believe the time has come to address Chachapoya archaeology as an indigenous, eastern slope development. While still sketchy, the sequence of Chachapoya cultural development has begun to resemble developmental trajectories documented in better-known Andean regions; in presenting a provisional culture history for the region we use common conventions such as the Rowe-Menzel (1967) chronological framework, and emphasize emerging themes.