Lake Titicaca has been the home of countless civilizations and the Tiwanaku civilization was among them. The Tiwanaku and one other (notably the Wari society) were the major powers in the region at around 500-1100CE, quite a bit before the advent of the Incas.
The historical site of Tiwanaku or Tiahuanaco as it is sometimes called is the unproclaimed capital of the civilization and lies a surprising 4000 meters above sea level. This makes it one of the highest cities ever constructed.
It joined UNESCO’s World Heritage sites in the year 2000 for its profound impact on the understanding of one of the most important pre-Inca Andean races.
Putting A Date On Tiahuanaco
The city itself is dated around 500AD to 1000AD with an allowance of fifty years or so for construction and designing. Gradually it grew with the needs of the population and eventually, it covered an area no less than six square kilometers.
At its peak, it has been estimated that it was home to 10,000 people if not more but the entirety of the city was never fully excavated. This was in part to preserve the site and to not add additional strain on the structures that were discovered.
Andean civilizations are known for not having writing systems, making it difficult for historians to get an accurate account of the beliefs and ideologies that governed them. Tiwanaku people were no different, and they were followed by the Incas who also didn’t write apart from a string knotting technique that is assumed to hold some secrets.
The remains of the Tiahuanaco city offer one unmistakable truth, their political and in many ways social influence was unparalleled at their prime. That influence was outstretched not just in Peru but also in Chile, Argentina and present-day Bolivia.
Even without writing the Tiwanaku have been pegged as the ancestors of the Inca people due to their knowledge of sound architecture, their developed religion, and mythology as well as exceptional grasp over the land and livelihood it could provide.
How The City Came Into Being
History says that Lake Titicaca was central to many civilizations due to its location and beautiful, clean water but also due to the fact that it was vital to religious beliefs. Permanent settlements can be dated to about 4000 years ago.
The Tiwanaku people had by that time learned how to domesticate camelids, alpacas, and llamas to be used for goods transport and these animals were also used for meat. The city was in an ideal location especially when the cultivation of certain subsistence crops is concerned.
The people were growing tubers, quinoa and corn and the weather and rainfall cycles around Lake Titicaca proved optimal.
Before long the Tiwanaku locals were raising the ground into singular mounds spread across the landscape. This is a basic cropping technique by today’s standards but back then it was nothing short of revolutionary because it more than doubled the yield. The mounds allowed for the water to adequately reach the crop without needing as much effort.
All in all the location of the city was not just due to environmental factors but also since Lake Titicaca was the center point of political and social activity. For the civilization in question, the proximity to the lake also mattered for many of their ritualistic cult practices.
While it is a well-known fact that most of the city actually lies undiscovered and undisturbed, the parts that have been excavated point towards a vibrant life for its inhabitants.
The large population meant that there were various housing structures; the ones that can be seen today have large walls for separation. Most of the compounds in one way or another open up to a communal space like the city’s amphitheater where gathering, rituals, and ceremonies were carried out.
Despite the fact that this city predated the Incas considerably, the structures are almost modern with attached kitchens and places for storing food, tools, and materials.
Main Religious Structures
The Sunken Temple is a must-see site when visiting Tiahuanaco and at any rate, you can’t miss it with its characteristic staircase. The center of the temple has various stone figures and they are believed to be ancestors of the Tiwanaku or divine beings worthy of worship.
The walls are also a sight to behold with the faces carved into them, also assumed to be pictorial representations of important priests or ancestors.
This theory is strengthened by the fact that most of the carvings depict a dead person or a skinless skull while some appear to be screaming in anguish. The temple is laid out in an impressive square design averaging 26 meters in each side.
Next to the Sunken Temple is a complex called Kalasasaya which is little more than a raised platform. The platform was found to have been built on top of a pre-existing house or residential quarter. Historians believe the complex’s chief purpose was to house priests or shamans in close proximity to the temple and that an older building had to be torn down for that.
Akapana is the name given to a structure closely resembling a pyramid. The structure towers over the others at 54 feet and is about 200 to 250 meters at the base. The pyramid has no less than 6 terraces which have made it easy for experts to determine its purpose.
The Akapana was a political focal point for the entire city and important decisions were carried out by the rulers and religious elders here. Remains of 21 people were also found during the initial excavation. Judging by the indentations on their skulls and other parts of their body, they had been beaten to death and then cut by an ax.
It was likely these were traitors or enemies from amongst nearby settlements who may have been brought to this pyramid to answer for their crimes.
There is some speculation that the pyramid sits on top of a tomb which is a symbol of power, as the rulers would have been able to sit above the remains of rebels or traitors.
A city which had thrived for decades if not centuries was abandoned by the Tiwanaku around 1000AD. There are several theories which seek to explain the impending decline of the civilization. It was around this time that the Wari civilization also had a downfall.
Environmental changes such as the land becoming infertile resulting in famine along with the severe shortage of water which prompted a drought are held responsible.
Although the people stopped living in the city, it was still visited every now and then for religious purposes but there are indications this wasn’t for long.
The city saw a short revival as it continued in its relevance as a religious center for the region. The Incas definitely drew inspiration from it and used it in part for their mythology involving the creation of all humankind.
Inca structures are also found nearby later on in the timeline so they did develop an affinity for the architectural values of the city of Tiahuanaco.
Many aspects of pre-historic Tiwanaku life are still used today such as the dirt mounds system of planting crops. Furthermore, the modern day Aymara speaking Indians in the Andean regions are widely believed to be descendants of this civilization.