Travel to the Amazonas region: Sarcophagi of Karajia Martina Capel
After having introduced you to the fortified city of Kuelap and Gocta, one of the highest waterfalls in the world, today I’d like to present the Sarcophagi of Karajia.
As always, please take note that the region of Amazonas lies in the Andean mountains between 1,400 and 3,000 meters above sea level (m.a.s.l.). It’s important to be prepared and bring appropriate clothing (think layers, rain gear, good walking shoes), as well as sun block, a hat, and mosquito repellent.
If I say “Sarcophagi,” you likely think of the Egyptian sarcophagi, right? Well, there is another version here in the Amazonas region, and they look a little different…
The Chachapoya built the sarcophagi to bury their highest members of society. First, they made big sculptures out of bamboo and mud that measure over 2 meters high. According to archaeologists, the Chachapoyan people were tall and European-like with fair skin.
The sarcophagi have a big head with a dominant chin. Their exteriors were painted with red and beige, the funeral colors for the Chachapoya. The sculptures have a painted face, a kind of necklace, as well as a decoration with feathers around the waist. This is to show their adoration of birds, as well as the proximity to the sky. On some of the statues, it’s possible to discern their sex; looking at the two sarcophagi on the right (in article’s main photo), there is a symbol that could represent a phallus, which gives us the information that this must have been a man.
The Chachapoya prepared their dead by first burying them in the earth for a year or so. Once only the bones remained, they would make a mummy bundle, arranging the bones in fetal position then wrapped in a cotton fabric. Finally, they put the bundle inside the sarcophagi before closing the sculpture definitely.
A little history about the discovery of the Sarcophagi of Karajia
The first to mention the Chachapoya practice of burying their dead in sculptures with a human form was Mercurio Peruano in 1791. Only in 1985, the sarcophagi of Karajia were re-discovered by Peruvian archaeologist Federico Kauffman Doig.
There exist many sets of sarcophagi in the Amazonas region, as the ones of El Tigre (also known as San Jeronimo), Cholon and many others have not been officially identified yet.
Some questions to be asked
Who is buried in the Sarcophagi?
Some of the most important personalities of the Chachapoya. Archaeologists believe that one of the sarcophagi of Karajia is the mummy of the highest Chief of Kuelap. Two other sarcophagi belong to important warriors as you can see on the skulls on their head. There is little doubt about one of the sarcophagi (the one at the left), as the archaeologists are not sure if the rectangular sign in the middle of the body on the lower part symbolizes its gender as a woman or not! This theory is rather revolutionary, as we know that only the most important people of the Chachapoya culture are buried in this place. Having a woman with them would mean that the place of a woman in the Chachapoya civilization was not restricted to family and household duties, as it was for the Incas.
How were the Sarcophagi installed?
An excellent question, though we don’t have a definite answer. Some theories say that the Chachapoya built a ramp to bring the materials up in order to finish the sarcophagi statues along the mountain cliff. Alternatively, maybe the Chachapoya came from the top of the mountain and installed the sarcophagi in their current place.
The sarcophagi are always placed facing the rising sun and close to a village. You can find them on cliffs close to rivers or lakes (always close to water, as in the case of Karajia).
Second level Sarcophagi
Apart from the famous Karajia sarcophagi, there are also the second level sarcophagi. What does this mean? These sarcophagi were less sophisticated than the first level ones, but still important people, as they were buried in the sacred mountain. Instead of having their own sculpture, the mummy bundles were put in a natural (or carved) niche in the mountain, the niche then closed from the outside with mud and a face-like decoration.
How to get to the Sarcophagi of Karajia
From Chachapoyas, the capital of Amazonas, you will first take the direction towards Luya, which is a one-hour drive. From Luya you continue to the village of Cruz Pata (another 40 minutes) where you pay your entrance fee of S/ 10 per person and where you can ask for a local guide to accompany you.
Finally, you walk on a dirt trail downhill for about 30 minutes before you reach the Sarcophagi of Karajia. Be aware that they are in the mountain over you and you can’t get very close. Nevertheless, believe me, they are absolutely impressive!