Tiwanaku – Bolivia’s most famous archaeological site

The archaeological site of Tiwanaku is located about an hour and a half outside of La Paz, Bolivia. The city was the center of the Tiwanaku state, which existed during the Middle Horizon (500-1100 CE). At its height, between 20,000-30,000 people lived in the valley, and the temples were visited by populations from around the region who were under the control of the Tiwanaku ruler. A vast majority of the population of Tiwanaku had artificially modified skulls – think Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, but real. The culture likely collapsed due to a severe drought in the already desolate region which caused great food shortages and led to the migration of people out of the valley.
Today the site is home to two museums and two separate archaeological sites, Tiwanaku and Puma Punku. The museums are fairly small and pretty run down, though they are in better condition that they were when I visited two years ago. The Lithic Museum contains many stone pieces which were brought inside to prevent further damage from the weather, including a large stone monolith called Bennett which was displayed along El Prado in La Paz before being returned to the site. The second museum describes the history of the region (for the most part), and includes pottery and artifacts which range from the Preceramic Period to the Inka. The only truly unique thing in the museum is a local Aymara mummy which is housed in a wicker basket like container.  
The archaeological sites themselves also leave much to be desired. Many of the earliest excavations were no better than looting, and the artifacts and stones have almost entirely been moved out of place. Also, due to a long history of bureaucratic nightmares with the Bolivian government, few archaeologists have ever excavated at the site for more than a season, so much of the research has been fragmentary at best. Now, local people conduct “excavations” at the site and further disrupt any possible means of understanding what happened at the site at its height.  


Llama chilling in front of Akapana
Tiwanaku itself is made up of a couple of different parts, primarily the Akapana pyramid and the Kalasasaya temple. The Akapana pyramid has been heavily reconstructed, but not with the original blocks, which are laying to the side. Most of the structure is still under a mound of dirt, so only bits and pieces are visible. The most important part of the site is the Kalasasaya temple and sunken temple located just in front of it. The sunken temple follows a long history of similar temples which can be found on the Copacabana peninsula. Inside this temple, however, are stone faces which jut out of the walls and two stone monoliths. The Kalasasaya temple, which is a raised platform just behind the sunken court, includes two monoliths, Ponce and Fraile, as well as Puerto del Sol. While these pieces are currently in this court, no one actually knows where they were originally located due to the lack of documentation by the first archaeologists at the site.  


Sunken temple in front of Kalasasaya
Monolith Ponce
The second site at the Tiwanaku complex is Puma Punku, which has been featured on Ancient Aliens for being built by aliens (news flash: it wasn’t). This site is characterized by large H shaped stone blocks which look perfectly straight, though in reality they aren’t (they’re still impressive though). Unfortunately, this site is even more damaged than the main Tiwanaku site, and even less information is known about it. However, the most impressive stonework in the area is located at this part of the site. Overall, the entire Tiwanaku complex is fairly underwhelming when compared to any archaeological sites in Peru, however, it is definitely still worth visiting when in Bolivia, as it was the center of one of South America’s largest civilizations over a thousand years ago.  

H blocks at Puma Punku

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David Hansen

Bioarchaeologist in training with an incurable travel bug. I write about my travel experiences and archaeological sites/research from around the globe.

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