Tiwanaku - Pre-Inca Metropolis

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Tiwanaku - or Tiahuanaco, as it is called in Spanish - was once a city state and capital of a large pre-Inca empire located in modern Peru and northern Bolivia. The remains of the city itself can be found in Bolivia, close to the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, about 70km west of La Paz, at an altitude of 3,850m. The site is today about 10 km away from the lake, but the water level changes constantly, so this does not necessarily reflect the situation when the city was built or inhabited. Today Tiwanaku's remains are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The culture at Tiwanaku is different from that found in other places of the Americas. The highest peak of its civilisation was reached between 500 and 900 AD.


The first settlements at the location of Tiwanaku were built around 1500 BC by a society of farmers and fishers who lived in clay houses - although there are some daring theories which state the site is in fact 15,000 years old or was built by extra-terrestrials. In the 1st Century BC village grew very fast to become a small town. The cause for this may be advanced technologies in copper smithing and complicated irrigation systems which brought water from the lake to the fields. This allowed the production of better tools and larger crops. The remains of the water channels which have been built can still be found today. Another important economic factor was the trade with alpaca wool, which brought wealth to the upper class of Tiwanaku. It seems like the political system was quite similar to that of the Inca, with all goods being collected in communal storehouses and being redestributed to all people by the upper class.

Because of their wealth the city could afford public buildings made of stone as well as paved streets. These streets linked the city with other settlements in the region which was ruled by Tiwanaku. Many villages were founded by the people of Tiwanaku themselves. At its height in the 8th Century, Tiwanaku was the hub of a powerful, independent nation-state in the South-Central Andes, the inhabitants of which lived of herding, fishing, and advanced terraced-farming techniques, using raised fields surrounded by water channels. The water brought not only moisture to the dry ground, but also protected the crops from frost during the cold nights. This way almost 10 times the amount of crops could be harvested than with usual farming techniques and the remains of these fields can still be found today. Some newly built 'Sukakollos', as they are called, can be found a few hundred meters north of the historic site of Tiwanaku. One estimate of the population for the entire Tiwanaku state places approximately 115,000 people in and around the city, with an additional 250,000 in the neighboring countryside. The city itself had a diameter of 6-8 km.

With a complex social, political, and religious system, the Tiwanaku nation was a significant power in the region until its mysterious and sudden decline in the 12th Century and the unexplained abandonment of the city itself. Its decline left a power vacuum in the area that was only briefly filled by the Inca kingdom, and still exists today. Their legacy lives on today in some of the hundreds of thousands of Aymara Indians living in the Bolivian and Peruvian altiplano1. The remnants of their culture and religion will most likely persist in the Andean cultural consciousness for hundreds of years to come.

Today's site

While the simple clay houses of the population of Tiwanaku did not survive the Centuries and are mostly covered by a modern village, the ceremonial district is today a protected area. It was in use until the late era of the Inca, who recognized Tiwanaku as the birth place of their forefathers. According to their legends the god Viracocha rose from the lake at this place to create sun, moon, the stars and mankind. This leads many to the conclusion that Tiwanaku was the birthplace of the Inca culture.

All structures that are visible today have been built on an east-west axis. All buildings show a high degree of craftmanship. In contrast to the Inca the people of Tiwanaku used rectangular stones which, although not being all of the same size, have common horizontal seams. The whole area was once surrounded by a moat. Unfortunately much of the site has been damaged by looters or because people of later Centuries used the stones for different purposes, like building the local church. The first detailed studies of the site were made in the 19th Century. Next to the ceremonial buildings, excavations revealed many items of everyday life. There is especially a wide variety of painted pottery in many different shapes like animals and humans.

Next to the main archeological site there are two modern museums. One is dedicated mainly to the pottery found in Tiwanaku while the other shows some of the impressive stonemasonry. Another museum with a large collection of items from the site is located in La Paz.


In the south of today's main site is what appears to be an artificial hill approximately fifty feet high. It is known as the Akapana pyramid, and has once been a T-shaped stepped pyramid made of a pile of soil and stones which was clad in stone. It was once about 18 meters high. The steps and stone cladding are still visible on its north western side. The shape is only vaguely recognizeable anymore today, as it has been badly damaged by looters and erosion. Long staircases led up to the top at the eastern and western side. At the summit of the Akapana, on it's 7th platform, is an oval shaped depression which was once a sunken courtyard. There was also once a temple boilding at the top of the pyramid. It seems like the Akapana pyramid was a place where human sacrifices took place.

Inside of the Akapana there is a system of stone pipes through which it seems water could flow like in a plumbing system. The pipes have been carved out of the rock with great craftmanship, all pieces fit perfectly together. Speculation as to the purpose the piping systems, however, is completely unsubstantiated. What exactly the pipes were for is a subject of debate. Speculations range from drainage to ceremonial purposes.

