The altiplano of Peru and Bolivia has been home to many great and ambiguous civilizations that have remained obscure to archaeology. Bolivia’s Tiahuanaco is one of these civilizations. The altiplano is an arid and inhospitable region, at first glance it seems an unlikely place for a flourishing society capable of supporting large numbers. Yet, for approximately eleven hundred years the Tiahuanaco civilization flourished. From the time of the Spanish conquest, the ruins of Tiahuanaco have fascinated generations of explorers, scholars and the public. Few sites have been the subject of as much speculation as this one.
Some have claimed that the city is 12, 000 years old, others have maintained that it was the cradle of humanity in the Americas. Myth and reality have intertwined to give Tiahuanaco an enigmatic allure. Tiahuanaco, near the shores of Lake Titicaca, was the center of a powerful, self-sustaining empire in the southern central Andes. The roots of the Tiahuanaco capital can be found in the early village underlying the expansive civic-ceremonial core.
The Kalasasaya, one of the many village societies in the region, occupied the place where Tiahuanaco would later rise. The small farming village evolved into a regal city of multi-terraced platform pyramids, courts and urban areas between AD 100 and 1100 (Kolata 1996; 20).
The culture that developed on this site was, in fact, one of the most important factors in the complex cultural history of the Andes. It is believed that the site of Tiahuanaco became one of the most important settlements in the Andean highlands because of its strategic location near Lake Titicaca. The area quickly emerged as a point of convergence for the routes of the llama caravans that brought goods to and from various sites. The culture of Tiahuanaco developed autonomously over a period of more than two thousand years.
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Around 1000 BC, Tiahuanaco was one of many small villages in the highlands. It was made up of rectangular houses with pitched roofs made of clay and plant fibers and associated circular buildings that were used mostly for cooking. The villagers depended on agriculture for most of their food (Bermann 1994; 68-72).
The staple crops were potatoes and another edible tuber called oca. These products were dried and stored to provide food from one harvest to the next.
In the beginning, there were no social classes at Tiahuanaco. Men and women lived in the same community structure and labor was a collective effort. War was uncommon and trade supplemented the local economy. The principle import was obsidian, which was used to make arrowheads and blades.
Tiahuanacan practiced metallurgy and artifacts made of copper, gold and silver have been found at the site. Ceremonial ceramics were generally painted and were sometimes decorated with engravings and motifs. During this period, the development of Tiahuanaco was limited probably because the economy was largely self sufficient, which limited the need for trade. Around 500 BC, contacts among the various villages began to become increasingly intense, as evidenced by increasing similarities in ceramic artifacts from the sites (Bermann 1994; 97).
Commercial traffic contributed to the growth in power and prestige of the village chiefs. The community elected these chiefs and their job was to control the flow of economic goods that had importance to the population, such as maize, peppers and other imported products (Dillehay 1999; 65).
By redistributing these products among the various groups that formed the villages, the chiefs acquired reputations for being generous and trustworthy. At the same time, shamans also began to play an important role in society. It is believed that the interests of the shaman-priests and those of the village chiefs eventually began to coincide, and the shaman-priests started performing certain rites that were previously conducted by the chiefs. The shamans validated the transmission of powerful positions of authority solely among members of certain classes.
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Therefore, shaman-priests became essential to the perpetuation of the ruling class (Kolata 1996; 7-10).
With the rise of the priestly class, Tiahuanaco was on its way to becoming an important ceremonial civilization. During the first few centuries AD, Tiahuanaco experienced a revolution. Specifically, it evolved from a village into an urban city. This change led to a series of profound consequences, one of which was the creation of a state structure that lasted over 700 years (Blom 1998; 240).
The main core of the city consisted of a civic and religious center with temples and palaces.
The population, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, lived in a complex of lesser surrounding buildings and satellite villages. The astronomical orientation indicates that Tiahuanaco was a planned complex. Most of the buildings were rectangular and were separated from each other by open spaces. The development of Tiahuanaco and its transition from the status of a village to that of an urban center was made possible by a substantial over production of food. Archaeologist Alan Kolata has identified intensive raised field agriculture as the catalyst for the rise and subsequent decline of Tiahuanacan society. Kolata and his supporters associate the emergence of Tiahuanacan culture with the development of broad, regional communication and exchange, and with the development of interacting networks of villages.
The social complexity of early state society is marked by diversified economic activity, multiple divisions of labor and broad regional exchange of goods; all ultimately dependent on raised field agriculture and the resulting bureaucratic control of this system. Raised fields are elevated platforms of earth surrounded by ditches and canals (Kolata 1996; 109-111).
The peasants who worked these fields produced a surplus, which was used to maintain a dominant aristocracy and to pay for new buildings. This surplus economy produced considerable social stratification.
