Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Independent – Contents Page

Scrolls in the hands of 'The Idol' (Kalasaya Temple)

On a visit to the ruins of Tiwanaku, Bolivia, Ben Connor discovers  a civilisation so sophisticated it is possibly from out of this world

On the back wall in the entrance foyer to Tiwanaku’s Museo Ceramico there is an artist’s massive mural impression of the ancient ceremonial site of Tiwanaku. From an angular birds eye perspective its earth rich ochres, snowy mountain whites and misty sky blues provide an impressionistic 70s style image of a vast plane, distant Andean mountain range and Tiwanaku’s earth, sky and underworld temples. The mystic appeal of the image and its strong semblance to science fiction cover art leaves no doubt that Tiwanaku in its hey day was a popular destination with travelling extraterrestrials.

The 1960’s writer Erich von Daniken (and others of his ilk) may well have had some role in this, his Tiwanaku theories, employing alien technologies and biblical abductions, giving that extra touch of colour to the artist’s imagination.

From lowly beginnings, between 100 B.C. and 1100 A.D, Tiwanaku civilization slowly developed then thrived on the Andean Plateau 12,500 feet (over 2 miles) above sea level. A pre-curser to the better know Incas, and in some ways far superior, its sophisticated high-yield agricultural techniques combined with a herding and fishing resource base enabled social stratification, a complex state and religious apparatus and increasing advances in architecture, hydraulic engineering, transport systems, agriculture and astronomy.

Approaching the ruin compound of Tiwanaku today one cannot help but feel disappointed. Passing through a high wire-fence, more suited to a used car lot, the mounds of dry brown earth and ancient rubble that initially greet you leave no doubt that Tiwanaku’s days as an intergalactic hotspot are over. Victim to Bolivia’s less than impressive economic credentials, thus lacking the benefits of thorough excavation and reconstruction, it is indeed surprising that the ruins of Tiwanaku have managed to inspire associations with exotic alien species at all.

The Watcher... A stone carving in Museo Litico

When combined with the Tiwanaku museums, outside the ruin compound and in the Bolivian Capital of La Paz, only 70 kilometers away, however, a visit to Tiwanaku is well worth the effort – its close proximity to the floating islands of Puno, Machu Picchu and Cusco also make it worthy addition to an exotic Andean travel itinerary.

Having jumped on a cheap local bus in La Paz, bound for Peru, my girlfriend and I were deposited on a dusty crossroad 5 miles from the ruins and stood for some time waiting for transport to take us further. I looked out across the barren open plain and with my mind turned to agriculture was reminded of my visit to the Tiwanaku Museo de Archeologia in La Paz a few days before.

The museum building, down a side street from El Prado (the city’s main stem), is a strange synthesis of colonial architecture and Tiwanaku designs, both inside and out. Jagged geometric Tiwanaku lines trace internal walls performing the aesthetic equivalent of picture rails (maze like diversions ending with faces of condors and sun gods) while white and grey reliefs appear on pillars, the ceiling and various other parts of the walls, inside and out. I had wondered around looking at diagrams demonstrating the textile techniques of the pre-Columbians and a glass case displaying a full-bodied mummy in foetal position. Further on, more disturbing still, I saw a curled up skeletal baby with fragments of fibrous flesh hanging to its bones – a clump of long brown hair seemingly glued to its upper forehead. Near the entrance was a large, black, flat screen Sony television. Having asked if there was anything to watch I was treated to a documentary, in English, about Tiwanaku. The civilisation’s rise and fall, the role of zoomorphic designs, the significants of cranial deformations and Tiwanaku’s agricultural techniques all featured.

It was the memory of these agricultural techniques that had been triggered whilst standing on that road to Tiwanaku. On the plains around me and far into the distance ‘raised-field’ agriculture, an ingenious high-altitude farming technique, was practiced extensively by the people of Tiwanaku (along with irrigated fields, terraced fields and pasture).

Raised mounds, known as suka kollus, were created for the cultivation of crops. Each mound was separated by water canals that supplied them with moisture and absorbed heat from solar radiation during the day. Over freezing cold nights the absorbed heat would emit slowly, providing a kind of thermal insulation. Later fish were farmed in the canals, the resulting canal sludge used for fertilizer.

Suka kollus produced impressive yields. While modern agriculture (with artificial fertilizers and pesticides) yields about 14.5 metric tons per hectare, suka kollu agriculture yields an average of 21 tons per hectare. Suka kollus, during the Tiwanaku period, enabled the production of enough food on the plateau to feed one million people. In addition, experimental suka kulla fields recreated in the 1980s suffered only a 10% decrease in production following a 1988 freeze that killed 70-90% of the rest of the region’s production.

Viracocha carved into the Puerta Del Sol

It is this fact that sadly deflates Daniken’s extra-terrestrial bubble. Fundamental to Daniken’s ‘theory’ had been the western world’s general inability to believe that a sophisticated civilisation could flourish 13, 000 feet above sea level.  With surplus crop production a fundamental requirement for the development and continuation of a civilization, the suka kollus technique is arguably responsible for the existence of Tiwanaku and in turn the better-known Incas (who borrowed from it heavily).

A white van jammed with people, chickens and market produce stopped to give us a ride. My girlfriend and I, our backpacks and my guitar were soon inside, my face pressed against window (hands flat against the glass – pushing to reduce the pressure). Further down the road we were out again with 500 metres to walk to the ruin entrance and Tiwanaku’s sculpture museum.

