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A M.

Coropuna
Lost M o u n t a i n Temple
or the Incas

Johan Reinhard

n 1989, the Peruvian archaeologist Jose


Antonio Chavez and I teamed up to look for the lost
_. temple of Coropuna. Coropuna (21,07976,425m)
is the highest peak in southwestern Peru. Not surpris-
ingly, it was one of the most sacred mountains of the Inca
empire. Cieza del Leon, the renowned chronicler of Inca
customs, wrote in 1553 that there was once a temple on
Coropuna. This temple was the Inca's fifth most impor-
tant shrine. Alas, no descriptions of the temple survive,
and even its location has been a mystery for centuries.

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According to Cieza de Leon, the revered temple of
Coropuna received as many visitors as the four other Inca
temples of Coricancha, Huanacauri, Vilcanota and
Ancocagua. He describes the pilgrimages of Inca emper-
ors and other important officials to Coropuna, where
they sacrificed livestock, birds, and humans, and offered
up gold, silver, and other riches. Guaman Poma noted

johan Reinhard, Ph.D., is currently an Explorer-in-Residence


at the National Geographic Society. He has conducted
anthropological research in the Andes since 1980. Continued on p.26.

Number 58, Winter 1999


Coropuna, continued from p.5.
the sacrifices of twelve year old chil- COROPUNA
dren and lists in detail the ceremonial Astronomy and Cosmology
offerings of goose and flamingo feath- HfltaR
Is Achaymarca's location on the
ers, coca leaves, seashells {mullo, the western side of Coropuna
rare Spondylus seashell), guinea pigs,
evidence of Incan astronomy or
raw meat, and sanco, llama blood
cosmology? Certainly, an
mixed with corn meal. According to
observer in Achaymarca would
Hiram Bingham, villagers were still of-
see the sun rise behind
fering "idols" on the slopes of the
mountain in 1865. Coropuna for most of the year.
At the September equinox, the
sun would rise behind the
ceremonial orrerin^s or northernmost tip of the
mountain.
^oose a n a r l a m i n ^ o
Coropuna's two main summits are
reamers, coca leaves, nearly the same height. From the
seasnells, guinea pi^s, Achaymarca, a site at 4,030m near the September equinox to the Decem-
western base of Coropuna. From what ber solstice, the sun moves in an
raw meat, and sanco, he saw of the ruins and their location arc over the mountain. This pe-
llama blood, m i x e d w i t h near the mountain, he believed it quite riod, a time of planting and har-
likely the site was the temple of vesting before the rainy season,
corn meal. Coropuna. was, and still is, of vital impor-
In 1989, Jose and I set out for tance to Andean peoples and is a
Guaman Poma wrote that the Achaymarca to test this hypothesis. time of many fertility rituals and
many priests attending the temple in- Shining Path guerrillas had been seen festivals. Although the impor-
cluded those high in the Inca hierar- in the area, so we didn't dawdle. Pho- tance of the equinox in Inca be-
chy. Others performing temple services tographing the ruins, we sketched a liefs is still debated, solstices
included mamaconas, women specially rough plan of the area, then climbed played a key role in Inca religion.
selected for this purpose. The temple up the Inca trail on the western slope It's perhaps no coincidence that
did not lack for offerings of livestock of the mountain to 5,500 m, where it the December solstice line (114
and the harvest of whole fields were disappeared beneath the glacier. as seen from Achaymarca), leads
dedicated to it. The temple attracted About 12 km before Achaymarca, directly to Ajocancha.
pilgrims from all over the empire. The Jose and I came across some ruins we
Coropuna deity spoke through an named Ajocancha after a nearby gully. The sacred mountain Solimana is
oracle, and, unlike the deities at other Here we found a plaza approximately also visible from Achaymarca. In
temples, would make pronouncements 17 x 48 m with a half-dozen structures 1583, Albornoz wrote of the colo-
at any time of the year. built near its western wall. Rough nists at Solimana and that live-
boulders bordered both the eastern stock was dedicated to its service.
to Ac! and southern sides. Steps cut into one Pre-lncan people living nearby
of the boulders led up to the plaza, believed the mountain to be their
During the 1980s, I had climbed a where shards lay scattered about on the creator. Today, many view
number of Andean peaks looking for surface. Close to the mountain, Solimana as a place where souls
archaeological sites. Reading up on Ajocancha does not appear to have been reside, a mountain rich in gold
Coropuna, I found only brief summa- a major sitepossibly only a place for
ries of archaeological surveys for the and silver. Those who live on
small groups to perform rituals. Coropuna's slopes at the present
area around Coropuna. Maucallacta
High on the western side of Lake time look upon Solimana as fe-
was the only Inca site on the slopes of
Pallacocha (4,730 m), we found more male, one of the most venerated
Coropuna higher than 4,000m, and no
ruinsstone structures overlooking the of deities, a goddess of plant and
archaeological work had been done on
lake. From here, we had a fine view of animal fertility.
an Inca site anywhere near the moun-
Coropuna, reflected in the water below.
tain. In 1988, Jose briefly visited
Alas, we found no shards to date the

