Chachapoya settlements appear to follow the terrain in a seemingly
random pattern, although some sites such as Kuelap have houses grouped
along corridors or facing patios, suggesting a pre-conceived plan.
A typical site wends its way along a ridge, mountaintop or slope
with as few as 30 and as many as 400 structures, most of them circular.
While the location of sites on ridges and summits may be a response
to hostilities among the various Chachapoya groups, as suggested
by the chroniclers, few sites are fortified. The settings of sites
on mountain tops, flanks and ridges may also have been a practical
response to a “very rugged and wet land, all year it does
nothing but rain, and for this reason the Indians build their houses
on the summits and heights,” as a sixteenth-century chronicler
Although circular houses are not unique in the ancient Andes, several
features distinguish Chachapoya ones. The houses sit on solid platform
bases topped by the upper walls of the structures themselves. Decorative,
masonry friezes (zigzags, rhomboids, step-frets or figurative, mosaic-like
friezes such as those at Gran Pajatén) embellish the foundations
or the structure’s upper walls. Cornices, surrounding or set
in a half-moon around the houses, served as decorative features
or walkways, protecting the platforms from rainfall. Tenoned human
and feline heads fashioned in stone decorated exteriors and, at
times, the interiors of houses, and deer antlers have also been
observed embedded in interior walls.
The Chachapoya topped their residences with conical, thatched roofs.
From left to right: Structure with step-fret
frieze at La Congona; Structure with double zigzag frieze at San
Antonio (Adriana von Hagen)