Day 12: the ruins of Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco)

I was really looking forward to this day. Tiwanaku has interested me ever since I read Graham Hancock's book "Fingerprints of the Gods". It is not a very impressive site by the standards of the average tourist, but then I don't consider myself the average tourist. The site is interesting because of its controversial history, or rather the alternate theories thereof. Unfortunately, most of the site was dismantled by the Spanish and later settlers, who used its stones in building the nearby town and railroad. Most of the statues and other valuable art pieces were removed long ago, leaving the site rather barren in appearence.

Tiwanaku is a set of pre-Inca ruins that resides on the altiplano (high plateau) of Bolivia at a height of around 12,500 feet. To get there our driver and guide drove us through the low rolling hills, which were covered in dry grass. The usually empty countryside was occasionally interrupted by small settlements or groups of houses made from mud-brick. It really makes you appreciate what you have when you see people living in abject poverty, which we saw a lot of in Peru and Bolivia. Despite the hardships, however, the people that we met were all wonderful and very friendly, so that we always felt welcome in our travels in South America.

The trip from La Paz took about an hour. When we arrived, we went into the museum there at the site, which had construction going on inside. I was disappointed to see that photography was forbidden inside the museum. (I hate it when museums do that.... at least they could offer a guide book of the museum to purchase, so that you have some sort of photos of your visit.)  The museum contained a few statues that had been recovered from the site, including a very nice piece depicting a snarling puma sitting holding a severed human head between its hands. It was made of black stone (basalt?), and stood about three feet high. I later found a four inch high stone replica of it in a gift shop at the La Paz airport, and it is now one of my favorite souvenirs. If anyone knows the name of this god (statue) or has any background info on it, please email me.


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My four inch high black "puma god" statue.


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The puma gods guard the stairway to the Gateway of the Sun.
(Detail from a painting of Puma Punku in the June 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Another subject of interest in the museum was a display discussing an ancient form of agricultural irrigation. A modern archeologist had figured out that the raised areas in ancient fields were surrounded by troughs of water. The water would be heated by the sun during the day, and would radiate that heat back onto the raised areas during the freezing nights on the altiplano. That little bit of heat was enough to keep the frost from destroying the crops, and the resulting produce was far larger in size and quantity than the methods that are currently being used by the local people. The archeologist managed to convince some local farmers to try out the old method (though it was a hard sell, as the locals considered anything from the 'ancient ones' to be taboo). The potatoes that came from the test fields were much larger than the stunted examples that usually were raised in the harsh conditions of the altiplano. There is now hope that this rediscovered ancient farming method will provide more sustenance for the local peoples, if the technique can gain wider acceptance.

After we were done in the museum we walked out to the site of Tiwanaku. The first section that we investigated was the large hill that dominates the area. This "hill" is actually the Akapana Pyramid, though you wouldn't know it to look at it. The pyramid used to be a multi-stepped T-shaped pyramid incased in stone (and filled with dirt). Unfortunately, most of the stones were removed, resulting in the centuries of rain and weathering making its shape almost unrecognizable. Spanish looters later continued its destruction by routing a nearby river through its center in an attempt to uncover possible interior tombs. We were told that the top of the pyramid was once covered in small green stones, and you could still see hundreds of tiny green stones scattered in the dirt of the pyramid (we took a few inconspicous pieces with us as souvenirs).

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Looking down on the site of Tiwanaku from the Akapana pyramid. The main outer wall is in the foreground, with the inner temple wall of the Kalasaya compound farther back. A group of about six people stand around the central statue (the Ponce monolith), while outside the compound (to the right), you can see the recessed area of the Subterranean Temple.

After we came down off of the pyramid we proceeded around a path that eventually led us to the Subterranean Temple. This temple area is a square sunken pit whose stone walls all have stone heads protruding from them. Each head is different from the others, and according to various writers, these stone heads depict all of the known (and some unknown) races of man on the Earth. Black, Oriental, and every other variation is represented. Some believe that Tiwanaku was a great religious center and place of pilgrimage, to which people journeyed from the four corners of the Earth. This concept is not accepted by many archeologists, who believe that voyages of such distance were not possible in ancient times. Personally I think that this was possible, because ancient man was more advanced and more capable than modern man gives him credit for.

12pTiwanaku_subterranean_temple.JPG (44908 bytes) Looking from outside the Subterranean temple over to the wall of the main temple compound (Kalasaya), you can see the monolith statue framed in the doorway of the compound. Note also the 48 stone heads protruding from each wall of the Subterranean Temple.

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A closer look at one of the Subterranean temple walls.

