Andean Group Burials

Chullpa at Sillustani, Peru
Chullpa at Sillustani, Peru. Marek Krzystkiewicz

Chullpas are above-ground mortuary monuments, tower sepulchers used as group burials in many prehistoric and historic South American societies. They were first used during the Early Intermediate period [200 BC-AD 600] in the northern highlands of what is today Peru. Eventually, the practice spread across the whole central Andes region, becoming the dominant form of mortuary building in the Late Intermediate period [AD 1000-1476].

The practice continued throughout the Inca period and the Spanish colonial period, and may have persisted as late as the mid-17th century.

Chullpas were not the only type of group burial monument used in South America: other types used are slab-cist tombs, subterranean cist tombs and cave tombs. Occasionally in the literature, these other types are referred to as chullpas, although most sources use chullpa to refer to the tower burials alone. Tower chullpas are visually prominent compared to these other types of burials, and as such, scholars believe, they represent a more public and nuanced aspect of family, kinship nand sociopolitical relations.

Structure and Context

Chullpas are found as isolated structures, or in clusters close to settlements or farming areas. They are typically set on hills or other highly visible places where they still serve as regional landmarks. They show great variation of shape, size and formal details over time, and up through the late pre-hispanic period conformed to regional styles, roughly coeval with the different societies' pottery and architectural styles.

Chullpas do share some features: they are typically built with with cleaved white limestone slabs mortared with mud, and their exteriors are most often decorated with geometric designs. Tower shapes range from circular or elliptical to rectangular; they often feature flagstone pavements, vaults reinforced with wooden beams, and a square or rectangular opening which allows an adult person access to the interior.

Chullpas were one of several aspects of South American society which caught the attention of 16th century Spanish conquistadors such as Cieza de Leon, who wrote that the Andean peoples put more effort into building the chullpas then they did their own houses.

Function and Interpretation

According to early colonial records, chullpas were respositories for the dead based on family and clan connections (ayllus). Family members periodically opened the chullpas, to renew their offerings and incorporate new burials, but also to temporarily bring the mummified remains out to let them participate in various activities among the living.

Chullpas were an important element in the sociopolitical organization of Andean communities, as the focus of ancestor worship. Chullpa structures reinforced the recognition of kinship between individuals and groups over a period of several decades and in some cases hundreds of years, maintaining clan connections and ayllu formation.

Chullpas probably functioned in several ways: they likely served as burial places for corporate groups; they supported and maintained ayllu lineages; they were symbols of ethnic identity and territorial markers. Duchesne and Chacama (2012) argue that chullpas in Chile offered Late Intermediate Period (AD 1000 – 1476) colonizers from Tiwanaku a way to legitimize their collective ancestry with the colonized Chileans.

Recent Research

A DNA study of individuals buried in the Late Horizon [AD 1476–1534] Tompullo tower of Arequipa department in Peru (Baca et al 2012) revealed that the men buried in the chullpa were related, but not all of the women, leading scholars to the conclusion that the Tompullo chullpa was used by one patrilineal family group or ayllu.

A geographic information system (GIS)-based study of the locations of 257 chullpas located within an 80 square kilometer (~20,000 acres) area of the western Lake Titicaca basin in Peru, between Lake Titicaca and Lake Umayo (Bongers et al. 2012) found that chullpas are typically built at higher elevations and within the viewshed of economically important communities. That supports the notion of chullpas as territorial markers.

Anthropologist Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz (2012) recently examined oral traditions of the modern Chipaya ethnic group in Bolivia, including the role of chullpas in their current "mythistory".

She found that the entire oral tradition represented by architecture, clothing, and even language reinforces territorial boundaries, supports permanent albeit tense relationships of the Chipayas and the Aymaras and mainstream Bolivian society, and strengthens the local communities.

A recent dendrochronological study (Morales et al) looked at growth rings from wooden beams inside a handful of chullpas in Bolivia, and found that the preserved wood of the shrub Polylepis tarapacana has the potential for creating dendrochonological time records including climate change for the region.

A Few Sites with Chullpas

There are hundreds if not thousands of chullpas throughout South America. Here are a few I found mentioned in the literature.

  • Peru: Tompullo, Sillustani, Ayllawasi, Ayawiri, Condores, Laguna Huayabamba, Los Pinchudos, Cerro Achil, Huepon, Runashayana, Patron Samana, Willkawain, Marcajirca, Carajia, Salte si Puedes, Coporaque
  • Bolivia: Pukara de Mallku, Laquya, Cueva del Diablo, Llacta Qaqa, Sia Moqo, Huachacalla
  • Chile: Likan, Turi, Chapiquiña


This article is a part of the guide to the Burial Types, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Aldunate C, Castro V, and Varela V. 2003. Antes del Inka y después del Inka: paisajes culturales y sacralidad en la puna de Atacama, Chile. Boletín de Arqueología PUCP 7:9-26.

Baca M, Doan K, Sobczyk M, Stankovic A, and Weglenski P. 2012. Ancient DNA reveals kinship burial patterns of a pre-Columbian Andean community. BMC Genetics 13(1):30.

Bongers J, Arkush E, and Harrower M. 2012. Landscapes of death: GIS-based analyses of chullpas in the western Lake Titicaca basin. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(6):1687-1693.

Bongers J, Arkush E, and Harrower M. 2013. Corrigendum to “Landscapes of death: GIS-based analyses of chullpas in the western Lake Titicaca basin” [J. Archaeol. Sci. 39 (6) (2012) 1687–1693]. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(5):2335-2336.

Dedenbach-Salazar Sáenz S. 2012. "Our Grandparents Used to Say That We Are Certainly Ancient People, We Come From the Chullpas": The Bolivian Chipayas' Mythistory.

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Duchesne F, and Chacama J. 2012. Torres funerarias prehispánicas de los Andes centro-sur: muerte, ocupación del espacio y organización social. Estudio comparativo: Coporaque, Cañón del Colca (Perú), Chapiquiña, Precordillera de Arica (Chile). Chungara, Revista de Antropología Chilena 44(4):605-619.

Morales MS, Nielsen AE, and Villalba R. 2013. First dendroarchaeological dates of prehistoric contexts in South America: chullpas in the Central Andes. Journal of Archaeological Science 40(5):2393-2401.

Nystrom KC, Buikstra JE, and Muscutt K. 2010. Chachapoya mortuary behavior: a consideration of method and meaning. Chungará (Arica) 42:477-495.

Rossi MJ, Kesseli R, Liuha P, Sagárnaga Meneses J, and Bustamente J. 2002. A Preliminary Archaeological and Environmental Study of Pre-Columbian Burial Towers at Huachacalla, Bolivian Altiplano. Geoarchaeology 17(7):633-648.