Lost Cities of the Americas (6 of 7)
Location: Lake Titicaca, Bolivia
Date of Construction: c 200 C.E.
Abandoned: c 1000 C.E.
Built By: Tiwanaku Civilization (Aymara?)
Key Features: Gateway of the Sun; Akapana Pyramid; Semi-Subterranean Temple; Kalasasaya Temple; Sophisticated Dry-Stone Masonry; Monoliths and Stelae; Suka Kollus Raised Fields
Long before the mighty Inca spread their tentacles over much of western South America, a civilization based at Tiwanaku on the high plains of Bolivia, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, had a profound impact on the Andes region.
Tiwanaku left a template of advanced high-altitude agriculture, accomplished masonry, sophisticated astronomy and mysterious religion that the later empire would build upon and seek to co-opt.
Tiwanaku is the name given by the local Aymara people to the monumental ruins about 9 miles from the southeastern shore of Lake Titicaca, about 44 miles west of La Paz in Bolivia.
In Spanish, the ruined city and the modern town that has developed at the site are known as Tiahuanaco. What its builders called it is not known.
From around 200 CE to around 1000, Tiwanaku was the center of a major civilization, possibly an empire, which spread its influence across a broad swathe of the Andean region, as far as southern Peru, northern Chile and even Argentina.
They left impressive monuments of stone and earth, including pyramids, temples, colossal statues and stelae. At 12,631 feet above sea level, it may have been the highest capital city in history.
In recent decades it has become a major national and international tourist attraction, its monuments symbols of Bolivian national identity, but the site faces increasingly challenging issues.
Challenges of the Altiplano
The high plateau between the western and eastern ranges of the Andes is known as the Altiplano. After the Himalayan plateau it is the highest plain on Earth and Lake Titicaca, formed because several rivers drain into the plateau and have no access to the sea, and is the highest navigable lake on the planet.
As the environment for a major civilization it appears even less promising than the Maya lands. There is a harsh dry season and in the wet season rains can be torrential. The lakes are very shallow and fluctuate wildly in size with seasonal floods.
Temperatures vary greatly both diurnally and annually, and the high altitude and thin air exacerbate all these issues. Only a limited range of crops can be grown and yields may be very low.
Straightforward traditional potato agriculture in the region yields just 2.4 tons per hectare, and even modern mechanized; petro-agriculture yields only 14.5 tons per hectare.
The ancient people of Tiwanaku developed a number of highly successful solutions to these challenges. Slopes were terraced so that they could be farmed without fields being washed away. Networks of canals irrigated areas that would otherwise be too dry.
Animal husbandry developed large herds of camelids such as llamas and alpacas, with guinea pigs reared inside homes to provide extra sources of protein. But the crucial development was raised field agriculture, known as suka koltus by the Aymara.
In areas with rich soil but that are normally susceptible to flooding, small fields are raised above the level of the plain using soil dug from canals that run between them.
The water in the canals acts as a heat buffer, absorbing heat from the sun during the day and then slowly releasing it overnight to create a microclimate for the fields, protecting them from otherwise deadly frost.
Edible fish are also raised in the canals and the sludge from fish droppings and decaying vegetation is dredged out and used to fertilize the fields along with camelid dung.
This intensive form of agriculture allowed the Tiwanaku to grow crops that would not otherwise be viable, at yields of up to 21 tons per hectare according to modern experimental reconstructions.
The fish offered an extra source of protein. Similar canal schemes were adopted for hillside terraces, with canals running along each terrace, collecting in pools and cascading down to the next terrace, irrigating the fields while controlling erosion and allowing aquaculture.
Thanks to these advances the population in the Tiwanaku region flourished. Estimates reach as high as 1.4 million, with up to 60,000 thought to have lived within the 6 square 214 square miles of central Tiwanaku and another 50,000+ in satellite settlements.
City of Stone
The site of Tiwanaku was settled by 400 B.C., but its rise to glory really begins in around 200 CE. It became the dominant city of the Altiplano from around 500 CE until its collapse in around 1000 CE, although it probably reached its zenith around 750.
During this time the Tiwanaku constructed a number of impressive stone monuments, including several huge artificial hills/pyramids. To construct these monuments they practiced the most sophisticated dry-stone masonry yet discovered, of an even higher quality than that of the Inca.
Large stones were shaped to fit together so perfectly that a razor blade cannot be inserted between them. Irregular stones rather than square ones were used, probably to make the masonry more earthquake proof, and in some places l-shaped copper bars were used to fasten the stones together for added protection.
Many blocks were decorated with carvings, including faces and giant figures, while other monoliths and stelae have earned the site the nickname of “the Stonehenge of the New World’”
The greatest structure at Tiwanaku was the Akapana, a 55 feet high terraced hill with a 656-square feet base. At the summit a 164 square feet sunken court with the marks of rectangular rooms may have hosted elite residents or been a temple.
Burials of human remains, ritual objects and offerings have been found. A number of other temples are associated with the Akapana, most notably the Semi-subterranean and the Kalasasaya.
The former is a sunken court with low walls studded with carved human heads. In the center, surrounded by smaller stelae, is a massive stela known as the Bennett Monolith, after an archaeologist who did pioneering work at the site.
Unfortunately, this temple bears testament to one of the main issues bedeviling archaeological research at the site, which is that it has been clumsily and probably inaccurately reconstructed, for ideological reasons.
The Kalasasaya is a 426 feet long platform constructed from sandstone blocks alternating with tall, upright stones, although again this may not be how it originally looked. In a sunken court on the eastern side is a massive stone statue, known as the Ponce Monolith (after another archaeologist).
