We drove west with our mostly Spanish speaking tour group to Tiahuanaco, Bolivia's most significant archaeological site. This place marks the centre of the Tiahuanaco civilisation, an empire that sprawled into modern day Peru, Bolivia and Chile emanating from Lake Titicaca, its spiritual centre. The site is believed to have been inhabited from 1500BC.
The Tiahuanaco culture was organised around trade and underpinned by rigid religious practices. The site that we visited is the manifestation of these principles. Huge pyramids and temples still semi-submerged under the earth but displaying advanced understanding and appreciation of the cosmos.
The technology possessed by this early civilisation bears great similarity to the ancient civilisations of Europe, where molten metal was used to clamp heavy stones together. Almost identical technologies, conceived thousands of miles apart at a time when neither culture knew of the others existence. Its bizarre to think that humans can all pull in the same direction somewhat by accident.
Similar to European projects of equivalent scale, the stone used in these temples came from many kilometres away. The interesting theory about Tiahuanaco is that stones were transported on huge boats made of reeds, all the way from the North of Lake Titicaca, and then up the small tributary rivers to the temple site. We hope to see examples of these reed boats later on in the trip in Puno, on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca.
The statue pictured above is made from local sandstone and has weathered badly due its softness, removing most of the detail it must have once shown. While most of the main artefacts visible on the site are from the Tiahuanaco period, archaeological evidence shows that the Inca occupied the site for a very short period prior to the Spanish Conquest. A staggering fact shared with us is that 95% of the Tiahuanaco valley is privately owned land and there is no law in Bolivia that requires sites to be handed over to archaeologists in the event of a discovery. Therefore it is feared that many artefacts go undocumented and there may be an entire precinct of Tiahuanaco that lies beneath the earth as yet undiscovered.
The Temple of the Sun (Kalasasaya) is the best preserved temple in the complex and is orientated to worship the Equinoxes of the Sun, as well as key phases of the Moon. How ancient civilisations calculated and undertook such vast projects working with the Sun as their setting out point is staggering, the epitome of a moving target.
The photo above is taken from the top of the Akapana pyramid. Although only partly excavated, it is believed to have had seven levels to represent the seven planets known to the Tiahuanaco people (including the Sun and the Moon). Much of the original stone has been looted from the temples, putting areas of the Akapana pyramid at great structural risk. This was compounded by attempts to renovate the pyramid with adobe blockwork in 2009, which only added to the weight and instability of certain levels.
During the conquest, the Spanish built a church in the neighbouring town out of the plundered temple stone, a sight that left a sour taste in the mouth. It seems that there are very few ancient monuments left unscathed by the ravages of time, Hadrian's Wall being one example in our own country where looting reduced a monument to a memory. The Coliseum in Rome suffered similar insult.
The Andesite statue pictured above is believed to be a Tiahuanacan ruler, holding objects used in their religious ceremonies. No one knows why the right fist is shown with the hand inverted, showing clasped fingers facing out in an unnatural contortion. One of the many unsolved mysteries of Tiahuanaco. The Spanish left few artefacts unscathed during their conquest, cutting the noses from statues and scratching the sign of the cross over beautiful, ancient carvings. We were reminded of ISIS's actions last year in their destruction of comparable relics in Iraq and Syria. Its sad what some groups will do to assert their views on others.
While warriors were revered and valued in the Tiahuanaco culture, the society's power was not wielded by the sword, but by the spoon. Their advanced farming techniques and road network enabled them to feed and trade with those subsisting in the more hostile regions of the altiplano. Combine this with a rigorous religious ideology designed to promote good harvests year on year, and you have the makings for a robust system of government.
You could argue that the same process exists here in South America today, but the overarching power systems in place are foreign companies with the funds to provide modern infrastructure and amenities in exchange for access to a country's vast natural resources.
All in all a really interesting day out on the altiplano.