At the top were the elite, made up of rulers, an administrative bureaucracy, priests and warriors. There was a middle class made up of crafts people and at the bottom were the peasants. Tiahuanaco society was comprised of at least three distinct social groups. The Pukina, who were the originators of the raised fields; the Amyra, who were agro-pastoralists concerned with llama herding; and the Uru, who were fishers and foragers (Swart ley 2003; 33-34).
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According to Kolata, the ruling lineages may have been born of cross marriages between the Pukina and the Amyra. The Uru people are still found today along the shores of Lake Titicaca, they earned their daily subsistence from aquatic foraging and selling their products to the Amyra and Pukina elite (Erickson 1999; 6).
They never comprised a political polity, nor were they in competition for power. The Amyra pastoralists practiced llama and alpaca husbandry associated with rituals of llama sacrifice and agricultural fertility. Ca meloids were used as pack animals, harvested for wool, butchered for their meat and much of the tool technology was constructed from their bones. Thus the state had a stake in insuring the reproductive success of llamas and alpacas, and specialized herding communities bound the Amyra herders to a symbiotic and ideological relationship with the Tiahuanaco elite.
A movement toward cultural expansion began during the urban phase, which benefited the farmers and metalworkers. Early in its history, Tiahuanaco grew mostly by subjugating surrounding peoples, but during this later phase the culture grew by colonizing previously unoccupied territories, in the process expanding its need for maize, wood and other valued products. Agricultural production expanded to the point that even the peasants were able to accumulate surplus and personal goods. Among the artifacts recovered from this urban period are examples of relatively advanced metallurgy. Copper, gold and silver were used mostly for the production of luxury goods and specialized fasteners were made to hold large blocks of stone together. Ceramics and sculptures also attained a remarkable level of craftsmanship.
The artistic ceramics were polychrome and had a number of variant forms; some of them embellished with decorations in relief. The facades of buildings and stelas show patterns and motifs engraved with considerable skill, indicating the use of tools such as chisels and drills. The general increase in population, wealth and occupied land laid the foundations for Tiahuanaco’s golden age. The dramatic growth seen during Tiahuanaco’s peak had different effects in different parts of the emerging empire.
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Regions of established culture tended to develop a synthesis between the old and the new societies. At its height, during the eleventh century, the empire is estimated to have had a population of over three and a half million with over 100, 000 individuals residing in the capital city of Tiahuanaco (Kolata 1996; 48-50).
Despite the vast geographical reach of the empire, no viceroys were ever employed to oversee the administration of the outlying regions. The ruling power appears to have been largely military. The discovery of bronze and associated technological developments helped to produce an overwhelming military superiority. The possession of metallurgic ally advanced weapons was a powerful incentive to expansion, which began around 700 AD and gave rise to a form of imperial state administration that served as the foundation of the subsequent Inca empire (Dillehay 1999; 66).
Wars became frequent and the empire supported a professional army and a warrior class. Many stone sculptures, ceramic decorations and fabric designs give anthropologists indications of the appearance of these warriors, with their distinctive zoomorphic masks, metal axes and head trophies taken from vanquished enemies. The site of Tiahuanaco is one of the most important religious centers of its time. It is renowned for the large monuments, which are built with fine masonry and large stone sculptures. These are stone works of scale and style not found in any other site on the altiplano.
The site, at its largest extent, covered over forty hectares and includes temples, mounds and megalithic constructions. The largest terraced pyramid of the city, the Akapana, was once believed to be a modified hill, and has been proven to be a massive human construction with a base of 656 square feet and a height of 55 feet. On the summit of the Akapana there was a sunken courtyard covering an area of 165 square feet (Spanish 2003; 172-175).
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Associated with the pyramid are four temples: the Semi-subterranean, the Kalasasaya, the Put uni and the Keri Kala. The first of these, the Semi-subterranean Temple, was studded with sculptured stone heads set into cut stone walls and in the middle of the court was located a famous monolithic stela. Named for archaeologist Wendell C.
Bennett, who conducted the first archaeological excavations at Tiahuanaco in the 1930’s, the Bennett Stela represents a human figure wearing elaborate clothes and a crown (Kolata 1996; 5-6).
Adjacent to the sunken court, residences of the elite were uncovered. Ritual offerings of llamas and ceramics, as well as high status goods made of copper, silver and obsidian were also encountered in this elite residential area. Tiahuanaco society was self-sustaining, for its agricultural, herding and fishing resource base was more than sufficient to support the complex administrative apparatus and the populations under its control. For reasons that remain unclear, the Empire lost its position of power and collapsed between 1000 and 1100 AD. There is no evidence of a natural cataclysm or invasions by outsiders and archaeologists speculate that there must have been some sort of political breakdown, perhaps associated with a period of poor harvests and food shortages.
It was a magnificent royal city that was constructed to inspire awe in the commoners and continues.