THE TIAHUANACO EMPIRE
THE TIAHUANACO EMPIRE
This empire, whose capital was also called "Tiawuanaku",
meaning, in the Aymara language, "City of the Gods",
was located at around 3,890 meters above sea level in Bolivia, southwest
of Lake Titicaca. The citadel is considered to have been a ceremonial
center used by the Aymara people, who are supposed to have
been its founders. The city was also a great urban center supported
by a sophisticated system of terrace agriculture that was well adapted
to producing foodstuff crops at a high altitude and covered the
food requirements of the citadel.
The first mention of the citadel of Tiahuanaco
is in 1549, when the Spaniard Cieza de Leon arrived in the Andean
valley of Tiahuanaco, relatively close to Lake
Titicaca, in the present territory of the Bolivian Republic, discovering
some extraordinary ruins. These have originated a number of theories,
some quite plausible and others totally bizarre such as those that
claim these are the ruins of the oldest city on earth, or even the
remains of an ancient colony of extraterrestrial beings.
The citadel founding date was before 400 AD, but all construction work ended around 900 AD. Certain constructions evidence advanced building methods, such as the remains of the pyramid of Acapana, whose terraces were 15 m wide and 152 m long on each side.
Tiwanaku was possibly the capital city of a civilization that emerged in the "Pampa Koani" valley, south of Lake Titicaca, in present Bolivia. The city is estimated to have been in existence already at about 500 BC and have functioned for some 1,500 years up to the year 1250 AD approximately, when it was abandoned.
Very little is really known about this civilization and this city. Partly because much still remains to be found and reconstructed to get a complete idea, and partly because up to a short time ago, all that had been found was in ruins.
This civilization, called Tiwanaku, was successful due to its extensive cropland. Estimations of its agricultural production claim it would have been able to supply the whole present population of Bolivia. The inhabitants were skilled warriors, and managed to conquer all the other cultures around the lake and most of the high Andean plateau. They traded with other regions, reaching the coast of Chile and the tropical areas of the nearby Amazonian basin, leaving very revealing traces which have recently been discovered.
This civilization abandoned its cities and temples in the 12th century according to scholars. Some theories speculate (without any scientific proof) about earthquakes, others mention attacks from other cultures (if so, which?), or droughts (unlikely, as the lake was fed by snowcapped mountains). Although Tiawanaku may have fallen victim to one of these disasters, it also could have suffered a revolution from within.
A few centuries after its disappearance, the Incas emerged, with their base in Cusco. Shortly afterwards the Europeans arrived, and as from this period, everything that had been left in sight in Tiwanaku began to disappear. Everything that did not pertain to the evangelizing missionaries was pagan, and thus had to be destroyed. Even the building materials were used to build the walls of the new houses and churches. Finally, what was left was dynamited to be used as crushed stone for the beds of railway sleepers.
The citadel is located 20 kilometers from the southern tip of the
Bolivian section of Lake Titicaca at some 3,850 meters above sea
level; Tiahuanaco extends over around 400 hectares,
with megalithic vestiges that cover some 15 hectares. The countryside
is bare, flanked on both east and west by mountain ranges that form
part of the Andes Cordillera, attaining altitudes of over 4,500
and 5,500 meters respectively. Considering the altitude and general
environment, one finds it hard to believe that an advanced civilization
could have developed in this place.
The most thoroughly studied and well known monolith in Tiahuanaco
is the "Portada del Sol" (Gateway of the Sun),
an enormous standing block of stone decorated in high relief. We
can also see the remains of temples (one of them pyramidal, and
the other partly underground), the remains of a palace and a number
of buildings and idols carved in great megalithic stones. When they
were discovered by the Spaniards, the ruins were far more imposing,
but tremors, and the dismantling of the city walls to be used for
other buildings contributed to their gradual deterioration, until
the place was declared a protected archaeological site. At present
only the largest blocks of stone can be seen in their original location.
It was necessary to carry out aerial mapping to get a clear picture of the limits of the citadel. This also enabled a general picture of the layout of the city. When it was originally discovered, its peak population had been estimated at 30,000 to 40,000. The inner part of the city had been surrounded by a moat.
Since the Spanish conquest there has been controversy about the
age of Tiahuanaco. The native population at the
time was incapable of providing any reliable information: according
to them, the city had been built in a single night before the Great
Flood, and had been destroyed by a major earthquake or by the Sun's
However, 2oth century excavations and radioactive carbon 14 dating
carried out in the 1960s have established four stages in its development:
the first, or forming stage (from around 1,000 BC to 133 AD), an
urban stage (133 to 374 AD), an imperial stage (374 to 724 AD) and
a so-called "expansion" stage that ended abruptly in the 12th century.
When the Inca armies invaded Tiahuanaco in the
mid-15th century, the city had lain abandoned for over 250 years.
Geologists state that at a remote time in the Earth's history, the
continental land suddenly emerged from the water and the Andes cordillera
was formed. However, this was a time before mankind existed. Nevertheless,
some researchers claim that Tiahuanaco far from
being a Cordillera city had been a seaport. There are remains there
of what could have been a great dock that at some remote time could
have led to the sea. If so, the nearby Lake Titicaca would have
been a prolongation of the sea instead of the inland lake that it
From La Paz one can take a tour to Tiwanaku. If your visit is a
purely academic one, a day will be enough to do the circuit. If
you have strong feelings about the place, you may want to stay in
Tiahuanaco for one or two nights. There are some
other interesting places to visit nearby, and you can lodge comfortably
in one of the cozy hotels in Tiahunaco Village.
Another way to get there is starting from Cuzco by train to the
city of Juliaca in Peru, and from there going to the nearby city
of Puno (1 hour away by car), where you can take a boat to the port
of Guaqui, in Bolivia, where a bus will take you to the city of
La Paz. From here you can start your adventure trip to Tiahuanaco,
taking one day of train travel and a few hours' sailing on the river.
When you get there, you will see that the high plateau looks like
a landscape from another planet; any undue physical effort will
tire the visitor - we must remember that at 3,890 meters above sea
level atmospheric pressure is only 50% of that at sea level, and
the air provides one with less oxygen for this reason. It is highly
implausible that a civilization building Cyclopean monuments could
develop in such a place.
Therefore the city of Tiahuanaco presents an interesting
puzzle. Effectively, the presence of a dock makes
one believe that the city had been a port on Lake Titicaca. While
Tiahuanaco lies some 18 kilometers south of the
edge of the lake, the water would have had to be 30 meters above
its present level to have reached this spot.
We know that Lake Titicaca is located on the Altiplano high plateau, which has always suffered large-scale geological movements. The ancient northern shore of the Lake is visible at an altitude 88 meters above its present level, so at that time its southern shore, which at present is 82 meters lower, would have extended 60 kilometers further south than at present.
This geological movement of the Altiplano enabled professors Ponansky
and Müller to state that Tiahuanaco had not been
built in the year 500 BC, as shown by orthodox present dating methods,
but rather in 15,000 BC, and that it had suffered the effect of
a natural catastrophe eleven thousand years before our era.
So, does that make Tiahuanaco the oldest city in the world?