The semi-subterranean temple

To the north of the Akapana, is a smaller structure not unlike a swimming pool which is carved into the earth; six feet deep, with a flight of stairs let into the southern wall and is therefore the only building with a north-south axis. The so-called semi-subterranean temple is open to the sky. Its rectangular walls are shaped by 48 stone pillars which reach above the surface of the surrounding ground. Between the pillars walls of rectangular stones reach up to the surface. many of these stones do not have a flat front side but instead have the shape of a head which reaches out of the wall and into the temple. Each of them seems to have a different size, shape and facial expression. In the center of the temple there are three rectangular stone pillars of different hights with carvings on their sides.


To the west of the semi-subterranean temple a wide staircase goes up to the platform of the Kalasasaya (in the Aymara language, 'The Place of the Upright Standing Stones'), which is defined by a low wall composed of small rectangular blocks punctuated by large monolithic pillars. Unfortunately this appearance is certainly not what it looked like when it was still in use, but is a 'reconstruction' from the 1960s. Originally it seems like there were only standing stones forming a rectangular boundary along the platform, with their bases being part of the foundations of the platform. There were no walls between the standing stones above the surface of the platform. On top of the stairs stands a large doorway, made of three big stones. It leads to a rectangular area on the platform, which is enclosed on three sides by a wall. Visible through the doorway from the bottom of the stairs is a larger than life statue of human appearance, another statue can be found further to the back of the platform. The whole Kalasasaya is almost square about 130 meters long and 120 meters wide.

In the northwest corner of the enclosure stands the most famous structure of Tiwanaku, the Gateway of the Sun. It is a large portal carved from a single block of andesite stone which is covered in carvings. In the middle of the gate, at its highest point is the carving of a large human figure whose head is surrounded by what looks like sun's rays or he may wear an elaborate hat. In each hand he holds a staff. Some identify this figure as the god Viracocha. He is surrounded by 48 smaller figures, 24 on each side. All of them seem to have wings and hold a staff. 16 of the figures even have the heads of birds. These smaller figures all kneel to the central character. The gateway is positioned in a way so that on the summer solstice, the rising sun shines through the gateway, although it is unclear if the gate has always stood on the current position. Speculation has described them as a record of events in the distant past, as the personification of natural forces and as an astronomically devised calendar for marking important agricultural dates throughout the year. Below these figures is another frieze of ornaments and figures. At both sides of the doorway and at the back are rectangular niches.

West of the Kalasasaya there are two smaller rectangular structures at ground level, the Putuni and the Kerikala. To the north west stands another large stone gate, the so-called Gateway of the Moon. It is smaller than the Gate of the Sun and doesn't show so many decorations. On the whole site statues, carved stones and other objects have been found. Many of them can be seen in the museum.

Puma Punku

A few hundred meters to the south-west of the main structures at the Tiwanaku site lies Puma Punku ('Gate of the Puma'). It is another larged stepped pyramid, built in the fashion of the area, as a mound of cobbles and sand which has been clad in stone. The Puma Punku is over 160 meters wide and 110 meters long and has three steps. There are different epochs of construction, the oldest from the 6th Century AD. Unsurprisingly, surveys have shown that the area between Tiwanaku and Puma Pumku shows traces of man-made structures too.

At the top of the Puma Punku there is an additional platform made up of stone slabs of enormous proportions. The largest of them was calculated to weight over 130 tons, which is even more impressive when considering that the quaries from where the stones were brought are many kilometers away. Just like at the main archeological site, the hewn stones found at Puma Pumku show a very high degeee of craftmanship. Many of the blocks were connected with metal cramps which should hold them together.

Visiting Tiwanaku

Buses and taxis bring visitors from La Paz to Tiwanaku, a way that takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. There are also guided tours which can be booked at La Paz. Tourism has brought some money to the village of Tihuanaco which could be partly invested in the infrastructure. Today there is for instance a small hotel next to the historic site and tourists find places to eat and drink as well as souvenirs sold by the locals.

Visitors can see both, the main site of Tiwanaku and the Puma Punku. And there are of course also the museums. Unfortunately the site is sometimes described as badly managed and lacking information, so it is definitely a good idea to get informed about the site before you get there or book a good guide. More information than in the local museums can probably be found in the museum in La Paz.

If you are interested in history and archeology Tiwanaku is certainly a destination you should not miss, when visiting Bolivia or Peru. Unfortunately much of the site is still buried under the ground and waiting for excavations, but it seems like there is no money available for this at the moment.

1The altiplano is the high plateau of the Andes.

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