The ancient pre-Columbian city of Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) lies to the south of Lake Titicaca at an altitude of about 4,000 metres. It is believed to have been an important ceremonial centre for the worship of gods and cults and also an astronomical observatory. Most structures were probably built around 200 AD and the complex remained in use for 1,500 years. Very little is known about the people who built it although research is on-going. Tiwanaku is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites
The religious section was built around 300 AD and remains include temples, sunken squares, walled holy places and gates such as the Sun Gate and the Moon Gate. From about 500 AD the site expanded into a wealthy city with as many as 20 to 50 thousand inhabitants. It was the capital of an empire which exercised great influence over much of the Andes until 1,000 AD. At its height, the empire stretched over an area the size of present-day Southern Peru, Northern Chile, a large part of Bolivia and part of Northern Argentina.
The centre, with its many structures, had a ceremonial function. The people lived in the surrounding residential areas in houses built of clay, adobe and river gravel.
Contrary to expectations, what archaeologists have not found here are storehouses and administrative buildings. But only a small part of the site has so far been excavated so who knows what still lies to be discovered.
One of the most important buildings is a sort of pyramid consisting of seven platforms. This was previously thought to have been a natural hill but excavations have revealed that the 200 metre long and 17 metres high mound is man-made. The terraces are made of earth, clay and stones and were originally covered with projecting stones.
Another striking structure is the Akapana, which means an artificial height. On the top is a sunken courtyard paved with stone called andesite. Around it are various buildings which were perhaps intended for use by temple priests. Close to the Akapana are numerous other ruins of large structures such as the Kalasasaya, which is similar to megalithic structures found in prehistoric Europe. This building consists of a rectangular platform measuring 119 by 128 metres surrounded by trapezium-shaped flat stones reminiscent of menhirs.
On the northwest corner of the Kalasasaya stands one of the best known monuments of Tiwanaku, the Sun Gate. This massive structure weighs 10 tons and is famous for its images of demons or mythical creatures. As well as the Sun Gate, the complex also has a Moon Gate.
Other monolithic sculptures have also been found in Tiwanaku which bear the same images as those on the Sun Gate. One of these, which was later removed and placed on the main square in the capital La Paz, is the Bennet stele. With a height of 7.5 metres, this is one of the largest stone sculptures in the Andes and was probably intended to honour a local dignitary or high priest.
There are two other similar stele, named El Fraile and El Ponce which resemble the Bennet stele, with massive pillars bearing rough engravings of human figures. It is thought that they perhaps portray princes.
At some later time the people of Tiwanaku had contact with the Inca’s. They had great respect for the craftsmanship of the Tiwanaku carvers and craftsmen were brought to the Inca court so that they could pass on their traditions and skill to the Inca’s.
It seems likely that local climate change around the year 1000 AD caused a period of drought which lasted some 80 years. This lack of water contributed to the collapse of the civilisation, and there are also signs of violence and human sacrifices during the last phase. Of all highly developed civilisations in antiquity, this is the one about which the least is known. Much about the complex remains uncertain and much more research will be necessary.
What surprised the Spaniards most when they discovered the ruins of Tiwanaku were the enormous blocks of sandstone and basalt from which the monuments were made, and the technical perfection with which they had been carved and decorated.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey