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The Mummies of Condor Lake

Condor Lake Photo - click to enlarge
Michael Tweddle


Condor Lake Photo - click to enlarge
Peter Frost

Condor Lake Photo - click to enlarge
Michael Tweddle

Mummies can upset the best-laid plans. Last June in Leimebamba, a small town, in Peru's Department of Amazonas, the word was out: a major archaeological find at nearby Laguna de los Cóndores. I casually wangled an invitation to look at the recovered material - and found myself staring at the finest collection of Inca artifacts ever gathered in a provincial town hall.

Even a cursory inventory was mind-boggling: a large mantle so perfect it could have been woven yesterday, dozens of flawless pots, carved wooden staffs, wooden beakers, decorated gourds, an exotic carved ritual drinking vessel, several quipus. Quipus! - those rarely-found Inca recording devices made of knotted cords. Found in context, they could add much to our knowledge of Inca culture. Moreover, a number of the artifacts were clearly either not Inca, or Inca with a strong dash of other influences. One pot even showed clear signs of Spanish colonial influence; Chimu in style, it displayed a green glaze not used in Peru before the Conquest.

On the floor were four mummy bundles, tightly bound in plain, cream-colored cotton. They, too, showed no signs of decay. Up in the mountains behind us the tombs still stood with their contents largely intact.

All previous plans were off. Next day I was in Leimebamba again. A hint of mummy fever hung in the air. Tiny but unmistakable dollar signs glinted in the eyes of some townsfolk, amidst the genuine friendliness of what may someday be called The Old Leimebamba - the way it was Before the Mummies. The hastily-formed (post-Mummy) local INC committee charged me 20 soles to use a long, muddy track to a place hardly anyone went to. To them it must feel like winning the lottery.

Next morning, I rode a mule up a winding dirt trail leading into the hills east of Leimebamba, with a local wrangler named Leoncio Cotrina. This part of Peru has a long rainy season and a short dry one. Leimebamba is at a pleasant 2100 ms., so the hills around us were green and forested, with many cleared pastures. Later we climbed through reddish-brown grasslands and began to hit more and more pockets of deep black mud. Often the mules floundered up to their bellies, bucking and panicking, and we had to leap off their backs to drier ground. We ate lunch at a high pass above 3,000 ms., and then began to drop down into another watershed. The mud got steadily worse, with frequent dismounting, the patches seeming to go on for kilometers. At one quagmire we encountered Homer Ullilen, the 25-year-old owner of the homestead at Laguna de los Cóndores.

Ullilen was involved in the brouhaha surrounding the discovery of the mummies. His hired hands had discovered the site, in November 1996, while he was away traveling. They began looting the mausoleums, ripping apart mummy bundles and scattering artifacts in a search for gold. This continued intermittently, in mounting frustration, for several months. They never did find any gold, but in April 1997 word leaked out in Leimebamba that a major "tapado" had been discovered at Laguna de los Cóndores, and the rest is history. Or the first chapter of a history. Since then the mummies and their attendant artifacts have been removed from the site to a conservation laboratory in Leimebamba, where scientific studies have begun.

Onward. As the trail got worse and the day grew old the exhausted mules began to earn every vile epithet and simile ever heaped on their species. Narrowly avoiding a kick like a mule as I approached to remount one last time, I was relieved to see the rancho Perla Escondida in the distance.

Perla Escondida. The Hidden Pearl. Did Homer Ullilen's father, Julio, have some prophetic vision when he named the land he hacked out of cloud forest here? Where was the pearl? Nineteen years later they found it, in the trees, on the cliffs, above the lake. A line of ancient tombs, containing the mummies of more than 200 dead men, women and children with many tales to tell. For archaeologists it is, to date, the jewel in the crown of Chachapoyan antiquity.

Our journey was not over yet. Next morning we set out on foot, guided by Homer Ullilen. He led us up the moraine, and from the top we saw for the first time the lake, and beyond it the great mountainous cliff along its southern shore, where the mausoleums were built. Through my binoculars I could see patches of what seemed like red paint, the square black hole of a window, and some spindly wooden structures.

It would still take us two hours to reach the site, circling the east shore of the lake. First we had to walk along the cleared ridge top of the moraine, passing some stone mortars which the Ullilens had found years ago while clearing the forest. Subsequent investigations revealed the foundations of some 200 Chachapoyan structures here, presumably the former home of those buried in the tombs. In pre-Hispanic times this must have been a very remote spot, and one wonders why a large settlement was built here.

By Peter Frost
Volume III/Issue 11, Page 36
Updated, Lola Salas 

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