After exploring the Subterranean temple, our guide took us into the Kalasaya compound. The main attractions inside the Kalasaya are the Ponce and Bennett monoliths (large statues named after the archeologists who found them), and the most famous Tiwanaku sculpture of all, the Gateway of the Sun, which stands in the northwestern corner of the compound.

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The Ponce monolith in the center of the main compound.

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Another I-beam style socket hole that would have held a metal clamp to help hold two stones together. I have heard that the metal clamps at Tiwanaku were poured into place as molten metal, using mobile forges. This level of technology was not supposed to have been available at this point in ancient history, and archeologists are at a loss as to explain the enigma.

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Here I am standing in front of the Gateway of the Sun. You can see the thin wire fence that surrounds the monument, keeping tourists from actually getting right up next to it. This stone gateway was made of one solid piece of andesite stone (though it has now split into two pieces) which weighs over ten tons, and like the other andesite stones of Tiwanaku, had to be transported here from at least 100 kilometers away.

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A panoramic closeup of the Gateway of the Sun. Notice the rows of squares containing the birdman characters, known as the "Day Carriers". It is believed that the system depicts a form of calendar used by the Tiwanaku culture. The central figure is sometimes known as the "crying god", because of the tears etched into his cheeks. He is believed to be the main 'creator" god for the Tiwanaku culture. When the Incas later conquered this area this god was given the name Viracocha, which was the name of the Incas' principal god.

After exploring the remainder of Tiwanaku, we exited the site, passing through the area where local vendors had set up tables to sell souvenirs to the tourists. I was able to buy a ten inch high stone replica of the Ponce monolith and some three inch stone tiles with images from the Gateway of the Sun. (Just what I needed, more stones to weigh down my suitcase!)  The Tiwanaku statue is a nice addition to my collection, which includes statues from Tula (Toltec culture), Copan (Mayan), Coatlicue from Tenochitlan (Aztec), an Olmec head, and the moai from Easter Island. I was disappointed that there were no Tiwanaku t-shirts for sale (though the museum did sell a variety of postcards). Evidently the only souvenirs that were generally available were the ones that the local people can make by hand using local resources.

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Three of the stone tiles (about 3 inches on a side) that I bought, with images from the Gateway of the Sun.

After putting our purchase in the van, we went to a nearby cafe, where we ate the box lunch that the tour company had provided for us. Lunch consisted of a large cold chicken breast, a ham sandwich, a cheese sandwich, a yogurt cup, an apple, and some other small items. It was more food than we could eat, but I guess they gave us a variety of items so that there would be something palatable to everyone. After lunch we saved the leftovers, and got back in the van to travel the one mile to the ancient site of Puma Punku, which is a set of ruins that I also wanted to see in the area. There are no recognizable structures at Puma Punku, but what remains at this city is still impressive. You can see large stones used as wall segments and as irrigation channels, all well cut with remarkably flat surfaces. Some of the stones are truly massive, weighing more than a locomotive. And yet, the majority of stones lie in disarray, as if some heavy-handed god came in and knocked them all down and tried to break them up.

The mystery as to how these huge stones were carved and transported here is just one of the mysteries in this area. I have heard that Puma Punku and Tiwanaku were contemporaries of each other, and yet whatever laid waste to Puma Punku did not seem to have affected Tiwanaku, even though they were only separated by a mile's distance. Perhaps Tiwanaku was built just after the destruction of Puma Punku; but we may never know, even though excavations continue at both sites.

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Some of the larger stone slabs at the nearby site of Puma Punku. The largest of these stones weigh 100 tons. How were they moved here? And what catastrophe tossed them about like children's building blocks, while leaving the site of Tiwanaku untouched a mile away?

Once we were done at Puma Punku it was time to head back to La Paz. On the way back to the city, during this one section of road cut through rocky terrain, I started noticing different dogs lying or sitting by the side of the road. Our guide rolled down his window and threw pieces of his lunch to a dog that we passed. We passed our lunch leftovers to the guide, who threw the unused sandwiches and chicken pieces to the waiting dogs as we whizzed by. Our guide told us that this was common in this area, and that people brought food just for these stray dogs, who all lived by the highway waiting for handouts from the passing cars. (So if you ever go to Tiwanaku, take extra food!)

Once back at our hotel, we decided to do some shopping and to try to find dinner somewhere out on the main street near the hotel. We wandered up and down the street, buying a number of postcards from several different little vendor carts. During our explorations we didn't see any restaurants that looked like someplace that we wanted to eat in. We eventually wimped out and settled for the McDonalds, which (except for the menu being in Spanish and the prices in Bolivianos) was just like any McDonalds at home. After looking through a few more of the local gift shops, we went back to the hotel and called it a night.