The Sillustani chullpas

(continuer en français) – Published: April 24, 2021

In southern Peru, near Lake Titicaca, on the way to Bolivia, Sillustani is located on a plateau surrounded on three sides by Lake Umayo. The site is now integrated into an agricultural landscape that has even established terraces on its slopes. Sillustani is the site of an ancient civilisation that left enigmatic chullpas, tower-like collective tombs.

The Qolla, or Aymara, people settled in the Lake Titicaca region from 200 BC, pushing away and marginalising the Pukara and Uro peoples, the previous occupants of the area. Several centres of power successively took over the region, such as Tiwanaku in Bolivia. The Qollas were in turn conquered by the Incas around the 15th century.

The practice of preserving the mummies of the deceased in towers called chullpas is quite widespread in the area controlled by the Aymara. Elsewhere, however, these towers are generally of less elaborate construction and have suffered from the passage of time, not to mention grave robbers at all times.

The most remarkable chullpas are made of large blocks of stone perfectly cut and fitted. The interior is filled with mixed stones and earth, more or less bound. This assembly technique was later passed on to the Incas who perfected it in the construction of more complex buildings.

Archaeologists found most of the chullpas in poor condition and partly destroyed. Some of them have been reassembled to show their size, up to a dozen metres. The diversity of construction methods can also be seen, establishing that the site was used over a long period.

The very narrow opening is located at the base of the construction, it is always turned towards the east, on the side of the rising sun. It was entered by crawling and the following deceased were introduced in this way before being placed in a foetal position wrapped in shrouds and accompanied by offerings.

In the middle of these round chullpas is the base of an unfinished rectangular construction. One can see the narrow entrance at ground level, perhaps it was a temple rather than a burial place.

The archaeologists were also surprised to identify an unfinished chullpa under construction. A ramp made of piled up pebbles allowed the cut stone blocks to slide progressively to the right height, where they were positioned on the right side. One may wonder about the nature of the event that was so upsetting that it abruptly interrupted this construction, which had been carried out with such care and whose meaning was shared by the community.

Nearby, the blocks were also found waiting to compose the rest of the building.

There is little decoration on the chullpas, at best a few stones forming a frieze in relief and some rough sculptures. However, there are petroglyphs, although their meaning and purpose are not very clear.

Several of the main chullpas are positioned near the edges of the plateau, as if to better enjoy the landscape. The altitude reaches 13,100 feet, 4000 meters, with the lake below and in the distance the Andes can be seen beyond the undulations of the Altiplano.

In the lake an island has a nice shape with an almost perfectly flat top. This rare natural feature probably attracted the attention of ancient peoples, but there is no mention of any use.

If the funerary site of Sillustani constituted an interesting source of information to better understand the ancient civilizations that succeeded one another in the region, its monumental aspect composed of unusual shapes remains equally attractive to the visitor. From the Pukara people in the 8th century BC and the Incas in the 16th century, the site has been used several times, leaving quite disparate structures.

The funerary site of Sillustani is about 13 miles, 20 kilometres, from Puno, it can be the goal of a half-day excursion from this city, or a slight diversions on the road to Arequipa.

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