A team of scientists are diving in Lake Titicaca on the Peru-Bolivia border near Isla del Sol, Island of the Sun. They’re hoping to find evidence of an ancient Andean civilization – one that predates the Incas by hundreds of years. But what they actually uncover is a treasure trove of artifacts that exceeds their wildest dreams.
The researchers went to Lake Titicaca in 2013 in search of evidence of the Tiwanaku state. From around 1,500 years ago, people from the ancient polity lived in the lake basin for some 500 years. And they belonged to one of the most important Andes civilizations of their time. What’s more, Tiwanaku’s influence seems to have stretched far from the heartland of Lake Titicaca.
And non-professional divers had previously made some interesting discoveries on the bed of Lake Titicaca. These finds in turn led the scientists to a particular spot: the Khoa Reef, which lies under a little over 15 feet of water. The location is around 6 miles from the most north-westerly part of the Island of the Sun, in fact, in the Bolivian section of the lake.
The scientists in question hailed, moreover, from academic institutions as far-flung as the U.K.’s Oxford University and the University of South Florida. And as a group, they were hoping to build on existing knowledge about the Tiwanaku state. Systematic attempts to learn about the civilization had started back in the mid-19th century. In the 1860s American archaeologist Ephraim Squier became the first to survey the site, producing drawings and maps of the ancient city.
But Squier wasn’t alone in his fascination with Tiwanaku, as other experts followed his lead in the 19th century. That said, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Bolivian authorities began attempts to conserve the site, which had suffered greatly from looting over the years. Then in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, archaeologists began to examine the location using modern techniques. And it’s this work that the team of researchers built on in 2013.
However, before we take a look at just what the archaeologists found in 2013, let’s first find out more about Tiwanaku and its location: the Lake Titicaca basin. This expanse of water is nestled in the Andes Mountains at an altitude of some 12,500 feet, straddling the Bolivia-Peru border. Interestingly, a geological fault formed the lake, which acts as a boundary between the two parts of the Andes range.
Fed by five main rivers and multiple smaller streams and creeks, Titicaca is the biggest lake on the South American continent. Its deepest point is 932 feet, while the lake is around 120 miles across at its longest point and 50 miles across at its widest section. A channel separates the lake into two distinct parts, though, and at its thinnest it is only some 2,600 feet wide.
As well as being South America’s greatest lake in size, Titicaca is said to be the highest navigable lake anywhere. In fact, at one time, the stretch of water had four iron steamships operating on its surface. The first pair were built in Britain and transported to Peru in kit form. The craft then began sailing in Titicaca in 1870 and 1873, with two other full-scale ships following suit. Apparently, one of these vessels is still in service today as a tourist charter boat.
It comes as little surprise, then, that this large freshwater lake attracted humans in ancient times. The earliest settlement that we know about dates back to around 3,500 years ago. And archaeologists have discovered ceramic vessels from that era near to a place called Chiripa, which is on the body of water’s southern shores.
But while little is known about the earliest people who lived around Titicaca, they likely depended on herds of llamas and alpacas as beasts of burden as well as for their wool and meat. Plus, these pre-historic humans probably grew food crops, such as quinoa and potatoes. It’s believed, too, that they would have used plants growing around the lake to build shelters and boats.
Meanwhile, the first civilization about which we know a significant amount was located on the north-western shores of Lake Titicaca at a place called Pucará. It’s thought that this settlement dates from around 2,400 to 1,900 years ago. Furthermore, it directly precedes the Tiwanaku civilization that our researchers were looking at during their underwater excavation of 2013.
Luckily, the people of Pucará left behind some fascinating examples of ceramics and worked stone slabs. Archaeologists have discovered pots with elaborate motifs at the site, too. These decorations feature felines and human likenesses as well as geometric patterns and are colored in shades of cream, brown and red. But it’s the individuals who came after the people of Pucará who have left the most extensive archaeological evidence.
The successor to the Pucará was the Tiwanaku civilization. The settlement appeared on the scene some 1,500 years ago, and its people went on to create a large and sophisticated empire. In fact, the diaspora extended from Lake Titicaca as far as modern-day Chile and Peru, and it held sway over this region of South America for nearly 500 years.
