I couldn’t bear another cold, rainy day in La Paz so I struck out after breakfast one Saturday to visit one of Bolivia’s most important archaeological sites Tiwanku, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 90 minutes from La Paz. This “cradle of Andean civilization,” which preceded the Incas, was centered near the fertile soils near Lake Titicaca and flourished for nearly 2500 years until about 1000 AD when the site was abandoned after severe drought.
There is no written history of the Tiwanaku so unfortunately very little is known about this civilization. An agriculturally based society, they developed sophisticated farming methods (including the sukakullos which Paul and I saw near Copacabana earlier this year) which sustained a considerably growing population. By 800 AD, the capital city of Tiwanaku had perhaps 50,000 residents and recent studies suggest up to 1.5 million inhabitants lived in the region.
They worshipped many gods, the most important being Viracocha who created the earth at Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca and brought forth humans from the earth’s rocks. He is celebrated in the site’s outstanding Temple of the Sun, one of the few remaining monuments at the site. The Tiwanaku also placed great spiritual importance in prominent mountain peaks, the apus (deities) that control weather and determine agricultural output, traditions which continue to this day.
Around 1000 AD a significant climatic shift occurred in the region resulting in greatly reduced rainfall which diminished crop yields. Tiwanaku society quickly broke down and by 1200 AD the once-mighty civilization vanished with only loosely organized remnants remaining. The Incas arrived a couple centuries later as they expanded their nascent empire and drew heavily from Tiwanaku architecture and its belief system.
Today the Tiwanaku ceremonial complex about 90 minutes outside of La Paz is in poor condition as a consequence of a millennium of looting and badly executed excavations over the years. Only in recent decades have modern archaeological projects yielded meaningful interpretations.
The most important archaeological areas are the Akapana, a tiered “sacred mountain” pyramid representing the superior world of the gods. Beside this lies the Kalasasaya, a walled city representing the earthly world of humans. Located here are the marvelous Temples of the Sun and Moon, some beautifully carved stone idols and a dozen impressive 150-ton stones comprising the surrounding wall and forming a lunar-month calendar.
The final area of significance is the Semi-Subterranean Temple representing the underworld. There are a couple hundred stone heads jutting out from the stone walls which are thought to represent the many conquered tribes which were absorbed into Tiwanaku society. Our guide pointed out a couple faces with horrified expressions resembling Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and suggested the Norwegian artist found his inspiration here — I’m doubtful but I could see a resemblance.
Due to Tiwanaku’s enduring sacred geography, the site still hosts many core Andean celebrations. As with Incan religious architecture, the buildings in the complex are perfectly aligned to coincide with the annual solstices. Each year during the summer solstice in June, the Aymara New Year is celebrated boisterously here at sunrise with music, ritualized dance and imbibing copious amounts of chicha. Even Evo Morales, the first indigenous President of Bolivia celebrated his inaugural ceremony here at Tiwanaku.