The Cutimbo (Kutimpu – giant armadillo) archaeological site is located on the top of an immense meseta (table plateau) about 1,000 feet (300 metres) above the Altiplano in southern Peru. Just to the left of centre can be seen the forms of two of the site’s chullpas; massive megalithic structures that are dwarfed by the geological feature on which they stand. (© Dave Truman)
A Landacape Formed by Recent Catastrophes
The Altiplano never ceases to surprise me. I thought I had it all worked out, ancient cataclysms and all. Then, one morning, I decided to visit Cutimbo. The micro picked up speed as we cleared the suburbs of Puno and headed towards the South-west. The road cut a straight line across the plateau, the only deviation being a slight vertical one, as it accommodated the banks of mud that had settled on its floor thousands of years ago. This was once the bed of Lake Tauca; a vast salt lake that had engulfed this part of the Altiplano, – as well as present-day Lake Titikaka – during the Ice Age.
A geological conundrum
Geologists still really do not know where all of Tauca’s salt came from. Today, there is salt in profusion further south in the Andes. In Bolivia, Lakes Uru Uru and Poopo are all heavily saline. Then there are the salt flats at Uyuni and Coipasa, which are evaporated lakes. Even as far south as Argentina, the Salinas Grandes glisten blindingly in the Andean sun and there is the salty Mar Chiquita; a vast lake in the Province of Cordoba, thousands of miles (kilometres) from any ocean. How did all this salt get here? Was it just what was left from some very ancient ocean bed, or did it arrive here more recently from catastrophic earth changes?
Most of the salt was probably washed out of this part of the Altiplano, and from what became Titikaka, by the sudden melting of the glaciers at the very end of the last Ice Age – about eleven and a half thousand years ago. The ensuing freshwater floods would have swept it southwards into what is today Bolivia and Argentina.
A walk to the table mountain
Lost in my geological reverie, I barely noticed that the micro had pulled up and that the driver was calling out ‘Cutimbo’. I fumbled in my pocket for change, handed him the required two and a half soles and got out. Then, I looked up. Before me stood what seemed to be an immense citadel formed from the very Earth herself. From the plateau on which I was standing, there rose another one, perhaps a thousand feet (300m) higher. Just beneath its culmination was a sheer wall of of rock, a rampart fashioned by nature to defy all but the most earnest of seekers.
I glanced about me at the wider landscape. The daunting prospect before me did not stand alone. There were similar massive protrusions from the Altiplano all around me, suggesting that the plateau here had once been about 1,000 feet (300m) higher than it is today. I thought of the mesas of Arizona, except that where I was standing was already two and a half miles (4.5 km) above the sea. Was this extraordinary phenomenon really the result of tiny streams gently nibbling away at the rocks over millions of years, or had something far more sudden and dramatic happened here to create these curious formations? My mind drifted back to the immense floods that I believe took place when the Ice Age came to abrupt end – perhaps in a matter of days
I started to cross the road. A local man, who lived in Cutimbo – the modern village clustered around the foot of the meseta – had alighted at the same stop. He helpfully pointed me in the direction of the archaeological site, which was at the summit. We walked along the pathway chatting, until he reached his smallholding. I took the opportunity to ask him about any legends concerning the ruins. His rather evasive reply was along the lines of, ‘Oh yes, there are many legends concerning this place’, and then left it at that. Although intrigued, I did not press him on the matter. I’ve learned that trust has to be earned from the country peoples of the Andes. They guard their lore and customs ardently. I made a remark about the presence of the chullpas at the top of the meseta, but again he remained largely taciturn.
Towards the beckoning chullpas
We parted by shaking hands and I pressed on alone, up the ever increasing slope, towards the top of the meseta and the chullpas. I took my time during the ascent. At this altitude it is very easy to lose one’s breath, even when accustomed to the dearth of oxygen. At about a third of the way up, I was surprised that another chullpa came into view, because it was not visible from the road.
At first sight it appeared unremarkable, but it was only on closer inspection that I noticed some of its striking features. In my article on Sillustani, I described some of the Andean cosmology that underpinned the design of the chullpas there. The cosmology employed here at Cutimbo was essentially the same. Here was the familiar ‘doorway’ facing almost due east at the bottom of the tower; an orifice that would allow the first rays of the solstice sun into the chullpa during the ceremony in which the shaman sought guidance from the ancestors. Chullpas, however, have two entrances. Whilst shamans enter from the material world at the bottom of the tower, the souls of the ancestors enter at the top, as they complete their journeys from the celestial realm.
It was only when this rather obvious thought impressed itself upon me that some of the features of this chullpa started to make sense. I checked the stonework for magnetic anomalies. There were none, except for the lintel that supported the stones above the ‘doorway’ at the bottom of the tower. When I moved the compass towards this stone, the needle spun from magnetic north to west. Interestingly, the only photograph I took with the Oldfield Filter at the whole site that showed any colour variation was the one I took of the lintel in the wall of this chullpa. As at Tiwanaku, it seemed, the boundaries between different realms were deliberately marked with devices that changed the orientation of the magnetic field.
