Tiwanaku, found on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, was the capital city of one of the most important civilizations to exist prior to the Incas. The Tiwanaku Empire encompassed portions of what are now Bolivia, Argentina, Peru and Chile from approximately A.D. 500 to A.D. 950. The area where the city of Tiwanaku is situated is almost 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, which makes it one of the highest urban centers ever built.
Archaeologists have excavated only a small part of the city, but they estimate that at its peak at least 20,000 people lived in Tiwanaku. Excavations have shown that the citizens lived in separate neighborhoods, which were enclosed by large adobe walls. Other remains found in the city include temples, a pyramid, large gates and carvings of alien-like faces. The only extensively studied area is the city center.
By 1200 AD, the Tiwanaku civilization had all but disappeared from the area. Most archaeologists agree that this was due to drastic weather changes there. However, the culture carried on, as it became the basis of the beliefs of the Incas, who were next to inhabit the area. They did not believe that the region had been previously inhabited by an earlier civilization. Rather, they believed that Tiwanaku was where the Inca god Viracocha created the first humans. Interestingly, the Inca built their own structures next to those previously built by the Tiwanaku.
One of the most interesting structures is the Akapana pyramid. It was one of the largest constructions at Tiwanaku, and probably the principal sacred area in the city. However, looters removed many of the stones, leaving it much less impressive than it once was.
The Kalasasaya Temple is located to the north of the pyramid. It is a ritual platform, with two monolithic uprights flanking the entrance steps. Smaller platforms containing monoliths exist within Kalasasaya. In the northwest corner, there is a large block of volcanic rock, believed to be associated with the sun god. The surface is covered with a sculpture of a deity on one side and a row of four deep cuts on the other, perhaps for offerings.
Situated into Kalasasaya’s northeastern corner is the iconic Puerta del Sol (the Gateway of the Sun), an elaborately decorated portico carved from a single piece of rock weighing ten tonnes. The central figure above the doorway is the best-known image of Tiwanaku, probably the supreme creator god known to the Aymara as Thunupa and to the Incas as Viracocha. The 24 rays emanating from his head have led some to think of him as a sun god although there’s not much evidence to suggest such a cult existed before the Incas.
On June 21, the time of the winter solstice south of the equator, the festival of Aymara New Year is celebrated in Tiwanaku. Locals wear colorful clothing for the celebration, and visitors are welcome. Activities include drinking, chewing coca and dancing until sunrise, when the rays of the sun shine through the eastern entrance of the temple.
Although there are many ruins in South America, Tiwanaku has had the largest share of unique and strange theories surrounding it. For instance, in the early twentieth century, the astronomer H.S. Bellamy believed that the city was a result of one of the earth’s moons crashing in this area. The writer Erich von Daniken stated that his research showed that aliens set up a base at Tiwanaku, and erected the great monuments with their special technology.
In the last century, archaeologists have taken on many projects aimed at unlocking Tiwanaku’s secrets. Only recently have they been able to link the origin of this fascinating city to the original people who built it.