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June 2002-January 2005Interactive Dig at Tiwanaku
Removing one of the large stones from an excavation unit (Zachary J. Christman)
Alexei Vranich surveys at the Pumapunku temple. (Courtesy Alexei Vranich)
Paul Harmon discuss initial boat design. (Courtesy Paul Harmon)

Tiwanaku Q&A

You dated Tiwanaku to A.D. 500-950. Didn't it have a much longer flourishing period from about A.D. 300-1100?

   Dating collapse is always difficult. Even after the site was abandoned, people continued to live in the area and leave offerings. I'm placing the end of Tiwanaku a bit earlier than most at A.D. 950 based on the last carbon date we have associated with a monumental structure. Something important happened around that date that radically transformed Tiwanaku. The settlements in Moquegua, Peru, are also abandoned, and several monumental structures at Tiwanaku remain incomplete.
   However, in the next year we should be getting much more information, so I might quite possibly stand corrected.--Alexei Vranich, director of the Tiwanaku project

Is the name of the city not spelled Tihuanaco?

   There are at least half a dozen ways to spell Tiwanaku. I've seen Tiaguanaco, Tiahuanaco, Tiahuanacu, Tia huanaco, Tiwanaku, and Tiawanaku. I use the way the Aymara spell it (Tiwanaku) for the ruins, and Tiahuanaco for the modern town.--Alexei Vranich

Have any icons of gods or goddesses been discovered in the ruins? Have any of the actual deities themselves been identified?

   There are several monoliths on the site that mostly likely represented deity figures, such as the Ponce monolith found in the Kalasasaya Complex.
   Probably the most famous depiction of a deity figure is that of the "Staff God" on the Gateway of the Sun. Many scholars have likened this figure to "Viracocha", the creator god of the Inca. Since there is no written record at the time, we can never be certain if this figure represents Viracocha or not for the Tiwanaku people. What is certain is that this deity figure has a long history in the Andes, found in such places an Nazca, where the famous lines in the desert are found.--Alexei Vranich

How do you determine how far to go with a reconstruction? How much of what you reconstruct is pure guesswork?

   One of the biggest problems with Tiwanaku is the difficulty figuring out the difference between the modern reconstructions and the original remains. When archaeologists do reconstruct, the rule is that you make it clear what was original and what is new. Ideally, the reconstructed part can be easily dismantled in the future if it proves to be incorrect.
   Personally, I'm against reconstructing archaeological sites and would prefer to consolidate the remains so that both scholars and tourists alike can view the remains and come to their own conclusions.--Alexei Vranich

What do you think the population size was at this site?

   Estimating prehistoric populations is a tough one for sure. The monuments of Tiwanaku are only a small part of the site. A surface scatter of pottery, bone and ash spread out for about 4 to 6 square km indicating that a good amount of people lived around the monuments. Was the entire site occupied at the same time, or did the population move around over the centuries that the city was occupied? Hard to tell without more excavation. At the moment, estimates for the population of the city range from 10,000 to 60,000 at its height.--Alexei Vranich

What measures are being taken in order to preserve the site?

   The situation at the site is quite critical. In the brief time that I've been there I've seen more roads and houses built directly on the site, destroying archaeological remains and ruining the aesthetics of the place. Just two weeks ago we (Japan-Unesco) finished evaluating the condition of the site and we'll be proposing a management plan for both the town and site in November. Hopefully this plan will be able to preserve the site and direct growth in a sustainable manner.--Alexei Vranich

How big is the discovery and excavation of the pyramid in terms of tourism in Bolivia and what it means for Tiahuanaco itself? Do you think that Tiahuanaco is ready for the kind of mass tourism that such a discovery brings with it?

   These structures have been "re-discovered" a number of times from the Inka occupation of the site centuries after their abandonment, to the first Spanish chroniclers, to more recent, academic parties. Recent excavation are focused in understanding the spatial relation of these massive structures to one another and it is in this our recent excavations are aimed.
   This season perhaps the issue of greatest interest has been what at first seemed to be areas of empty space between the ceremonial centers, have been shown to have been full, in part, by areas of domestic and varied activity--not vacant at all!
   In terms of tourism, you are correct. Tiwanaku features as the top tourist destination in Bolivia and has for many years. Every year thousands of visitors from all over the world come to view the remains as it is a short day trip from the capitol city. Several thousand tourists descend upon the site each year for the summer solstice celebration alone. While tour guides vary greatly in their knowledge of the site, the two museums are well equipped to provide tourists with an idea of what was going on at the site.--Kate Davis, Harvard teaching fellow

I can't agree that the Inka were so impressed by the ruins of Tiwanaku that they made it a point of origin for themselves. The Andean area the Inkas conquered was scattered with great ancient cities, many of them much older than Tiwanaku. There have to be more reasons the Inka held Tiwanaku important.