At the heart of this empire sat the city of Tiwanaku, which was located to the south of Lake Titicaca. The land around this settlement was the scene of extensive and highly organized agriculture. And at its height, it produced enough food to support a population of as many as 20,000. This made it one of the largest cities in pre-Columbian South America by around 800 A.D.
Evidence for the spread of Tiwanaku’s influence comes in the form of settlements on the Pacific coastline of modern Peru. The people of these colonies fashioned ceramics and constructed temples with clear similarities to those of Tiwanaku. And burial grounds in northern Chile have yielded grave goods with striking resemblances to those discovered near the lake.
Interestingly, these outposts of Tiwanaku do not seem to have been controlled by the central city at Lake Titicaca in any coercive way. Rather than Tiwanaku forcing its authority on these colonies, then, it seems that the state projected its power through cultural means. We’ll return to this topic a little later when we discuss the finds of the archaeologists in 2013.
It’s thought that human habitation of the lands around the specific Tiwanaku site began in around 110 A.D. Even so, the people who occupied the shores of Titicaca subsequently disappeared from history in around 450 or 500 A.D. And this left the field clear for the founding of the city of Tiwanaku.
From about 600 A.D. through to 800 A.D., the people of Tiwanaku began to really thrive. The population got even bigger, while building works increased in the city, including the construction of monumental gateways and temples. And it appears as though the growth took off as a result of high levels of immigration from the surrounding countryside.
This early era of Tiwanaku civilization was also when large-scale production of sophisticated ceramics and statuary really came into its own. And at the same time, the cultural influence of Tiwanaku started to spread. The city state influenced peoples in the modern countries of Argentina and Chile as well as those of Bolivia and Peru – where Lake Titicaca is located.
Tiwanaku’s prosperity, meanwhile, was founded on agriculture. As well as fishing in Lake Titicaca, the people of the city state tended herds of llamas. They also had a sophisticated system of farming based on cultivating crops in raised stone beds. This method, which is called flooded-raised-field farming, involves diverting rivers to irrigate these specialized growing areas.
Moreover, the Tiwanaku people built canals running between their raised allotments. These not only provided hydration for the crops, but they also stored the sun’s heat, which protected plants from the intense cold that nightfall brings at the high altitudes of the Titicaca basin. Another bonus was that the canals were used to raise fish, with the resulting waste subsequently dredged from the beds and used as fertilizer.
And population growth brought with it increasingly sophisticated arts and crafts, as skilled artisans fashioned refined examples of textiles, ceramics and jewelry. Many monumental buildings and stone structures were also constructed in and around the city of Tiwanaku; these included stepped platforms and a temple that was built partially underground.
One particularly striking building is the Kalasasaya courtyard – a 300-foot-long structure that includes the impressive Gateway of the Sun. Near this site is the semi-underground temple, which includes a range of carved stone heads projecting from the walls. But this highly developed civilization with its advanced agriculture, arts and architecture nevertheless collapsed around 1,000 years ago.
And when the disintegration of the Tiwanaku civilization did occur, it seems as though it was quite abrupt. Production of the exceptional pottery suddenly ceased, for example, and within a matter of decades people departed the core city. Why did this happen? Well, archaeologists are still searching for answers, but a prolonged drought may have been the principal cause.
Yes, lengthy period without rainfall may have disrupted the agriculture of Tiwanaku, leading to food shortages and famine. A few researchers remain unconvinced by this explanation, however. You see, some evidence appears to suggest that while there was indeed a dry spell, it came after the civilization was already in decline. Instead, a number of historians and archaeologists have speculated that social conflict was the real cause of the collapse.
Moreover, evidence of destruction within the city and at other satellite sites supports the idea that social breakdown may have brought the Tiwanaku empire crashing down. Archaeologists have found broken food jars and destroyed buildings, for instance. Yet this theory is not entirely watertight, as it’s not possible to be sure of when such destruction may have occurred.
After all, the Tiwanaku site has fallen victim to widespread looting and destruction for centuries. This unfortunately makes it all the harder to interpret archaeological evidence about both the period when the Tiwanaku civilization thrived and also about the causes of its ultimate collapse. And this is why the archaeologists who excavated a site beneath the waves of Lake Titicaca hoped to reveal more about this enigmatic society.