I turned my attention to the chullpa’s celestial entrance and was amazed to find several very worn carvings around the top of the tower. A little later, I will discuss the relief carvings in more detail, with respect to the two large chullpas at Cutimbo’s summit. For now, here are details of the carvings I noticed on this chullpa:
Keen to find out how this example compared to the massive chullpas sitting on the meseta’s summit, I returned to my slow climb upwards. More surprises were in store for me, however. I had climbed but a short way when I came across a sign that diverted me from my upward path towards some cave paintings. I scrambled along a rocky trail that jutted out over a sheer drop on one side to reach a covered recess set in from the craggy wall on the other.’ ‘Hardly a cave at all’, I thought. These places provided spartan refuges in the most difficult of times: when the skies went dark, when the floods laden with debris and boulders swept over the Altiplano and when flares from the sky seared into the flesh. They were shelters born of necessity, not primitivism.
The French researcher and writer Simone Waisbard spent many years collecting the oral traditions of Andean peoples. They told her of an epoch in which the people were forced to leave the Altiplano and take refuge in the caves of the cordilleras, when a succession of devastating floods plagued their homelands. As the waters started to recede, the amautas (wise ones) used to draw instructional diagrams on the walls of the caves in order to teach large bands of survivors strategies for hunting the remaining game. Was this, I wondered, what was depicted here?
Towards the table top
I resumed my slow climb to the flat summit of this mountain laden with secrets. As I rose, I could see further and further across the Altiplano towards the jagged grey peaks of the cordilleras beyond, highlighted with snow. Finally, the path levelled out and curved as I reached the plateau. I looked across the plane that now revealed itself in front of me. I was confronted by the prospect of an immense megalithic tower, rectangular in shape, that made the chullpa I had just inspected lower down seem miniature in comparison. It was not just that the tower itself dwarfed the one lower down the slope, but it was that the stones that comprised this immense chullpa’s walls were so much larger.
It was as if, like Gulliver, I had found myself washed up on the shore of a land of giants. All around the tower, strewn across the summit’s surface, lay large stone blocks, their straight cuts and regular angles jutting out from the tall grass of the pampa. My eyes wandered to the left and a second enormous tower confronted me. About as tall as its companion, this was round and it seemed to have suffered rather less structural damage. It was built from enormous interlocking blocks of stone.
In many ways, this tower resembled the ones I had seen at Sillustani, but I could not help thinking that it was much older. Its andesite blocks, although equally finely worked as those at Sillustani, seemed to have been much more weather-worn.
The sacred geometry of the chullpas
Both Cutimbo and Sillustani are sites where there are rectangular and circular chullpas. The combination of styles may not be because of invasions by different peoples, who brought with them distinct building technologies, as is often supposed. Rather, it could be an expression of complementary principles of geometry at work in the universe, which was reflected by the builders of the chullpas.
The Peruvian researcher, Javier Lajo has observed that the geometries of different pre-Columbian temples in the Andes varied according to whether a male or a female deity, or spiritual presence, was worshipped there. Put simply, those buildings intended for the worship of the male tend to be square or rectangular, whereas those intended for the female are circular.
Might it just be that this principle also accounts for the different geometries of the chullpas? In my article on Sillustani, I argued that these towers were where the shamans of the Kollas communed with the souls of their dead ancestors during the southern winter solstice. Could the rectangular chullpas have been built to house the souls of returning male ancestors and the circular towers those of female ancestors?
Enigmatic relief carvings
Curiously, only the large round chullpa at Cutimbo’s summit sports any relief carvings. Its rectangular companion possesses none. Whereas most of the carvings on the chullpa on the mountain’s slope are grouped around the ‘spirit entrance’ at the top of the tower, here they are grouped around the shaman’s ‘doorway’, which faces due east at the bottom. To say the least, they present a mystery:
In his book Magicians of the Gods, Graham Hancock draws certain parallels between these relief carvings and those at Golbekle Tepe in eastern Turkey. There are certainly stylistic similarities, but the Golbekle Tepe carvings have enjoyed the benefit of having been buried for many thousands of years before they were unearthed. These carvings have not been so fortunate. The extreme weathering of the hard andesite rock from which they have been formed is testimony that they may be as old as their Turkish counterparts.
There is another difference between these carvings and those at Golbekle Tepe. Several of those who have studied the Turkish carvings have been able to identify the animal figures depicted there. Here, the figures seem to defy any identification. When I first studied them, I searched the internet for pictures of South American mammals, both modern and from the Ice Age, both small and large. I could find nothing that matched the Cutimbo creatures. The carving of the two heads is equally puzzling. Are the heads human, or are they apes? Bearing in mind that the chullpas enabled contact with the spirits of ancestors, are they some sort of tacit acknowledgement of hominid ancestors, of which we are no longer aware? There are many questions to be asked.
Perhaps, as with the relief carvings at Tiwanaku, these may be representations of chimera, therianthropes and other shifting shamanistic spirit forms. If so, then they are stylistically very different from the Tiwanaku sculptures. Yet, conventional archaeology tells us that the builders of these stone chullpas were supposed to have been culturally linked to those who built Tiwanaku. Could it be that conventional archaeology’s map of South America’s past, before the arrival of the Spanish, is completely wrong?
As I turned to leave this most baffling of sites, my attention was drawn to one of the many megaliths lying on the ground close to the rectangular chullpa. There, carved on to one of the large stones that was probably shaken from the tower during an earthquake, was one of the most unfathomable figures I have ever set eyes on:
Was the head intended to be human, or had the thousands of years of wind, rain and hail deceptively worn its features that way? Why did it have no hind legs, or were millennia of rain and hail responsible for erasing those too? Why were the hands, which appeared to cling to the stone so desperately, that large? As I stated earlier, Cutimbo has left me with so many questions, but with hardly any answers.