Paul Harmon, director of the experimental project at Tiwanaku, test drives a small totora reed boat. (Courtesy Paul Harmon)
Paulino Esteban inspects dried totora that will be used to build our boat. (Paul Harmon)
Paul Harmon and Alexei Vranich discuss initial boat design with the Ayamara totora reed boat builders. (Courtesy Paul Harmon)
This gives you an idea of the size and shape of the boat. As amazing as this is, the finished product will still look quite different. (Paul Harmon)
This illustration shows the relative sizes of the stone, the boat, and an Aymara adult. Our boat will also have the head of a condor, a very powerful symbol to the Aymara, on its prow. (Illustration by Paul Harmon)
by Paul Harmon

Experimental Archaeology

One of the most puzzling aspects of the Tiwanaku pyramids is the lack of nearby quarries. Analysis of the red sandstone places one quarry 10 kilometers away, an incredible distance considering that one of the stones alone weighs over 130 tons. The source of the green andesite stones, the material from which the most elaborate carvings and monoliths are made, is on the Copacabana peninsula, across Lake Titicaca. One theory is that these giant andesite stones (the largest weighing 40 tons) were transported some 90 kilometers across Lake Titicaca on reed boats, then laboriously dragged another 10 kilometers to the city. Using only traditional techniques and locally available materials, we'll be testing this theory by recreating the Tiwanaku building process with a group of leading Aymara experts in totora reed boat building.

Reed boat manufacturing in this region includes gathering and joining bundles of totora reeds and fastening them with rope made from dried out prairie grass or ichu. The reed bundles are connected with more ichu to build the spine of the boat. Finally the row of bundles are pounded into a crescent shape. If we emulate the ancient design successfully, the raft's porous nature should filter out water from the waves kicked up by the high winds of the Altiplano. If not, they could be swamped and lose the stone or worse.

Once the stone is dragged to Tiwanaku, local masons will carve it into a reproduction of one of the statues on site, the Ponce monolith. The original will be taken to the newly constructed museum to protect it from erosion, and the reproduction will be put in its place with great fanfare and celebrations from the indigenous communities.

June 28, 2002

The totora reed boat project has many goals, all of which must be accomplished by means that would have been available to the ancient Tiwanakans:

  • Locate an andesite stone on Lake Titicaca weighing nearly eight tons that can later be carved by artisans to match the Ponce monolith at the Kalisasaya complex.
  • Build a totora reed boat that is capable of carrying the stone from the quarry across Lake Titicaca.
  • Identify the means by which we will transport the stone to the boat, load it on the boat, unload the stone at our destination, and transport it to the location where it will be carved.

We've formulated a plan for loading the eight-ton stone onto the boat. Click on the image above for the full diagram and explanation. (Design by Paul Harmon)

Over the last three weeks we have worked with Aymara boat builder Paulino Esteban and his team on a design that would be capable of carrying such a stone. They have built extremely large boats of totora before, but never one that could carry the amount weight we need. Our boat will be roughly 14 meters long, five meters wide, and two meters high, and use 3,000 bundles of totora reeds. Each bundle is five to six feet high and requires an adult to wrap both arms around it. The boat will have two or three sails, also made of totora reeds, and it will have two to four very large oars on each side for traveling capabilities in all wind conditions.

The totora reeds have been cut and dried and are about ready for construction. We have searched for andesite quarries--Copacabana being the best candidate for now--and have researched ancient methods for moving large stones. We have explored possible sailing routes on the lake and tested various totora reed boats. All of this will continue over the next few weeks as final decisions are being made.

July 18, 2002

One of the critical elements in building our totora reed boat is allowing the reeds to properly dry for about two to three weeks. Unfortunately this past week we had quite a few days of rain that has put us about a week behind schedule. The wind was blowing extremely hard for days, and the lake resembled an ocean with whitecaps of around five feet. It's easy to see how treacherous this lake can be!

Cross section view of a tortora reed boat (Courtesy Paul Harmon)

Each of the circles in the diagram above is a bundle of totora reeds connected together, varying in size depending on the size of the boat. In our boat, each roll within the body is about 24 inches in diameter made by bundling thousands of totora reeds together. There will be about 25 of these bundles in each of the two bodies all lashed together by rope. Then the two bodies will be lashed together with the heart, which is three rolls of bundled reeds. Finally, the rails--also totora bundles--will be attached to the bodies with rope. The heart will not be visible in the final project. Click here for detailed image.

Paulino's son-in-law, Bralio--also a master builder and perhaps Paulino's successor--came up with the perfect name for our project, The Qala Yampu Project. In Aymara, qala means stone, and yampu means totora boat.

August 18, 2002

Our boat is very close to being finished. It is truly amazing! We plan to launch it on Sunday, August 25. We'll sail for about two days from Huatahata to Copacabana, where our stone is located.


The stone we've selected is about nine tons and rests on a slope above relatively deep water on the shore of Copacabana. We plan to move the stone with levers, ropes, lubrication (fish or vegetable oil), and as many people as are required. This part of the project will be a greater feat than building the boat. We are in the process of building a stone ramp from the shore into the water where the boat will sail up. Click here for an example of such a ramp.

We are going to attempt to move this nine-ton stone and transport it across the lake. (Drawing by Paul Harmon)

We think it will take one day to load the stone on the boat, then we will sail for about three days to a point on Lake Titicaca close to Tiwanaku where we will unload the stone. Once we transport the stone to Tiwanaku, we will have local artist carve the stone into a new monolith that celebrates both old and new cultures alike. It will be displayed at the new museum in Tiwanku, telling its story for all to see.

August 26, 2002

The boat set sail yesterday! Follow its daily progress through photos and video at reedboat.freeshell.org.

Captain's Diary

September 26, 2002

The Qala Yampu project was a success! Please read the logs above for the full story.

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