Towers for the Dead: A Visit to Sillustani, Peru

Towers for the Dead: A Visit to Sillustani, Peru

Sara Shahriari

The high-altitude plains of southern Peru are a gently rolling sea of low grasses, simple homesteads, flocks of sheep and broad vistas that seem to stretch on forever. Then, after so much sameness, towers spring from the broad slope of a hill. This is the ancient burial ground of Sillustani, where Aymara Indians began to bury their dead about 900 years ago. This type of tower, called a chulpa, is found  scattered from Peru in the north down through Bolivia and into Chile.

Sillsutani's chulpas are some of the largest and easiest to get to in the Andean region, making them a popular attraction for national and international travelers. Adding to the site's beauty is its setting on a peninsula that juts into Lake Umayo, a small offshoot of Lake Titicaca. Some of the chulpas at Sillustani appear intact, but most were grave robbed long before they became a draw for visitors eager to learn about the tombs. In fact, no bodies remain there today, and those recovered from the site are housed in a museum nearby. The descendents of the Aymara who built the chulpas still live in Sillustani and many other parts of Peru and Bolivia today.

Charles Stanish, professor of archaeology at The University of California Los Angeles, studies chulpas across the Andes. “Sillustani is one of the very few places where there are so many different kinds of chulpas,” he said via email from Peru, where he is currently at work. The wide variety of building styles at Sillustani includes towers made of cut and uncut stone, chulpas that are covered covered with adobe, and both square and round foundations. Researchers believe that whole family groups were typically buried together. Each body was placed in the fetal position and accompanied by foods such as llama and guinea pig, plus clay pots and other useful tools for daily life. Many of the bodies later mummified because of the extremely dry and cool plains climate, combined with the shelter provided by their towers.

Before chulpas became a popular burial style, most people near Sillustani and in the greater Lake Titicaca region buried their dead in below-ground, rounded cavities, and above ground burial may have been reserved for the elite, according to Stanish's research. But when the Tiwanaku Empire that governed the region west and south of Lake Titicaca collapsed in the 12th century, more of the Aymara people whose culture dominated the region began to build towers for their dead. Later, when the Inca empire conquered the Aymara kingdoms, the famous precision of Inca stonework was integrated into their construction.

So what did the chulpas mean to the people who built them? Some researchers think they served to mark a group's territory or announce its prestige to neighbors. In the case of Sillutani, Stanish believes  it was a burial and pilgrimage site for the Aymara over hundreds of years, making it a sacred place where relatives journeyed to visit their ancestors in their tower homes.

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