Karajia sarcophagi: Guardians of the heights

Karajia sarcophagi: Guardians of the heights

23 December 2022

Unreachable and perfectly aligned, like birds watching from the top of a cliff, you will find the purunmachos or "old men" (According to F. Kauffmann Doig in his book Los Chachapoya: Builders of Kuelap and Pajatén), monumental anthropomorphic sarcophagi associated with the Chachapoyan culture. With more than a thousand years, these one-person capsules keep mummies with their grave goods inside. And they are there, on top of the mountain, facing the sun, protecting the living from above, as evidence of the great respect this culture has for its deceased.


However, seeing them from afar, we cannot help but wonder, and how did they get there?


The Karajía Sarcophagi, tombs in the shape of a human figure, are a funerary tradition. They are located in high-altitude rocks, 2,400 meters of vertical rock face and are more than 2 and a half meters high. These burials were located in places that were difficult to access, such as caves, cliffs, and steep slopes. The goal was that the sarcophagi are never visited and the mummified bodies can rest in peace for all eternity.


These striking burials were discovered in 1985 by the Peruvian archaeologist Federico Kauffmann Doig in the Karajía ravine. The seven sarcophagi discovered were designed to bury the mummified bodies individually, in a fetal position, wrapped in cotton cloaks and facing forwards. It is important to mention that there was an eighth sarcophagus, however, it was destroyed by nature, falling off the cliff as a result of the earthquake that affected the area in 1928.


The Chachapoyas had the tradition of protecting their dead from the passage of time, which is why the sarcophagi are located in abrupt places and on the edge of precipices. Thanks to their location in the Karajía ravine, there is no risk of vegetation growing or humidity concentrating around them. The also called "Purunmachos" for their anthropomorphic shape, are made mainly of clay, ichu, straw and joined by mud mortar. They were also decorated by layers of smoky white and ocher red face and body paint.



These sarcophagi are located in the district of Conila, in the province of Luya, in the Amazonas region at about 2600 meters above sea level.


The location of the sarcophagi responds to a purpose of protection against the looting of the tombs that they protected - and that, it is believed, belonged to the elite of their culture.


Characteristics of the Karajía Sarcophagues

The sarcophagi have a dead person inside, which was previously mummified and seated in a fetal position, wrapped in cloaks typical of its time.

They are anthropomorphic sculptures that exceed 2 meters in height.

They are hollow structures, they had enough space inside them to house an illustrious dead person, who, in order to be contained in his burial cavity, had to be previously mummified and seated in a fetal position, in addition to being wrapped in various typical cloaks of His town.

The sculptures are strategically located on limestone and face an abyss.

The heads of the Karajía monuments are characterized by the presence of protruding noses that give the impression that they were the beaks of birds of prey, as well as the jaws that were more marked than normal.

On the heads of the monuments you can see the so-called "skull trophies" as a crown that gave features of majesty to the sculpture

The sarcophagi are grouped from 4 to 8 (although the cause of this distribution is not yet explained by archaeologists), and joined laterally. In the same way they are reclining by their posterior end to the rock of the cave that houses them.


How to get to the Karajía Sarcophagi?

You must reach the community of Cruzpata, located 51 kilometers northeast of Chachapoyas (approximately 2 hours by car). From Cruzpata, in the district of Luya, you must ride a horse for 15 minutes and walk for 10 minutes to appreciate the amazing Sarcophagi of Karajía. Visiting hours are Monday to Sunday from 08:00 am to 17:00 pm.


This tourist spot is compared to the moáis on Easter Island in Chile, since these statues are similar in structure and shape.


About the Chachapoyas Culture

The Chachapoyas were a pre-Inca culture of the Andean Late Intermediate. They were located east of the Marañón River, in the Andean jungle of northern Peru. The Chachapoyas were made up of various ethnic groups, descendants of immigrants from the Andes and who assimilated Amazonian features.


Their society was theocratic, and their territory was divided into small lordships. Its economy was based on agriculture, the same that was divided between grazing, hunting and subsistence gathering. They also created fabrics and their own ceramics.


Who discovered the sarcophagi?

These sarcophagi were discovered in 1985 by the Peruvian archaeologist Federico Kauffmann Doig. Originally it was known that there were eight statues, but one fell into the abyss. This occurred in the earthquake that struck the Amazon region in 1928.


When it fell, the sculpture left a hole in the one next to it. Which allowed the researchers to discover what they were made of.


Concluding that they were very skilled men to build these burial capsules almost 2 meters high. Above all, because of the brief space between the cornice and the void.


Within these monuments the mummified bodies of their chiefs, the Chachapoya nobles, were placed. They were considered children of the gods and it was firmly believed that even after death they continued to protect their people.


How were they built?

For the construction of these sarcophagi, clay mixed with cane and wild straw was used. They shaped the bodies, as well as the flat heads with prominent jaws. Some of which were crowned with deer horns or with the skulls of their enemies.


Likewise, they were covered with a white paste. And on it they painted a cloak of vermilion-red feathers. With the intention of imitating the clothing that the Chachapoyas curacas used in their times.


These cloaks are not the same in all the sculptures. And neither are the magical symbols that adorn the chest of some of them.


More Features

The large jaws that give these figures special strength are very striking. Reminiscent of the heads of the Moais. Some huge rock sculptures that the natives built on Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.


These sculptures, like the rest of the Andean culture, are oriented towards the East. With the intention that after death they enjoy the magnificent landscape of the valley, and also the sunrise over the mountains.



Behind the statues is a fairly sized cave that appears to have been dug on purpose. Possibly to have a space to work, as well as to take out the clay. In the same way to extract the small stones with which they built the structures.


With this they saved themselves from carrying the weight of the earth. But despite this, they had to raise the reeds, rough straw and water for the mixture. Likewise, the paintings and the already mummified bodies.



  • Bring water and a snack
  • Repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Walking stick
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat to protect from the sun
  • Bring light clothing and a binocular to appreciate the majesty of the sarcophagi.

The best destinations in Perú

Once you decide to visit Palccoyo Mountain, you could add the best destinations to combine the history and experience for your trip to Peru. Peru offers the most beautiful destinations, culture and naturals. we recommend to extend your holidays and choose these best destinations and prepare your itinerary:

Best Peru Treks


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