   You're right to point out that the Andes were littered with other abandoned cities when the Inka built their empire, and that it would be odd for them to ignore all of those sites. The Inka, like so many imperial powers, knew that one useful strategy was to take control of and co-opt the sacred places of conquered groups and ancient places of great mythical and historical importance. Archaeological studies by Brian Bauer and Charles Stanish on the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca have shown it to be a sacred place for millennia before the Inka built a complex ritual pilgrimage circuit from the Copacabana Peninsula across the Islands of the Sun and Moon. The Inka also built a large temple at the ancient sacred center of Pachacamac, on the Pacific Coast near Lima, and they buried an important lord in the top of an older pyramid-temple at Tucumé, on the north coast of Peru. Tiwanaku is not an isolated example of this kind of behavior by the Inka.
   Tiwanaku, however, does occupy a special place among these sites, because it is was singled out in some Inka creation stories as the place where Viracocha created the first couples of the Andean peoples before he sent them forth to their homelands across the Andes. According to this myth, recorded by early Spanish chroniclers, Tiwanaku is the origin place or pacarina of all Andean ethnic groups. This would have been important for the Inka, because a group's identity was often tied to physical spaces like caves and mountains, associated with their origins and mythic histories. One example is Pacarictambo, the cave outside Cuzco where the first Inka couples emerged from the earth after their journey from Tiwanaku. By controlling Tiwanaku, the Inka could claim to control the place where all of their subject peoples--and those who they were still trying to conquer--had originated. That's a pretty strong ideological statement!
   As to exactly why some Inka creation myths revolve around Tiwanaku is an open question. The site's proximity to the sacred Lake Titicaca, its role as a pilgrimage center during the Middle Horizon, and its pan-Andean influence are all likely parts of the reason that Tiwanaku was accorded this special role.--Jason Yaeger, director of the Inka Settlement Program

Has any progress been made in deciphering the glyphs on the gateway? Do they seem to convey any particular cultural ideas beyond just being visual symbols? I was also wondering if any artifacts have been found that have similar glyphs.

   The symbols on the gateway are found in artifacts not only all across Tiwanaku (on pottery, textiles, stone, bone carvings), but across the entire Andes in the time period before and after. The primary symbol on the gate is the "staff god" or the "gateway god," the "crying god," and a few other versions. This symbol is especially prevalent in designs across many pre-Columbian cultures.
   As for the meaning, that's another can of worms. Some people see a calender of days and months, others a record of the lunar and solar cycle, while other see language and a similarity to Mayan writing. Sometimes I listen to the guides give explanation to their tour groups to get the latest trend. My opinion? I believe it has some calendric aspect, but that's about as far as I go at the moment.
   Without a doubt, the Gateway was an important piece of architecture at Tiwanaku and was probably placed in a prominent place. At the present, the Gateway is as recognizable and iconic to every Bolivian as the Liberty Bell is to North Americans.--Alexei Vranich

Is there any connection between the Tiwanaku culture and the Olmec of Central America?

   The Olmec civilization was one of the early complex societies of Mesoamerica, flourishing along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1500 and 600 B.C. Although the exact nature of their contacts with neighboring societies in Mesoamerica and their influence on those societies is debated, it is clear they were a very important group in the early history of Mesoamerica.
   There has been some suggestion that the Olmec had contacts with South America. Some scholars have pointed out striking similarities in the religion and symbolism of Olmec art and that of Chavin de Huantar, an important and influential early site in northern Peru. The scholarly consensus, however, is that those parallels were not the product of direct contact between the Olmec society and Chavin. In fact, there is little concrete evidence of Olmec contact further south than Costa Rica.
   When in comes to Olmec contact with the Inka Empire, the timing doesn't really work out. The Inka had their origins in the Cuzco region sometime after A.D. 1100 or 1200, and they didn't begin their major imperial expansion until A.D. 1450, roughly 2000 years after the decline of the major Olmec centers like La Venta.
   The most likely point of direct contact between Mesoamerica and South America during Prehispanic times was along the Pacific Coast. There are certain similarities in dress, architecture, pottery, and metallurgical practices between societies of the West Mexican coast and those of the Pacific coast of northern Peru and Ecuador. These similarities have convinced a growing body of scholars that there were sustained and influential contacts between those two areas.--Jason Yaeger

One test of the reed boat theory might be to look for quarried blocks on the lake bottom lost to accident.