'16 South American Explorer


ruins. Still, since the structures were The 9 x 6 m and 2.5 m high ushnu,
close to the trail to Ajocancha and re- built in part of worked stone, is found COROPUNA, SPIRIT WORLD
sembled the structures we'd seen there, on the southern side of the plaza. The
we deemed it likely they were Incan. (In- remains of a stairway are still visible From Inca times to the present,
terestingly, in Quechua, "palla" means on the platform's northern side. Ma- Coropuna has been linked with the
"noble woman" and "cocha," "lake." jor ceremonies took place on such plat- dead. Nearly 500 years ago, Guaman
To the Incas, lakes were often seen as forms, which played a key role in Inca Poma wrote of the spirits gathering at
femaleconsorts of mountain gods. worship. Because of this, the Spanish
Coropuna. Both Valderrama and
This belief persists in the Andes to this made a point of destroying them as
Escalante write about people living to-
day.) they obliterated the indigenous reli-
gion. To find a relatively intact plat- day in the province of Cotabambas.
The ruins of Achaymarca lie be-
tween the mountains of Solimana and form such as this is rare in the Andes. Here, many believe that Saint Peter
Coropuna. The main complex is a cen- Several well-built structures, in- holds the key to a door on Coropuna.
tral walled plaza approximately 160 x cluding a few with worked stone, lie Through this door pass the souls of
110 m with an artificial raised plat- near the south wall of the plazapre- the dead. The door faces east and is
form (ushnu). Over two hundred sumably buildings used by the Inca reputedly surrounded by twelve lower
structures surround the plaza, and we elite. More than 200 structures were mountains which guard it. At Puguio,
found shards of Incan pottery lying built outside the central plaza. These
northwest of Coropuna, people also
about. I could discern no astronomi- rough-stone buildings may have
believe Coropuna to be the abode of
cal alignments of the plaza walls, al- housed those lower in the social hier-
though the southern wall, at 110 east, archy. A walled compound lies some the dead.
is close to the December solstice sun- 70 m east of the plaza, and 100 m be- There are variations on Coropuna's
rise. Another section of wall on the yond this one finds a large group of
role. Some believe the mountain to be
a kind of purgatory. For example,
Ossio was told that souls reaching
Coropuna are freed of impurities be-
fore they pass on to heaven. Roel
wrote of others who believe that souls
pass through Coropuna en route to
other volcanoes, finally ending up in
Solimana. Bingham was told there
was a warm paradise atop Coropuna
where souls dallied on their way to
heaven. The belief that the dead re-
side in mountains is widespread
throughout the Andes and may come
from the once widely held view that
some people were descended from
north side of the plaza, at ca. 95 (i.e. ruins. We found other structures 150 mountain deities.
oriented to the east), is aligned with m north of the plaza and 50 m or so to
the northern summit of Coropuna. It's the west, but none to the east or north- As we have seen, funerary towers were
unclear if these were intentional align- east to the Coropuna massif. built near Coropuna in pre-Hispanic
ments or mere coincidence. South, west, and east of the main times. In 1965, a villager discovered two
complex, we came across nearly a funerary bundles on Coropuna. Some
dozen chullpasfunerary towers. suspected they had been sacrificed on the
a relatively intact Some were in good condition and con-
summit. Jose later learned that the bodies
tained bones, and in one measuring 2
platrorm such as this x 3 x 2 m, we found four skeletons.
were found on the lower slopes. There is
nothing about the bodies to indicate hu-
is rare in the Andes. Inca ruins have been found in
other areas near Coropuna, but all man sacrifice, although its likely such sac-
these sites are small and lack the fine rifices did occur.

