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The Tiwanaku of ancient south America

Updated on January 26, 2015
Starting Region of the Tiwanaku
Starting Region of the Tiwanaku

The early days of Tiwanaku

In Bolivia There stands a monolithic temple city of Tiwanaku (which means stone at the center) that stands at the breath-taking height of 13,00 feet above sea level. The people of Tiwanaku created a civilization that lasted over 500 years and for centuries it was a mystery how they managed to thrive in the desolate land-scape that surrounded them. Now with the help of archaeological evidence, which shows an astonishing level of community effort as well as a deep understanding of the environment we can begin to understand what made these people the dominant civilization in ancient South America.

Life was hard in Bolivia where the very first Tiwanaku tribes emerged. The air is thin and night the temperatures drop well below freezing, the rainy season brings floods and periodically brings catastrophic drought. To the eyes of Europeans this seemed like the last place on earth anybody would ever want to settle. Despite this between 600 - 1100 AD a civilization ruled that eventually numbered one million people with their influence spreading from Bolivia as far as Peru, Chili and even Argentina.

The Tiwanaku became very successful in South America despite living in one of the most uninhabitable places in the world. It was their ingenuity that made such a vast nation possible possible, well seasoned for their part of the world these hardy people got to work.

They made good use of the resources around them. For example the cocoa leaf is used to help cope with the stamina fatigue that they would have experienced while farming and harvesting. They understood the benefits of their native animals as well, the llama provided them with quality wool which provided warm clothing for them especially during the night and it wasn't just a source for clothing. Perhaps more importantly the llama were also used for travelling long distances, which the animal is perfectly adapted for in tough terrain. They would be loaded with farming tools and seeds which they would then take up to the mountains ready for planting.

The herding of llama's was absolutely vital to the survival of the early civilization of Tiwanaku, not only did it feed and clothe them but it also enabled them to trade with neighbouring countries bringing in wealth and new resources to their cities.

From humble beginnings to the dominant civilization

Those early methods of survival enabled the Tiwanaku to take care of their own people's individual needs, however to become a dominant civilization they would have needed a far greater food supply than they currently had. To see how they managed that incredible feat we need look at where the Tiwanaku first emerged around 3,000 years ago in an ancient lake called lake titicaca.

Lake titicaca has a Surface area of over 32,000 square miles, it is the highest navigable lake in the world. The region around the lake is known as the titicaca basin and archaeologists think that it was here that the Tiwanaku first started out as farmers and it has played two vital roles for the people around it.

  1. The lake has an ambient temperature which doesn't move around much and that helps create a micro-climate of stability around it.
  2. The sedimentation of the lake has created incredibly rich agricultural soil which makes Farming a lot easier.

This was great for the people around the lake but anywhere outside the region of the lake was a very harsh climate and not suitable for farming. For the Tiwanaku to get around this particular problem and expand their influence they would have to show great ingenuity.

They didn't adapt to their environment to elude this problem, they transformed it. With ingenious ancient engineering they created raised beds in the surrounding terrain which was an agricultural innovation that transformed agricultural production in the region. The water acts as a buffer to protect the crops in the raised beds from the harsh frosts that until then would have killed them off, modern experiments have confirmed that this would have increased the crops that they would have received by 25% extending their growing season by two weeks.

Sun gateway
Sun gateway | Source

Beliefs of the Tiwanaku

Scattered around lake titcaca's shores archaeologists have discovered the remains of numerous Tiwanaku temples. These temples hold the key to explaining why they where so dedicated to farming. Their religious beliefs were devoted to group worship of gods of nature that controlled the environment and granted good harvests.

The sunken court of Ch'isi was a place where the Tiwanaku held festivals of worship 3000 years ago, still used today by South Americans descended from the Tiwan Aku to perform ritual llama sacrifices. The temple was not only to bring the people together to appease the gods by offering their annual ritual sacrifices however. they also bound them together socially, helping them form an ideology that allowed them worship together and also work together in harmony and this social cohesion was ultimately the key to their success.

While this began as a localized community based idea it managed to spread all around Bolivia and became their dominant religion, it gave them something in common that separated them from all of the other civilizations surrounding them. This community spirit is exactly what the other countries lacked and is what prevented them from ever competing with the success of the Tiwanaku at that time.

The religious festivals over the next 800 years would keep on increasing in size and spread throughout the region like wild fire. The heart of this amazing civilization became the sunken temple, lined with the carved heads of their ancestors. There where many sunken temples around Bolivia all with the same purpose, to have community based rituals worshipping their gods.

Inside the sunken temple you will find the sun gate where you can see a carving of the staff God, a controller of natural forces such as the sun, rain and seasonal chance. This is where they gathered to pay homage to their gods as well as preparing for the new year ahead.

Beer was their motivation for expansion

Beer was a very valuable commodity for our ancient cousins and it was drunk on a regular basis due to all of the festivals that they where now holding. Because of this there was a need for expansion into more resourceful terrain in order to meet the demands of their people.

Surprisingly enough this acquisition of new territory did not come at the cost of war, conquest or empire building. The Tiwanaku managed to spread as far as Chili and Peru without lifting a violent finger against their neighbours, but how?

The Cochabamba region is a clear example of their non violent conquest. It was not their military prowess that was the source of expansion, it was the sheer influence that the Tiwanaku had on the South American world. This meant that everybody Wanted to be apart of their inspirational civilization. This was great news for the Tiwanaku of course because the Cochabamba region was blessed with a lower altitude and an eternal spring, which enabled them to grow maize and allowed them to create more potent beer.

This was the case in many parts of the South American world. Because the Tiwanaku's ideology of community spirit was so desirable, everybody wanted to be apart of it. In most cases conquest was not needed.

The Tiwanaku people would be very easy to pick out of a crowd with their colorful clothing, Deliberately elongated heads and a beer mug in their hands always ready for a party. Their way of life was very desirable at the time in comparison to the usual day to day struggle that people would have suffered during that period. The Tiwanaku was not an empire or a kingdom, it was a huge extended family with an enveloping cult of collectivism at its core and everyone around them wanted to be part of it.

The Demise of the Tiwanaku

Ironically enough what brought an end to the Tiwanaku was the environment that it worshiped, from 1100 AD onwards there was a drought in South America which lasted for centuries. Because the Tiwanaku where utterly dependent on their agriculture to survive, this drought paralysed them terminally. No matter how much they sacrificed to their god the Water that they so relied on simply did not come, stopping any form of collective effort and forced the people to return to their scattered tribal communities while their previously spectacular lifestyle became an anachronism, a monument to a time of plenty that was long gone.

It wasn't for another 400 years that the Europeans first set foot on Southern America and by then Tiwanaku was in ruins, The Spanish conquistadors although amazed at the scale and antiquity of the ruins ransacked it of its gold and stones in order to worship their own Christian god.

Today Bolivia's main religion is Catholicism. While the church is the main focus of their worship they have still held their community values. Coming together in large groups to worship together, they believe that the bigger the party the better the growing season will be, so they hold the biggest of South American festivals. Even to this day the community spirit of the ancient Tiwanaku lives on through their descendants.


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    • Dannytaylor02 profile image

      Daniel Nathan Taylor 4 years ago from United Kingdom, Liverpool


    • dilipchandra12 profile image

      Dilip Chandra 4 years ago from India

      Good article on the temple city of Tiwanaku. Great work!