Andean Chulpas

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Chulpas at Sillustani



The chulpa building phenomenon began in the Titicaca basin after the collapse of Tiwanaku, flourishing in the Altiplano period and continuing through the Early Colonial Period. Chulpas are found sporadically the central Andes region, as far north as Huancavelica and as far south as the Rio Loa at Antofagasta. Chulpas, or “open sepulchers” as some call them are burial chambers in which multiple deceased individuals were either stored or buried. The origins of this chulpa building tradition are unclear. It is thought that chulpa building became popular around 1100 AD when great cultural transformation was occurring. This occurred at a time when “Tiwanaku culture was on the decline, political disunity became common, pastoralism was intensified, and a new settlement pattern emerged” (Hyslop). These chulpas, while impressively constructed and beautifully decorated, are the source of much debate about their true uses and what social ideas they truly represent.

Chulpas in this region were constructed during two specific time period: the Altiplano phase from 1100 – 1450 AD and the Chucuito-Inca phase from 1450 – 1550 AD. Those constructed during the Altiplano phase are generally a basic igloo shape, some made of rough, unshaped stones and others of carved stonework or adobe bricks. There are two styles that appear to be transitional between these Altiplano and Chucuito-Inca phases. These include cylindrical shaped structures with cornices and dressed stones that do not fit together precisely and cylindrical based structures with parabola shaped walls and roofs. The chulpas of the Chucuito-Inca phase are much more impressive than their predecessors. It seems that the chulpas of this period were greatly influenced by the dominating Inca style, consisting of extremely well fitted and beautifully dressed stonework. These Inca style chulpas have round and square bases, and are generally larger in size, ranging from 3 to 12 meters in height, and some are even multiple stories (Hyslop).

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Evolution of Construction


Aside from the basic forms and construction of these chulpas, other unique architectural features are present. These include niches inside the chambers which are thought to serve two different purposes. First, some believe that mummies were placed in these niches before they were interred in the ground, and second, perhaps ceremonial offerings were placed in the niches in order to honor the dead. The number of niches inside any chulpa obviously depends on the size and available wall space within. Also present inside these chulpas are holes dug into the ground that mummies were most likely buried in. There are only a few accounts of chulpa graves being excavated; these describe mummies in a sitting position with knees drawn to the chin, as well as numerous grave goods (Hyslop). Also interesting is that the top part of the inner chamber of many chulpas is filled with rubble. It is thought that this practice was used to heighten the structure and make it appear more imposing (Hyslop). By far the most interesting aspects of these chulpas are the numerous carved decorations on their exteriors. It seems that these pictures are representations of the native Altiplano fauna of the region including pumas, lizards, and snakes. Camelids and fish native to Lake Titicaca were also observed. The most interesting decoration is what is thought to be a human being who is depicted by a torso, neck, head, and headdress. It is also thought that decorations on some chulpas are representative of distinct Inca gods or goddesses. It is argued that each decoration on a chulpa is representative of a separate group of people interring their dead within.

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Carved Lizard


One of the most impressive archaeological sites in the Titicaca basin, Sillustani, features numerous and variable forms of these chulpa towers. These towers range from huge, fine stone Inca style to poorly constructed igloo or adobe brick models. What is interesting about Sillustani is that it is not just a simple cemetery; there is evidence of human occupation from the Tiwanaku period and later. Most of the chulpas at this site are post-Tiwanaku constructions in Inca or pre-Inca style. For being located in the Altiplano, Sillustani is unusual in the number of chulpa burial towers located there. No other site has been located that has such diversity in its constructions. Another interesting observation is that these chulpas are not contemporary constructions which means that they were most likely used over generations. There is much debate about how exactly to explain the archaeological remains at this site. A strong argument is that perhaps Sillustani is some sort of pilgrimage or burial site in the post-Tiwanaku period. This makes sense because the different forms the chulpas take at this site are more common to specific peoples, times, and places around the Andes. This would mean that perhaps Sillustani operated as a regional burial center for the Aymara in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries before becoming an Inca pilgrimage/burial site later on. This evidence will help to support the idea that chulpas are representations of individual ayllus of people later on (Stanish).

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Location of Sillustani


There are numerous suggestions about what the true functions of these monuments are. Obviously burial was the most important use of these towers. Some researchers suggest that chulpas were used as some sort of land markers, perhaps representing boundaries of lands owned by particular groups, easily recognizable by their sheer size and decoration. Evidence of this is indicated in Archives of the Indies, which describes Lupaca kings supervising the division of lands using chulpas as boundary indicators (Hyslop). Chulpas were also important for ceremonial purposes. Plants and animals were placed inside the tombs and vessels were emptied outside of them as offerings. This ritual was preformed repeatedly in order to venerate past ancestors. It is also suggested that chulpas were used as a way to indicate status as there seems to be a correlation between the size of a chulpa and the dead interred within them.

It seems that the most debatable issue surrounding these chulpas is whether or not they were some representation of ayllus. An ayllu is the term used to describe a social group, ancestor worship, communal resources, and ranked organization based on kinship among a group of people (Isbell). Evidence of this phenomenon is apparent through the use of different building techniques and the use of different decorations and symbols adorned on some of these burial towers. Decorations on chulpas throughout the Peruvian area are thought to represent regional deities, which probably represented widespread ethnic associations, and the relations among them. These representations also depicted “human sacrifice, individual combat, and military victory that asserted the individual kin group’s rights to land, to water, and to superordinate/subordinate relations in the social geography within which these resources are participated” (Isbell). The repeated use of these burial chambers is important because it represents an ongoing relationship with ancestor mummies, including moving the mummy and making offerings to it. It is this association between ancestor worship and group identity that suggest strongly that distinct ayllus were burying their dead in these monuments. It also places an emphasis on the fact that perhaps ayllus were not about based on territory but on genealogy, perhaps they are “bounded by history rather than borders” (Canuto and Yaeger). Present day Indians of the region refer to chulpas as “casas de gentiles.” These individuals are aware that their ancestors were buried in these structures, and this seems to suggest that ayllu kinship was and still is extremely important in this region.

Chulpas are incredibly beautiful and impressive structures that deserve much more attention from archaeologists as they appear to have been of extreme importance for the people of the region. Many of these structures have been destroyed simply by time and horribly looters just looking to make a few dollars. Those structures left mostly unharmed give great insight into how Andean peoples may have revered their dead and organized themselves socially. It seems very plausible that chulpas are representative of ayllu social organization. Without a written account, it is difficult to know for certain, but the deductions made from the archaeological evidence are very convincing. Obviously these Andean people were skilled artisans and builders and we know from other research that they revered their ancestors through ritual and offering. It makes sense that if these buildings have been reused generation after generation that distinct social groups were each using their own for storing their ancestors. Researchers will continue to debate the true use of these burial structures until further investigation is completed. We may never truly know if separate ayllus were interring their dead in chulpas, but with more in depth research we can get closer to determining their true use.

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Chulpas at Sunset



Works Cited



Canuto, Marcello A. and Jason Yaeger
2000 The Archaeology of Communities: A New World Perspective. Routledge.

Hyslop, John
1977 Chulpas of the Lupaca Zone of the Peruvian High Plateau. Journal of Field
Archaeology Vol. 4, No. 2: 149-170.

Isbell, William Harris
2007 Mummies and Mortuary Monuments: A Postprocessual Prehistory of
Central Andean Social Organization. University of Texas Press.

Stanish, Charles
2003 Ancient Titicaca: The Evolution of Complex Society in Southern Peru and Northern
Bolivia. University of California Press.