   There are stones in various locations that are believed to have been on their way to Tiwanaku. Some are at the lake's edge, some under the water, some partially under. We are currently exploring other leads as well for such stones, and will try to look at all of them.
   Our project is much more complex than that. We want to show how a totora reed boat of ancient design handles carrying such a heavy load over such a distance. How is the balance affected by such a load?
   We want to discover and demonstrate how to move such a large stone, and how to load and unload it on such a boat, using methods that would have been available in ancient times. Do we use ropes, levers, tracks, lubricants, rollers (wood, totora, stone) or a combination? How many people are required to do such?--Paul Harmon, director of the reed boat experiment

Can you tell me something about the stone quarries you investigate or list some literature?

   Ponce Sangines published an extensive study on the origin of sandstones at the Pumapunku temple and ideas on how they were constructed. His book is called Pumapunku.
   Pierre Protzen's study is one of best on the particulars of the masonry and construction method. He should be coming out with a substantial publication on his several years of study on the site.--Alexei Vranich

It is possible that pebbles, stones, or sand might have been implemented against hard surfaces to move stone along a path, as well conditioned workers pushed and/or pulled the stones?

   Friction is one of the most important factors in determining how many people are required to move such stones. Anything we can do to reduce the friction obviously reduces the number of people required. Pebbles, stones, or sand would all work. In our case we are going to construct a stone ramp, using various sizes of stones. We are also going to use a some sort of oil (fish, vegetable, etc) to reduce the friction.--Paul Harmon

Were any musical instruments found during your digs?

   In the next valley over, Dr. John Janusek from Vanderbilt University excavated what appears to be a workshop that specialized in making musical instruments. I believe his research was published in Latin American Antiquity in 2000.--Alexei Vranich

What kinds of artifacts are you finding and how can they be linked to the European conquests?

   In this season alone we've found thousands of artifacts such as ceramics, bones of animals and people, and tools made in stone and metal. We also collected soil samples for chemical analysis from the floors to see if we can determine what types of activities were going on inside and outside the houses. We'll be conducting an analysis of these remains during year.
   On the temple of Pumapunku we've found a very ephemeral Colonial occupation in the form of a few pot sherds and a metal nail. The Inka settlement next to the temple was burned at some point, and while it would be tempting to related this to the Spanish conquest of the basin, the resolution of the evidence we have is not that fine.--Alexei Vranich

Will you examine the magnetic field of the Akapana, especially the alignment in the direction of the Pumapunku?

   Just about every guide to the site places a compass on the Akapana pyramid stone to show its magnetic properties. I've never paid much attention to this since the compass effect is a natural property of the stone. However, Tiwanaku is full of alignments--solar and lunar towards natural features on the landscape--I would be interested in investigating.--Alexei Vranich

Since it has been stated that the Gateway is 14,000 years old, is it possible to prove or disprove this? Also, how do you account for images of Africans and Chinese features in the small temple?

   Tiwanaku is a magnet for Atlantis hunters and a variety of new agers. The idea that Tiwanaku is 14,000 years old is based on a rather faulty study done in 1926. Since then, there has been a huge quantity of work both on the archaeology and geology of the area, and all data indicates that Tiwanaku existed from around A.D. 300-500 to 900-1000.
   Still, the Atlantis hunters flock to the site. I believe the Discovery Channel is even making another documentary on the possibility that the Andes is the lost continent described by Plato.
   As for the elephants and other animals that are supposed to be on the Gateway, I really can't find them myself. One carving that is frequently cited as an elephant (including by several guides) is in fact a condor.--Alexei Vranich

Were the Tiwanaku people descendants of Easter Island inhabitants?

   There is some limited evidence that Polynesians may have sailed as far as the coast of South America, but their impact on the cultural development of the area is quite limited. The prehistory of the Titicaca basin is well documented, and we have been able to chart the local development of several interesting civilizations around the shores of the lake with Tiwanaku being the largest and most complex before the arrival of the Inka.--Alexei Vranich

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