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Tiwanaku: Bolivia’s City of Mystery

April 17th, 2010

tiwanaku-bolivia.jpgThe ancient city of Tiwanaku (also spelled Tiajuanaco), located near Lake Titicaca in western Bolivia, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Americas. It was the center of an empire which predated that of the Inca, dominating the cultural and political life of the region, and at its height was home to some 20,000 inhabitants. Today the ruins of Tiwanaku are a magnet for travelers from all over the world, and a source of endless mystery and speculation.

Tiwanaku started as a small farming village, possibly as early as 1500 B.C. The basin of Lake Titicaca is the most productive agricultural area in the region, enjoying abundant rainfall, and Tiwanaku’s position with the lake on one side and the highlands on the other allowed it access to game, fish, food plants, and herding grounds for livestock. The ancient residents used extensive systems of irrigation canals, terraces, and other landscape management techniques to make maximum use of the land available to them.

Archaeology indicates that the Tiwanaku culture underwent a period of growth around 400 A.D., expanding into Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. This expansion was non-violent in many cases, for Tiwanaku used politics and trade to extend their influence rather than violent conquest. The advantages of being in the empire must have been obvious, and many of the neighboring peoples probably accepted the influence of Tiwanaku willingly. Besides being an economic power, Tiwanaku was also a religious center, and this probably gave them an additional tool to unite the region and bring it under their influence.

Due to this combination of factors, Tiwanaku grew into a major urban center between 600 and 800 A.D. By 700 A.D., there were sites far away in the Osmore Valley that have been excavated today, and found to contain almost exclusively Tiwanaku-style artifacts. It is not known whether this means that the Tiwanaku people had actually moved into that area, or that the local residents simply adopted their styles. In either case, the fact that Tiwanaku culture appears so far from home attests to the pervasiveness of the city’s influence in the region.

At its height, the culture of Tiwanaku simply became the only culture in this part of South America, and one can’t help but speculate that this was due to popularity rather than force. When one culture conquers another by force, it can impose its language, religion, and government on the conquered; however, when people start using ordinary household and decorative items in the conquerors’ style, we must wonder if they are doing it simply because they want to. Though it is dangerous to speculate about things that do not leave direct archaeological evidence, it appears that Tiwanaku had become “cool.”

In the end, variable climate was probably the cause of Tiwanaku’s decline. There is archaeological evidence of a prolonged drought around 1000 A.D., and by about 1100, Tiwanaku had ceased to be an imperial power. The collapse of great civilizations is never a simple matter, and there were probably other factors involved as well, such as internal rebellion and foreign invasion.

The cultural influence of Tiwanaku continued after the empire’s collapse. The Inca people, who came to power later, marveled at the ruins of the city, and were inspired by its architectural style and agricultural techniques. The Incas’ elaborate system of farming terraces and irrigation canals were directly influenced by those of Tiwanaku.

Today, the origins of the Tiwanaku culture are a source of mystery and fascination. The city’s sudden rise to prominence, its sophisticated culture and technological development have fueled speculation about ancient astronauts, a theory that has been strengthened by the unusual sculpture to be found at the site. (Some of the anthropomorphic figures seem to be wearing helmets and goggles — but of course, this opinion is controversial.) As to the truth or falseness of these theories, each person must decide for themselves. However, it cannot be denied that the architecture and sculpture that still exists at the site are striking and unusual.

Since the people of Tiwanaku did not have a written language, they left no records for us to read. We do not even know what they called their city; “Tiwanaku” is the name the Incas gave it. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the culture and language were utterly forgotten, gone forever. The sad fact is that this is a truly lost civilization, one of history’s mysteries that will never be solved.


Hayes, Holly: “Tiwanaku” at Sacred Destinations.com: sacred-destinations.com/bolivia/tiwanaku

Tiwanaku Wikipedia entry: wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiwanaku#Rise_and_fall_of_Tiwanaku

History of Tiwanaku Timeline at Google.com: Search results page for the query “history of tiwanaku”

Tiwanaku entry at Crystalinks.com: crystalinks.com/tiahuanaco.html

This article was supplied by G. B. Partain from Constant Content.

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