Fort Samaipata, the largest rupestrian architectural work in the world

Although Machu Picchu attracts mass media attention and world tourism on the Andean area, this one is extraordinarily rich in historical patrimony and abundant archaeological sites can be found distributed by the countries that compose it, from the cañari ruins of Ingapirca (Ecuador) to the great Inca constructions or the Peruvian mochicas huacas, through the monumental legacy of tihuanacos, mochicas, chimúes, lambayeques, paracas, aymaras, etc. Of all of them there is one unjustly little known, since it showcases a double singularity: that of bringing together three cultures (chané, Inca and Spanish) and that of being the largest rupestrian architectural work in the world. We are talking about Fort Samaipata, in Bolivia.

It is located in Santa Cruz Department, 8 kilometers from the small municipality that gives it its name, occupying the top of a hill at an altitude of 1,950 meters. Santa Cruz, the country’s interior region, borders the Paraguayan Chaco and two of Brazil’s wildest areas, the Mato Grosso and the Amazon. In fact, it is also located in the foothills of the Amboró National Park, a place popularly known as Elbow of the Andes because that is where this mountain range changes direction southwards.

Geographical location of Fort Samaipata/Image: Google Maps

Therefore, it constitutes the last Andean mountainous stretch and in its time it was practically the eastern border of the Inca Empire, between the northeastern end of Collasuyu and the southeastern end of Antisuyu (which together with Chinchaysuyu and Constisuyu, formed the four suyos or regions into which this empire was divided, the Tahuantisuyu). However, Fort Samaipata is pre-Inca. It was built by the Chané, a Guaraní people of Arawak ethnicity, who also occupied the western part of Paraguay and the northwestern part of Argentina.

The Spaniards called it chiriguano, a word that was a Spanish adaptation of the derogatory nickname given to them by the Quechuas: chiri wanu, which means something like “cold excrement”, although another version says it would be chiri wañuq (“those who die in the cold”). The case is that the chiriguanos or ava guaraníes were subdivided into three branches and one of them was the chané, whose current representatives claim that ancestry along with the primeval arahuaca (from the northern area of South America, in what are today the Guianas). In Bolivia they are also called izoceños, because they occupy the region of Izozog.

The Tahuantisuyu or Inca Empire/Image: EuroHistory Teacher in Wikimedia Commons

Although their culture was not as advanced as others in the subcontinent, after their migration they became sedentary occupying a territory probably populated before by the mojocoyas, so in addition to hunting and fishing they used farming, developing complex irrigation systems that are still in use today, given the drought that grips that part of Bolivia six months a year. As archeological testimony, there are remains in Valle Abajo, Mairana, Portachuelo, Okinawa, Cotoca, besides Samaipata, featuring good ceramic pieces, cloths, masks, and tools…

It is possible that these mojocoyas did their first work on top of the hill around the 3rd century AD. In any case, archaeologists now consider that the Chané were the main architects of the fort. That, by the way, is not such. It is not a poliorcetic construction -or, at least, not exclusively-, because it also had religious use, something that in pre-Columbian America also implies astronomical observation. In fact, Samaipata is a Quechua etymology name meaning “resting place among the mountains”, which does not seem to be related to a defensive function and probably derives from its difficult access.

A Bolivian chiriguano at the beginning of the 20th century/Image: Nils Erland Herbert v. Nordenskiöld in Wikimedia Commons

Part of the confusion is due to the fact that the later occupants, the Incas, added residential structures (a square, dwellings…) to the ceremonial ones. The Chané were not located in a strategically comfortable geographical site. They were able to maintain diplomatic relations with the Quechuas but would later find themselves between sword and wall, with the Incas on one side and the Guaranis on the other. The first ones established a settlement near Samaipata to stop the second ones, who used to carry out aggressive races.