Exciting recent work at this temple adds weight to the Stonehenge-like identification of the site, because it seems that the Kalasasaya served as a remarkably accurate, self-correcting solar/astronomical calendar.
Subsurface radar has revealed a deep shaft at the site where the observer in this monumental observatory would have stood, so more revelations could be forthcoming.
Next to the temples were buildings that may have been residences for the elite, while underneath a patio in this part of the city, archaeologists have discovered the remains of several seated individuals, facing a man with a puma-decorated sacred pottery vessel.
Many of the other carvings show figures holding keros – ceremonial goblets that were used to serve chicha, or corn beer.
Also in this part of the city is Tiwanaku’s most famous monument, the Gateway of the Sun, which resembles a Stonehenge-like trilithon, but is actually carved from a single, enormous piece of stone that must have been hauled to the site from over 24 miles away.
The figure carved on the gateway is known as the Staff God, and although the Inca claimed it was their progenitor god Viracocha, it is not known who he really was or what he is holding. Even this titanic monument has been moved from its original position during reconstruction work.
The common people probably lived in residences around this central complex. The picture is unclear, but some archaeologists think that neighborhoods may have been specialized by craft or other occupation.
The majority of common people probably lived in small compounds of a few single-room buildings, made from adobe bricks on stone foundations, with reed bundle roofs, surrounded by low walls. Several of these basic family unit compounds were sometimes gathered together in a “super-compound”.
Each compound was fed by a small canal and may have also been specialized for specific crafts or functions.
Empire or Ceremonial Center?
Distinctive Tiwanaku pottery styles have been found across a broad area of the Andean region and there is little doubt that its iconography and ideology had a profound impact on the region, with elements informing cultures up to the Inca.
But there is less agreement on the nature of this Tiwanaku hegemony and there is an ongoing debate about whether Tiwanaku was an empire, controlling and extracting resources from a wide area; an “archipelago” of colonies, some set up specifically to access fertile areas or exploit local resources; a trading state with strong penetration of its commodities into its markets or a ceremonial/cultural/pilgrimage center with no real power over other areas.
There is some evidence that it was more of a loose federation of smaller states called ayllus, rather than a monolithic empire.
The Death and Afterlife of Tiwanaku
The youngest carbon dates from the site are from around 950 C.E., although many authorities give the date of its collapse as late as 1100 CE. The reasons for its decline remain a mystery, but it is strongly suspected that a major drought may have been responsible.
Even before the end, the evidence is that from around 800 CE most new building in the area involved smaller rural settlements, and that after the main city was mostly abandoned there was continued settlement in the area in small rural villages, in a return to a pre-urban lifestyle.
But the story of Tiwanaku does not end there. When the Inca came upon the site in the course of their expansion and empire-building, they quickly co-opted it for ideological purposes.
Its ancient ruins, clearly predating their own origins, challenged their propaganda, which predicated their right to rule on their “most ancient” status. To overcome this they simply claimed the site as a legendary Inca homeland, identifying the Staff God on the Gateway of the Sun as their own creator deity Viracocha, and weaving Tiwanaku into their myths.
Four hundred years after the downfall of the Incas at the hands of the conquistadors, Tiwanaku again found itself co-opted as an ideological tool.
This time it was by the Bolivian government, smarting from a damaging war with its neighbor Paraguay, and seeking a national identity to rival that of the Peruvians, who had the Inca.
Accordingly the government settled on Tiwanaku, commissioning a clumsy reconstruction of its monuments and carting coachloads of schoolchildren to marvel at their national icons.
Even today archaeologists studying the site have to negotiate the politics surrounding it, while at the same time racing against time to preserve the ruins from uncontrolled development and exploitation that has already done considerable damage and threatens their long-term survival.
Tiwanaku and Atlantis
Perhaps inevitably, for a megalithic site with no written records, Tiwanaku has attracted many fringe theories linking it with Atlantis or an equivalent prehistoric super-civilization.
One suggestion is that the complex is shaped like a port, and must once have been at sea level (before rapid continental uplift). This is linked to claims that the site actually dates back to the end of the last Ice Age.
Evidence for the advanced nature of its constructors is adduced from their skill at monumental masonry and transporting huge blocks of stone, while Atlantologists point to correspondences between the stories of Atlantis on the one hand, and flood myths of the Aymara and local legends of Viracocha, the culture hero from the East, on the other.
These people had their gods, astrology, and even their beer. So speaking about God and beer, tomorrow we’ll come back to the present and look at…
The Problem with Unsound Doctrine
1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Savior, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope;
2 Unto Timothy, my own son in the faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father and Jesus Christ our Lord.
3 As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine,
1:3-11 – in this section, along with 4:1-8; 6:3-5, 20-21, Paul warns against heretical teachers in the Ephesian Church. They are characterized by:
(1) teaching false doctrines (1:3, 6:3);
(2) teaching Jewish myths (Tit 1:14);
(3) wanting to be teachers of the Old Testament law (1:7);
(4) building up endless, farfetched, fictitious stories based on obscure genealogical points (1:4, 4:7; Tit 3:9);
(5) being conceited (1:7, 6:4);
(6) being argumentative (1:4, 6:4; 2 Tim 2:23; Tit 3:9);
(7) using talk that was meaningless (1:6) and foolish (2 Tim 2:23; Tit 3:9);
(8) not knowing what they were talking about (1:7; 6:4);
(9) teaching ascetic practices (4:3);
(10) using their positions of religious leadership for personal financial gain (6:5).