The fact that the researchers’ chosen site is underwater gave them a distinct advantage: it protected the area from the worst depredations of the looters. And expedition leader and marine biologist Christophe Delaere of Oxford University and Brussels Free University expanded on this theme in an interview with the The Guardian.
Delaere told the newspaper in April 2019, “This is one of the advantages of underwater heritage. Lake Titicaca protects its ancient material culture from time and man. Never before have so many artifacts of this quality been discovered. The history that these objects tell us is exceptional.” And the trove of treasure that the archaeologists uncovered was indeed stunning.
In particular, the team of archaeologists were diving on the Khoa Reef. This is located just off the southern tip of the Island of the Sun, which is one of Lake Titicaca’s 41 islands. And in waters around 15 feet deep, the group uncovered an exceptional ceremonial site that yielded a variety of high-quality finds, including a puma made from lapis lazuli – a vibrantly blue semi-precious stone.
Plus, the team found a range of small, carved stone animals, golden ornaments and ceramic incense burners in the shape of pumas. They also discovered some gold leaf decorations attached to pieces of leather. It’s believed that the items may have been ear accessories for the young llamas that the researchers think were sacrificed at the site. Other gold finds additionally came in the shape of engraved sheets of the metal.
Furthermore, experts uncovered llama bones, which could back up the theory that people sacrificed animals at the Khoa Reef site. On the lake bed, there were also the remains of burnt fish, which may have been eaten during religious rituals. And experts carbon dated the charcoal and bones to a period between 1,200 and 1,000 years ago.
Importantly, researchers believe that these artifacts give a clear insight into how the Tiwanaku state operated. And, in fact, the relics may also offer answers as to why this civilization was so successful in spreading its influence without the apparent use of armed force. Apparently, you see, the discovery of these ancient objects seems to shed light on some important ceremonies that may have taken place at Lake Titicaca.
Anthropologist Charles Stanish of the University of South Florida told The Guardian in April 2019, “What we’ve discovered in the Titicaca basin are pilgrimages and ritual processions, and these are part of the state apparatus. As you participate in them, you are reinforcing the power of the state.”
Stanish added, “Combined with what’s been found off other islands in the 1990s, the discovery of these items on the reef shows us there was probably a series of pilgrimages or precessions around the lake, and I find that to be extremely exciting. Ritual and religion were profoundly important in ancient states; it is not some ‘new-agey’ thing.”
In fact, the scientists believe that these alleged sacred ceremonies may have been highly effective ways of building a cohesive civilization. Stanish continued, “Ritual and religion structured people’s lives; it structured the economy and the whole of society. This is how these people were able to create spectacular ways to get along and have a very successful society.”
And as it happens, the researchers made another unexpected discovery at the Khoa Reef site. Specifically, the divers found a handful of objects fashioned from shells as well as one entire shell on its own. And, interestingly, these particular shells – which belong to Spondylus or spiny oysters – aren’t native to Lake Titicaca. Instead, they come from the Pacific coast. In fact, the nearest location you’d expect to find them is some 1,200 miles away from the Tiwanaku site.
All in all, then, the discovery of these shells appears to indicate just how wide-ranging the trade networks of the Tiwanaku civilization were. And another member of the team, José M. Capriles, who’s a Penn State University assistant professor of anthropology, remarked on the find to National Geographic in April 2019. He said, “Finding so many Spondylus was really remarkable.” Apparently, you see, Andean civilizations held these spiny oyster shells in high esteem.
Now, while the experts discovered and excavated these splendid artifacts from the bed of Lake Titicaca in 2013, it wasn’t until six years later that the finds were made public. In April 2019 a paper describing the finds and their significance was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And in this report, Delaere, Capriles and Stanish elaborated on their theories about how the Tiwanaku society worked.
There, the three experts claimed that the repeated religious rituals were a way for Tiwanaku’s ruling elite to establish their legitimacy. By demonstrating that they were in control of the gods, the theory goes, the rulers would have been able to convince their population that their leadership was justified. And this site under the Lake Titicaca waters was, the researchers believe, a key location of these ceremonies.