Sillustani is one of the most unique sites in Peru. The main feature of this pre-Inca site is the huge cylindrical tombs, which were burial structures used by the Colla people and are among the most impressive remains left by the civilization that once lived in the area, near Lake Titicaca in Puno. Situated on the shores of Lake Umayo, at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level, Sillustani is a large burial ground that dates to pre-Inca times. In fact, the site is believed to have been influenced by the Pukara, dating from 800 BC to 500 AD.
The Qulla people, were an indigenous group that lived in western Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina for many centuries. They were an Aymara-speaking people and were conquered by the Incas in the 15th century. Colonial evidence at the time describes the Qulla as a highly centralized society. Veneration of the dead was an integral part of Qulla culture, and this was celebrated in this graveyard by the construction of a “chullpa”. A chullpa is a circular funeral tower made from large bricks; the tallest of these centuries-old towers stands around 12 meters high. The height and size of these towers increased with the importance of the people who were buried inside.
Not all chullpas were for one singular person. There were also tombs of this kind built for entire extended families of royal lineage or for the elite of Qulla society. The bodies ended up being mummified by the dry environment created by the tomb. As a result, they survived in relatively good conditions for centuries. However, many chullpas were looted by graverobbers, leaving only the structures themselves that remain to this day, often half destroyed.
The chullpas themselves are impressive, not only in their size but the skill involved in creating them. The massive stone blocks that were used to create these stone burial towers are thought to be more complex than even Inca masonry. The Qulla used stones that were made with even, rectangular edges, as opposed to the Inca style of stones of varying sizes and with rounded edges. Two different building techniques exist at Sillustani. According to some scholars, the smaller chullpas, which have less intricate brickwork, are believed to be Qulla-built; the more complex stonework in the larger, rounded towers are attributed to either Incas or to Qulla people under Inca rule who have learned new building techniques. To this day, whether this is the case or not is hotly debated.
There are dozens of chullpas, around 90 in total, and thousands more semi-subterranean tombs at Sillustani. Some academics believe that, following the collapse of Tiwanaku around 1000 AD, Sillustani became “the most prominent pilgrimage center in the Titicaca Basin. However, even so, not a lot is known about the site or the people who were buried here. The chullpas are not only found here, however. They can be found across the whole south Central Andes. People come to visit Sillustani because it has the best-preserved chullpas in the region.
Visit this fascinating ancient site on this archaeological tour of Sillustani, while you are in Puno and learn more about the lakeside civilizations of ancient Peru. Book here!