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The center of a large pre-Columbian empire located in modern Peru and northern Bolivia, the accepted date for the original construction of the city of Tiahuanaco (or “Tiwanaku”, in the local Aymara language) is in the general vicinity of 200 B.C., at the beginning of the Early Intermediate period.

The City

The city of Tiahuanaco is located near the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, in northwestern Bolivia. At the center of the site is the Kalasasaya (in the Aymara language, “The Place of the Upright Standing Stones”), a large ceremonial enclosure defined by a low wall composed of small trapezoidal blocks punctuated by large monolithic pillars approximately twelve feet high.

In the northwest corner of the enclosure is the Gateway of the Sun, a large portal carved from a single block of andesite. It is aligned so that on the summer solstice, the rising sun shines through the gateway, which is covered with carvings of a god known only to modern archaeologists as “The Gateway God”. Other carvings on the portal have unclear functions, although theories are far-reaching; speculation has described them both as a record of events in the distant past and as an astronomically devised calendar for marking important agricultural dates throughout the year.

To the east of the Kalasasaya, a structure not unlike a swimming pool is carved into the earth; six feet deep, with a flight of stairs let into the southern wall, the semi-subterranean temple is open to the sky, and its rectangular walls are lined with sculptures of human heads that protrude out into the space of the temple. In the center of the temple is a stone pillar with a relief of Viracocha, a major Andean god, carved into its surface.

South of both of these structures is an artificial hill approximately fifty feet high. It is known as the Akapana pyramid, and at its summit is an oval shaped depression which drains into a series of complex and highly refined plumbing systems. The degree of craftsmanship with which this piping has been carved out of the rock suggests a purpose beyond mere ceremony; with tolerances of under one fiftieth of an inch, the systems inside the pyramid seem to fit the specifications of a machine of some kind. Speculation as to the purpose the piping systems, however, is far-ranging, and, as of this writing, completely unsubstantiated.

To the south of the main structures at the Tiahuanaco site lies Puma Pumku, a new excavation. As of this writing only the upper dimensions of the building have emerged, and the dig is progressing very slowly due to insufficient funding.

The Nation

At its height, Tiahuanaco was the hub of a powerful, independent nation-state in the South-Central Andes, the inhabitants of which survived through herding, fishing, and advanced terraced-farming techniques. One estimate of the population for the entire Tiahuanaco state places approximately 115,000 people in and around the city, with an additional 250,000 in the neighboring countryside.

With a complex social, political, and religious system, the Tiahuanaco nation was a significant power in the region until its mysterious and sudden decline—and the unexplained abandonment of the city itself—in the years before the Inca conquest of the region. Its decline left a power vacuum in the area that was only briefly filled by the Inca kingdom, and still exists today. Since the downfall of the Tiahuanaco and Inca states, the inhabitants of the region have lived in a state of poverty unparalleled anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

The Tiahuanaco nation vanished before the Inca conquest, and long before the Spaniards arrived, and although their culture disappeared completely by A.D. 1200, their legacy lives on today in the hundreds of thousands of Aymara Indians living in the Bolivian and Peruvian altiplano. The remnants of their culture and religion will most likely persist in the Andean cultural consciousness for hundreds of years to come.

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