Friday, June 12, 2020

The White Indians of Peru – Part I

The Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León, best known for his history and description of Peru, Crónicas del Perú, which he wrote in four parts, though only the first was published during his lifetime—the remaining sections were not published until the 19th and 20th centuries. In his work, he described Peru at the time of the Spanish conquest, including the local native groups and, of course, the Incas and the tribes that they had subjected. In doing so, he mentions a certain group of Indians called the "Chachapoyan" natives that lived in the Andes, in what is now Northern Peru, right next to Ecuador, in the Cachapoyas District of the Department of Amazonas (Pedro Cieza de León, Obras Completas, Cavileño, Madrid, 1984, pp. 104).
The Utcubamba Valley and the Jalca Valley to the south

The Cachapoyas were an area with high mountain ranges: the Calla-Calla range in the south reaching 14,100 feet, and the Cordillera Oriental to the east at 11,500 feet, with high mountain cloud forests. The Marañon River flows through the area, draining towards the Amazon.
    In this geographical area, the Chachapoya settlements in the valley of Utcubamba are distributed along 186 miles of length between an altitude of 6500 to 9900 feet. This is a region which landscape is outlined due to a thick tropical forest and a particular ecosystem of forests full of haze in the top. This forms the elevated and persistent atmospherically humidity, typical of the Humid Montane Tropical Forest Zone and to the rural geography of elevated outcrops and cliffs. The Utcubamba River runs longitudinally across all this region, through the Chachapoya lands and southward into a tropical dry forest valley, which is the opposite of the Jalca region of subalpine tropical páramo that have scrublands, lagoons, very low temperature and high humidity.
Map of the Chachapoyan territory with the larger and more monumental settlements and cities shown white names

Archaeologists claim the Chachapoyan region of Peru has been inhabited for thousands of years; however, the people we know as the Chachapoya arrived much later: their most relevant cultural remains date back to 200 BC and their society peaked during the eleventh century AD. Their buildings at Olán, Yálape, Macró and especially Cuélap are monumental, along with Ollape, Revash, Karajia and Lagunas de Los Cóndores.
    Finally, after an extended period of occupation, they were subdued by the Inca around 1470 AD and incorporated as a province of their Empire after a though campaign. Many Chachapoyans were uprooted and sent to Cuzco and other parts of the Empire, where they were resettled and given new land to grow their crops—a way in which the Inca diluted local resistance.
    As for the size of the Chachapoya settlements, Vira Vira had more than 220 buildings; Cerro Las Cruces (Gran Saposoa, near Trujillo) had more than 400 buildings and Gran Pajaten had a remarkable decoration of its buildings. However, considering its characteristics, Kuelap is indicated as a very emblematic site of the Chachapoyas society. In Amazonas, the Chachapoyas sites of the Utcubamba Valley are represented by the Kuelap Archeological motive.
    The society of Chachapoyas constituted an autonomous social development that occurred in an extended geographical scenario on the northwest side of the Amazon Andes, in the Peruvian Tropical Andes, along the Marañón river–a tributary of the Amazonas—which was the natural ancestral border between the Amazonian and Andean culture.
The Cocta Waterfall near the ancient settlement of the Chachapoya in northern Peru

After the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1535, they dominated the Chachapoyans and  it was during this period that Pedro Cieza de León visited the region and recorded his encounter with them. He described them as:
    "These Indians that live at Chachapoyas are the most white and good looking of all those that I have seen in my travels through the Indies [America] , and their women were so beautiful that merely due to their good nature, many of them deserved to be women of the Incas and be taken to their temples of the sun; and so we see nowadays that the remaining Indian women of this lineage are extremely pretty, because they are white and very well built..." (Pedro Cieza de León, Obras Completas, Cavileño, Madrid, 1984, pp. 104).
    Because of the great distance from the Atlantic coast all the way across Brazil and the long stretch of inhospitable Amazonian jungle to the Andean foothills, a distance of more than 3000 miles, it is doubtful that the white Indians of the Chachapoya were the result of stray Phoenician or other similar seamen, or any Europeans who might have been driven ashore by storms. Obviously, some white people, probably Europeans or Middle East adventurers reached the West Coast of Andean Peru long before the time of the Chachapoya.
    While the official version is that they were a Native American group of people, the symbols they used to decorate their buildings and the manner in which they mummified their dead suggests that the ancestral Chachapoyas may have reached their territory from the coastal areas of Peru.
    Little is known regarding their pre-Inca or pre-Hispanic history. The oldest written reference about them dates back to January 14, 1538 in a letter from Alonso de Alvarado to the Spanish leader, Francisco Pizarro after his campaign to conquer the region.
Sample of Chachapoya construction, some of which was monumental in both design and size 

The meaning of the word "Chachapoyas" is uncertain, and it is definitively not a Quechua or Aimará word, (which is what the Incas spoke). There are theories regarding its meaning: the local chronicler, Garcilaso de la Vega wrote in the 1600s that a Jesuit priest who accompanied the Spanish invaders in 1535 said it meant "Land of strong men,” but Lecuanda in 1792 suggested that it meant "Mountain of clouds"—both are only estimations.
    However, there is little known about the language spoken by the Chachapoyas before their conquest by the Inca, so there is little knowledge that can shed any light on the Chachapoya, let alone their predecessors.
    They, like most of the American Natives suffered a dramatic population drop after the initial contact with the Spanish conquerors (they were decimated by the epidemics of measles, small pox, and plague that took place in 1546, 1558-59, 1585-91, 1614, 1618-19 and 1721). The population which in 1549 was nearly 88,000 strong, fell to 2,200 by 1793. Many Chachapoyans ran away into the jungles to avoid being subjected to the forced-labor of the Spaniards.
    This must have bottlenecked the population considerably. Add to this the fact that many of them had been transplanted to other parts of the Inca empire after their defeat in 1470, and that other groups were placed in their homeland. The consequences of this dispersal and implantation plus massive population loss is that the original aboriginal Chachapoyan stock has been seriously diluted since 1470.
    The fair children among the Chachapoyans are known as "gringuitos", diminutive for "gringo" which is the way that U.S. Americans are called sin Latin America.
White-skinned Chachapoya children called Gringuito-Madchen aus Limabamba

Since the Chachapoya mummified their dead, there exists plenty of material with a potential to yield useful genetic sequences. So far, the sequencing has shown, along with visible means of the mummies, that “the Chachapoyas had curly brown or red Caucasoid hair, and not stiff black Mongoloid Amerindian hair. Some had individual red or reddish-brown Caucasoid hair” (Hans Giffhorn, Was America Discovered in Antiquity? The Mystery of the Chachapoya, Beck, Germany, 2014).
    The hair is indeed wavy not straight. The color seems to be brown, not the usual jet-black of the Amerindians.
(See the next post, “The White Indians of Peru – Part II,” for more information and the historical background of these white Indians)


  1. Thanks for the courage to bring up a touchy subject.There is a boatload of info I have read over the years on this subject but not the stuff your bringing out. The implications of this are fascinating and I am sure will be controversial in this crazy day and age.

  2. I wish you would also comment more on Heyerdahls book American Indians in the Pacific. There is so much more info that is available than when that was published in 1953.I enjoy your view on these subjects.