We deposited our belongings in a nearby hotel/restaurant, found a guide at the sculpture museums entrance and entered the ruin compound, the site of the aforementioned earth, sky and underworld temples.

Tiwanaku temple architecture was of a platform/monolithic style with decoration provided by incised carving and heads in low or high relief. The Temples were built from massive stone blocks weighing up to 100 tons and were transported, by a means that can only be the subject of conjecture, from stone quarries several miles away. According to the experts the stones, ‘fitted together without mortar, were cut, squared, dressed, and notched with a precision equalled in no other aboriginal South American civilization, not even the Inca.’

Unfortunately, since Tiwanaku’s decline, most of the site has been subject to looting, excavation, the quarrying of stone for building and railroad construction and target practice by the military.

The sky temple pyramid (Akapana), our first Tiwanaku experience, had me pinning for a shovel. The pyramid once featured a large central water receptacle at its peak. Here religious dignitaries would gather, looking down into its waters to view the universe reflected from above. A system of water canals flowed down and along its tiered sides and through a gridded subterranean drainage system. All in all such a structure sounds impressive. Unfortunately the water is not there today. In fact, neither is the temple. It is more like a mound of dirt with an occasionally exposed wall – thus the desire for a shovel.

Templo Del Piedra Paradas (Kalasaya)

The Templo Del Piedra Paradas (Kalasaya) or Temple of the Standing Stones was for the worship of the earth and is perhaps the most engaging reconstruction. It is a walled compound, each wall composed of 12 vertical stones carved into human figures and joined by irregular stone blocks. In its centre, dramatically facing the arched stone entrance, is the ‘idol’. This large anthropomorphic figure, standing 7-feet high, is covered in faded hieroglyphic-like carvings, which are yet to be deciphered.

At the other end of the compound is a stone arch, the Puerta Del Sol (Sun Gate), carved with intricate Tiwanaku designs. The arch was used as a means of gauging astronomical phenomenon – equinoxes, solstices, what time the sunrises and weeks, months and seasons of the year. Through doing so associated climatic changes and their effect on agricultural yields were ascertained. On my visit, as if to accentuate the religiosity associated with the stone, an old man sat in front of it dispensing tarot cards on the dusty ground.

In the centre of Puerta Del Sol is the Sun-God Viracocha, from whose face rays shoot out like a lion’s mane. Viracocha was the most significant of the Tiwanaku gods. A god of action, he was the shaper and destroyer of worlds. Often depicted with the sun as a crown, thunderbolts in his hands and tears falling from his eyes, Viracocha is one of those fabulously contradictory deities. He created, he destroyed and he wondered the earth disguised as a beggar weeping at the plight of his creatures. Along with almost everything else, the Incas inherited Tiwanaku religion, with Viracocha remaining firmly positioned at the top of the ethereal food chain.

The semi-subterranean temple (Kontiki) unfortunately failed to impress. The sunken courtyard is walled with poorly arranged masonry infill inset with small sculptured heads. The heads, while interesting, have eroded to such a degree as to diminish the no doubt impressive artistry that went into their making.

Significantly more impressive than the ruins, however, are the aforementioned Museo Litico and the Museo Ceramico (with its aforementioned 70’s style mural).

Cosmic Reflections... The Fuente Ofrendaria

Museo Litico contains some impressive stone sculptures and carvings but is particularly good for its clearly written English language plaques providing details on Tiwanaku’s social order, cosmology, astronomy, advanced hydraulic systems, transport and agriculture. Of particular interest to me though was a cosmological reflector basin called a Fuente Ofrendaria. This dish retained water, which was used, like the water receptacle topping the Sky Temple Pyramid, to analyse the universe above. On the basins perimeter a complex labyrinthine system of jagged lines move from the waters edge to the perimeter or end with the image of a sun god or other unrecognisable creatures (much like those appearing on the walls in the Tiwanaku Museo de Archeologia). The relationship of these lines to the stars reflected in the basin, at any given time, were somehow used to gauge (like the Puerta Del Sol) the movement of time and the change of seasons meticulously (perhaps lines such as these also featured at the top of the Sky Temple Pyramid). Clever and enchanting tools such as this are rendered more impressive further on in the museum when one is informed that Tiwanaku astronomy was so sophisticated that they were able to determine that a year consisted of 365.24 days exactly.

More aesthetically pleasing, the ceramics in Museo Ceramico show a level of craftsmanship that is not as apparent in the less preserved carvings seen at the ruin site. Experts assert that the ceramics of Tiwanaku are ‘one of the great achievements of pre-Columbian art’ and the artfully displayed kings, pumas and diabolical condors I viewed definitely gave validation to that claim.

An elongated cranium in Museo Ceramico

Sadly, the more one learns of Tiwanaku civilisation the more alien theories explaining its existence are debunked. Arguably supporting the alien theories however is Tiwanaku civilisation’s penchant for elongating craniums (examples of such skulls can be seen both in Museo Ceramico and in the Tiwanaku Museo de Archeologia). To elongate a skull Tiwanaku people would bind the head tightly as an individual grew. The effects were permanent. Cranial elongation, alien enthusiasts say, was a sign of respect to ancient extra-terrestrial visitors, whose heads were of course naturally of the shape the Tiwanaku imitated.

There is, as yet, no evidence to contradict this assertion.

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