Number 58, Winter 1999 27


modated the numerous visi- puna is not alone in this respect. Both
tors pouring in from distant Vilcanota and Ancocagua, third and
areas, as described by Cieza fourth on Cieza de Leon's list of the
de Leon. The site furthermore five most important Inca temples, are
provides views of Coropuna similarly not described in any detail in
(and to the rising sun behind the chronicles. Built in relatively iso-
it), as well as mountain lated areas and their whereabouts
Solimana. Both mountains eventually forgotten, all three temples
were sacred deities to the were largely overlooked by a later gen-
Incas when the Spanish ar- eration of historians and archaeolo-
rived. Achaymarca's position gists. Cieza de Leon was among the
between the two mountains earliest chroniclers of Inca religion af-
would surely enhance its reli- ter the Spanish conquest of 1532.
gious significance. When other chroniclers began writing
Near the year-round in the late 1500's, Coropuna would
Inca settlements in the Arma have been a distant memory.
Valley, the Incas harvested There remains much to learn about
bountiful crops from a 10 km the temple of Coropuna. Among other
section of the valley where things, excavation will shed more light
Coropuna crops are grown to this day. on the temple's function, its relationship
Region, From the fields came grain to with other Inca sites in the region, and
Department
feed the priests and the origins of its pilgrims. Further study
Arequipa
mamaconas dedicated to the of this important temple is certain to
service the temple at broaden our knowledge of Inca religion
masonry and other significant religious Achaymarca as well as the many local and practice in one of the least known
characteristics of Achaymarca. Fur- servants and pilgrims who traveled regions of the Inca empire.
thermore, the mountain is not visible there from many regions. It would
from many of these lesser ruins, and have been difficult to maintain such a
visibility would seem rather important temple complex at a higher elevation
in a temple complex dedicated to or in a more remote area. Indeed, it
Coropuna. The ruins Bingham de- would be hard to find a place better
scribed finding on the slopes of situated for religious purposes close to
Coropuna are minor and clearly not the resources needed to support it. iDOLOSIVACAS
those we found in Achaymarca. There
is scant evidence to support Bingham's
claim that the ruins he describes are Why did trie
the temple of Coropuna.
Our detailed on-site examination
chroniclers say so little
convinced both Jose and myself that the about Coropuna?
ruins at Achaymarca are the remains of
the Inca temple of Coropuna mentioned
In short, the evidence supporting
in the chronicles. We believe the evi-
Achaymarca as the temple of
dence supporting this conclusion is com-
Coropuna is substantial. Given the
pelling.
above, it is fairly certain that we have
For one, Achaymarca meets all the
established the location of the temple
obvious requirements for a shrine. Of
of Coropuna, which has been un-
all the sites on the slopes of Coropuna
known for centuries.
dating to the Inca period, Achaymarca
The question remains: Why did
is the most significant, possessing
the chroniclers say so little about
structures both for an elite and for re-
Coropuna? This is puzzling, consider-
ligious ceremonial purposes. Certainly
ing that Cieza de Leon stresses the
the complex could easily have accom-
temple's importance. However Coro-
28 South American Explorer
COROPUNA
Mountain God of the Andes