Now, this obstacle, agreed between the Inca prince Gaucane and the Chané ruler Grigotá, could not resist the Guaraní push, which in an invading wave took possession of the valley, enslaving the Chané but originating a broad interbreeding by marrying their women (curiously, there is talk of mass rape), as would later be done concerning the Spaniards, which actually comes to show that the warlike uses have been very similar everywhere), so that over time that Arawak people was transformed into the chiriguano. It was the one that the Spaniards found in the XVI century cohabiting with new Inca settlements, who had incorporated new structures to Fuerte Samaipata.

The niches of the enclosure/Image: Mhwater in Wikimedia Commons

The Spaniards also added facilities to the site providing the tricultural aspect that it currently presents. However, they left those places to move to a nearby valley because the Guaraní onslaught continued and, in that new place, Captain Pedro Lucio Ecalante y Mendoza founded the city of Samaipata. It was the year 1618 and he did not give it that naming but the City of the Valley of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, which would later be known simply as Castile.

It was the same place where Guanacane had settled with his troops between 1471 and 1493, during the final stage of the Túpac Yupanqui period, the last great imperialist expansion, after convincing Grogotá to become a tributary of Sapa Inca. It was a defensible place as it was at the top of a summit of 1,610 meters of altitude and Sabay Pata, as he himself named it, became the local capital, protected by a series of peripheral bastions, some of which are still preserved (La Fortaleza, Guanacopampa…). The war between the Incas and Guaraníes took place in the second decade of the 16th century and it is not known how it ended; not even if it did, since it was then when Pizarro arrived in Peru, according to the eighteenth-century chronicler Diego Felipe de Alcaya.

Túpac Yupanqui as seen by Huamán Poma de Ayala/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

So what’s in Fort Samaipata? Its 20 hectares are divided into two distinct parts, the ceremonial and the administrative-residential. The first one is located in the northern part of the hill, which has been named -very properly- as Cerro Esculpido (Sculpted Hill). It is 220 metres long and 60 metres wide and is formed by a large rocky outcrop of sandstone carved with geometric and faunal motifs, in addition to niches, canals and other carvings, making it the largest petroglyph in the world.

The highest point, called the Choir of Priests, consists of 18 niches excavated in the stone that were probably seats (hence the name) and beyond there are 21 other rectangular whose use is uncertain, speculating that they would be warehouses for objects used in the rites. The second part, located on the south side of the hill, is made up of various structures, the most outstanding of which is a square with a trapezoidal plan measuring some 100 x 100 metres and bordered by buildings.

Another view of the enclosure/Imagen: Marek Grote in Wikimedia Commons

One of them is the Kallanka, common in Inca cities, which was used for public meetings, parties and events of massive attendance, hence its considerable dimensions (70 meters long by 16 wide), although it remained unfinished at the end. Another important building is the Acllahuasi, a kind of monastery (or so the Spaniards saw it) where the acllas or Virgins of the Sun were gathered, young people of ancestry from the whole region, with several possible purposes: to work for the state elaborating clothes or chicha, to marry warriors and nobles or to be sacrificed.

In this area are also the Colonial House, from the Spanish era and Andalusian style (with a central courtyard) and several Inca structures, which is why this forum is called the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. A little away from the hill is a corner called kancha, composed of several small individualized pavilions with perimeter walls. Excessive visitor flow and erosion have deteriorated many of these sites, forcing Stonewatch, the non-profit organization that manages them, to close them off. After all, Fort Samaipata is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Map of the archaeological site/Image:

Sources: Samaipata: Bolivia’s Megalithic Mountain (Brien Foerster) / El sitio ceremonial y administrativo de El Fuerte de Samaipata (Richard Alcázar de la Fuente en Academia.Edu)/Los Chané-Chiriguano (Arawak y Guaraní) (Manuel Rocca y Jusn José Rossi)/Al este de los Andes. Relaciones entre las sociedades amazónicas y andinas entre los siglos XV y XVII (F.M Renard Casevitz, T.H. Saignes y A.C. Taylor)/UNESCO/Wikipedia