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Land of winds > The land > History | Issue 02. Sep.-Oct.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza


History Tiwanaku
The impressive archaeological site known as Tiwanaku (Spanish, Tiahuanaco), located some 72km (44miles) west of La Paz, Bolivia, is recognized by scholars as the ruins of the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power that would have flourished between the year 300 and the year 1000 of our era. The ruins are famous for their monumental and megalithic architecture as well as for their stelas. However, Tiwanaku was not the only urban settlement in the region at that time: it is believed that the remains discovered in Khonkho Wankane, Pajchiri, Lukurmata and Ojje (Bolivia) would also be the ruins of several Tiwanaku-state settlements.
Tiwanaku was one of the most important social, political and religious structures developed in the Bolivian altiplano. Its economy would have been based on the breeding and rearing of Andean camelids (especially llamas), the growing of vegetables able to withstand the extreme climate of the region, Lake Titicaca’s fish and handmade metal, textile and earthenware clay crafts. Other needs would have been met by trading with nearby or far away towns: trading routes can be currently figured out thanks to the traces left on pottery and other elements found in the southern Andes.
They made good use of rain water by intelligently building an excellent network of ponds and channels and developed farming techniques, some of which are still in use (like terraces and suka kollus or “high fields”), which enabled them to multiply their crops. Their ingenious building work and architectural planning allowed them to raise walls with megalithic stone blocks perfectly fitted together without mortar. It is also worth mentioning their astoundingly detailed pottery and the range of work found in the very few textiles that have survived through the centuries.
The mummified corpses and human skeletal remains found clearly point to the fact that intentional cranial deformation was commonly practised in their society (probably to facilitate tribal identity or as a sign of beauty), and they also were familiar with the practice of boring a hole in the skull, known as trepanation. Pieces of cloth used to dress and wrap the bodies for burial included textiles meticulously executed, headdresses and caps of peculiar shapes, tupus or brooches made of bronze and copper, metal ornaments and musical instruments. Burial offerings consisted of different types and qualities of clay vessels, among which the keros, ancient drinking vessels decorated with typical Tiwanaku style, were widely spread reaching far away places of South America, what has helped to understand the influence of this culture among its neighbours.
Tiwanaku site was first recorded in written history by Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León, who stumbled upon its remains in 1549 while searching for the Inca capital of the south-eastern provincial region of the Inca Empire, known as Collasuyu.

History Tiwanaku
At the modern site there are no standing buildings and only public, non-domestic foundations remain. One of the most important buildings that has been excavated is the Akapana pyramid, a man-made earthen mound with seven stepped levels and about 18 m (60ft) tall. From the top of this structure it is possible to see the so-called Semi-Subterranean Temple, a square sunken courtyard with walls of sandstone pillars and smaller blocks of Ashlar masonry and several carved stone tenon human heads embebed in them.

History Tiwanaku
To the north of the Akapana and west of the Semi-Subterranean Temple it is located the ceremonial Kalasasaya enclosure (“standing stones” in Aymara language): a large courtyard over three hundred feet long surrounded by “cyclopean” standing stone blocks 4m high interspersed along its walls.

History Tiwanaku
Within the courtyard there are several monoliths like the Ponce Stela and the “Frair”. At present, the famous Gateway of the Sun is located in the northwest corner. The impressive central iconography on the lintel represents a staff-bearing anthropomorphic figure holding one crosier with a condor’s head in each hand, whose face shows three circles in a row under both eyes. The meaning of these symbolic relief carvings remains unknown, though some theories point toward an astronomical calendar.

History Tiwanaku
The Putuni, another enclosure with a number of funeral chambers, stands behind the Kalasasaya, to the west. On the artificial mound known as Lakakollu rests the Gateway of the Moon. Though smaller and less elaborate than the Gateway of the Sun, it presents similar features: it was carved from a single stone and also has animal designs on it. Finally, the Kerikala close building houses several “priestly rooms”.
What we know about this culture comes from archaeological evidence found at monumental sites and burials grounds. Tiwanaku people, as many other ancient American civilizations, did not leave written record of their history and their ups and downs, and subsequent cultures did not save those memories either. It is believed that knowing the grandeur of the ruins of Tiwanaku, the Incas and other contemporary peoples would have included them in their own mythology, especially as part of the legend that refers to Viracocha and the account of the world’s creation (see), likewise the Mexican or Aztec people did when they discovered Teotihuacan.
Keros, tapestries and colourful robes removed from Tiwanaku burial sites represent felines, human heads, sacrifice victims, shepherds and small effigies. All of them summarize what the life of this Andean society might possibly have been like. A famous and renowned culture that remains greatly unknown.

Tiwanaku, in Wikipedia.
Cultura Tiahuanaco, in Wikipedia [es].
La cultura Tiahuanaco, in ArteHistoria [es].
Tiahuanaco, in EducaRed [es].
El Imperio Tiahuanaco-Huari, in Historia del Arte [es].
Book “Las ruinas de Tiahuanaco: recuerdos de viaje”, by Bartolomé Mitre, in Biblioteca Cervantes [es].

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