In Quechua, "com" (or "koro') means "cut that the colonists Albornoz mentions as
U nfortunately, there's little infor-
mation in the chronicles about
what Coropuna meant to the Incas. But
off". "Puns" refers to "the cold highlands".
"Coropuna" thus describes the mountain's
coming to Coropuna may well have been
from the Chumbivilcas region.
there are clues. truncated summit. How the summit of
Yet another Andean legend, first recorded
Coropuna got lopped off is recounted in a
In 1583, Albornoz wrote that the Incas in the 1980s, recounts a battle between
legend from the province of Chumbivilcas.
venerated the mountains that "faced the Coropuna and Huaica Huaica, a mountain
In this legend a great battle took place be-
ocean" over other mountains because that towers above the Coica Valley. In this
tween Coropuna and the deity known as Inca.
from these peaks flowed water that al- legend, Huaica Huaica blocked the sun's
After creating Alqa Victoria, a valley at the
lowed the desert to bloom. Ulloa rays in the morning. This angered
headwaters of the Velille River, Inca built a
Mogollon does not specifically mention Coropuna. The gods fought with slings,
canal that wound down the slopes of
Coropuna, but in 1586, he wrote that the and Huaica Huaica struck Coropuna in the
Coropuna to the south. When he was fin-
Incas worshiped snow-capped peaks as head with a boulder. From this wound,
ished, Coropuna urinated. Then Inca urinated
the source of water they used to irrigate blood flowed out to form a lake. Boulders
on top of Coropuna, and the mountain be-
their fields. Indeed, glacial melt from said to have been thrown by Coropuna
came pregnant. A child was born. When Inca
Coropuna is the main source of water can still be seen on the slopes of Huaica
refused to recognize it as his, Coropuna at-
for miles around. To the Incas, Huaica.
tacked him with fire. In fighting back, Inca
Coropuna was surely a mountain god broke off Corapuna's summit with stones Until recent times, Cabanaconde villag-
they looked to for water, good weather, from his sling. Then, to escape the fire, Inca ers, who believed themselves descended
and bountiful crops. Even today, those dove into the lake at Vilcanota to resurface in from the Huaica Huaica diety, kept this
who live on its slopes worship Alqa Victoria in Chumbivilicas. From here, legend alive with staged battles, slinging
Coropuna for its life-giving waters he dispatched carved stones for the con- apples and fruit instead of stones. These
above all other mountains in the area. struction of Cuzco. ceremonial clashes took place in Febru-
It's also likely that Coropuna was re- ary, a month of agricultural festivals when
It would be impossible to build a canal from
vered for its distinctive powers over live- offerings are made to Pachamama and the
Coropuna to Chumbivilcas and Cuzco, 100
stock as well as crops. There is men- mountain deities for a successful harvest.
kms to the southwest and in a different wa-
tion in 1583 of an increase in llama and Just as in other parts of the Andes, villag-
tershed. Still, the legend serves to symboli-
alpaca herds near Sara Sara, another ers looked upon the blood shed in battle
cally link these regions. The legend further
mountain worshiped by the Incas not far as an offering to local deities to increase
connects Coropuna to the Incas, who indeed
to the west of Coropuna. People living fertility.
built temples on Coropuna's slopes.
there still make offerings to the moun- There are modern-day myths about Coropuna.
tain god Coropuna to increase their East of Coropuna, the Collagua people in-
In one, the mountain god Sara Sara gave all of
herds. Coropuna is likewise worshiped habited the Coica Valley. Interestingly, in the
its riches to Coropuna. This accounts for why
by herders of wool-bearing animals in chronicles we see that in 1586 they spoke of
Sara Sara lacks the minerals and water that
the Arequipa region. their ancestors who came from Collaguata, a
Coropuna has in abundance.
volcano near Alqa Victoria. This suggests

Number 58, Winter 1999 19


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30 South American Explorer