Tiwanaku Empire - Ancient City and Imperial State in South America

Capital City of an Empire Built 13,000 Feet Above Sea Level

Monolith Ponce viewed through the massive door of Kalasasaya from the Semi-Subterranean Temple, Tiwanaku, Bolivia
Monolith Ponce viewed through the massive door of Kalasasaya from the Semi-Subterranean Temple, Tiwanaku, Bolivia. florentina georgescu photography / Getty Images

The Tiwanaku Empire (also spelled Tiahuanaco or Tihuanacu) was one of the first imperial states in South America, dominating portions of what is now southern Peru, northern Chile, and eastern Bolivia for approximately six hundred years (500–1100 CE). The capital city, also called Tiwanaku, was located on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, on the border between Bolivia and Peru.

Tiwanaku Basin Chronology

The city of Tiwanaku emerged as a major ritual-political center in the southeastern Lake Titicaca Basin as early as the Late Formative/Early Intermediate period (100 BCE–500 CE) and expanded greatly in extent and monumentality during the later part of the period. After 500 CE, Tiwanaku was transformed into an expansive urban center, with far-flung colonies of its own.

  • Tiwanaku I (Qalasasaya), 250 BCE–300 CE, Late Formative
  • Tiwanaku III (Qeya), 300–475 CE
  • Tiwanaku IV (Tiwanaku Period), 500–800 CE, Andean Middle Horizon
  • Tiwanaku V, 800–1150 CE
  • hiatus at the city but colonies persist
  • Inca Empire, 1400–1532 CE

Tiwanaku City

The capital city of Tiwanaku lies in the high river basins of the Tiwanaku and Katari rivers, at altitudes between 12,500–13,880 feet (3,800–4,200 meters) above sea level. Despite its location at such a high altitude, and with frequent frosts and thin soils, perhaps as many as 20,000–40,000 people lived in the city at its heyday.

During the Late Formative period, the Tiwanaku Empire was in direct competition with the Huari empire, located in central Peru. Tiwanaku style artifacts and architecture have been discovered throughout the central Andes, a circumstance that has been attributed to imperial expansion, dispersed colonies, trading networks, a spread of ideas or a combination of all these forces.

Crops and Farming

The basin floors where Tiwanaku city was built were marshy and flooded seasonally because of snowmelt from the Quelcceya ice cap. The Tiwanaku farmers used this to their advantage, constructing elevated sod platforms or raised fields on which to grow their crops, separated by canals. These raised agricultural field systems stretched the capacity of the high plains to allow for the protection of crops through frost and drought periods. Large aqueducts were also constructed at satellite cities such as Lukurmata and Pajchiri.

Because of the high elevation, crops grown by the Tiwanaku were limited to frost-resistant plants such as potatoes and quinoa. Llama caravans brought maize and other trade goods up from lower elevations. The Tiwanaku had large herds of domesticated alpaca and llama and hunted wild guanaco and vicuña.

Textiles and Cloth

Weavers in the Tiwanaku State used standardized spindle whorls and local fibers to produce three distinct qualities of cloth for tunics, mantles, and small bags, with the finest requiring specially-spun yarn. Consistency in samples recovered throughout the region led America archaeologists Sarah Baitzel and Paul Goldstein to argue in 2018 that spinners and weavers were part of multi-generational communities likely maintained by adult women. Cloth was spun and woven from cotton and camelid fibers separately and together at three levels of quality: coarse (with a fabric density of under 100 yarns per sq centimeter), medium, and fine (300+ yarns), using threads between .5 mm to 5 mm, with warp-weft ratios of one or less than one.

As with other crafts in the Tiwanaku empire such as goldsmiths, woodworkers, masons, stone tool making, pottery, and herding, the weavers likely practiced their art more or least autonomously or semi-autonomously, as independent households or larger artisanal communities, serving the needs of the entire population, rather than the dictates of an elite.

Stone Work

Stone was of primary importance to Tiwanaku identity: although the attribution is not certain, the city may have been called Taypikala ("Central Stone") by its residents. The city is characterized by elaborate, impeccably carved and shaped stonework in its buildings, which are a striking blend of yellow-red-brown locally-available in its buildings, which are a striking blend of yellow-red-brown locally-available sandstone, and greenish-bluish volcanic andesite from farther away. In 2013, archaeologist John Wayne Janusek and colleagues argued that the variation is tied to a political shift at Tiwanaku.

The earliest buildings, constructed during the Late Formative period, were principally built of sandstone. Yellowish to reddish-brown sandstones were used in architectural revetments, paved floors, terrace foundations, subterranean canals, and a host of other structural features. Most of the monumental stelae, which depict personified ancestral deities and animate natural forces, are also made of sandstone. Recent studies have identified the location of the quarries in the foothills of the Kimsachata mountains, southeast of the city.

The introduction of bluish to greenish-gray andesite happens at the start of the Tiwanaku period (500–1100 CE), at the same time as Tiwanaku began to expand its power regionally. Stoneworkers and masons began to incorporate the heavier volcanic rock from more distant ancient volcanoes and igneous outgroups, recently identified at mounts Ccapia and Copacabana in Peru. The new stone was denser and harder, and the stonemasons used it to build on a larger scale than before, including large pedestals and trilithic portals. In addition, the workers replaced some sandstone elements in the older buildings with new andesite elements.

Monolithic Stelae

Example of monolithic stele at Tiwanaku.
Example of monolithic stele at Tiwanaku. Ignacio Palacios / Stone / Getty Images

Present at Tiwanaku city and other Late Formative centers are stelae, stone statues of personages. The earliest are made of reddish-brown sandstone. Each of these early ones depicts a single anthropomorphic individual, wearing distinctive facial ornaments or painting. The person's arms are folded across his or her chest, with one hand sometimes placed over the other.

Beneath the eyes are lightning bolts; and the personages are wearing minimal clothing, consisting of a sash, skirt, and headgear. The early monoliths are decorated with sinuous living creatures such as felines and catfish, often rendered symmetrically and in pairs. Scholars suggest that these might represent images of a mummified ancestor.

Later, about 500 CE, the stelae carvers changed their styles. These later stelae are carved from andesite, and the people depicted have impassive faces and wear elaborately woven tunics, sashes, and headgear of elites. The people in these carvings have three-dimensional shoulders, head, arms, legs, and feet. They often hold equipment associated with the use of hallucinogens: a kero vase full of fermented chicha and a "snuff tablet" used to consume hallucinogenic resins. There are more variations of dress and body decoration among the later stelae, including face markings and hair tresses, which may represent individual rulers or dynastic family heads; or different landscape features and their associated deities. Scholars believe these represent living ancestral "hosts" rather than mummies.

Religious Practices

Underwater archaeology instituted near reefs near the center of Lake Titicaca itself have revealed evidence suggesting ritual activity, including sumptuary objects and sacrificed juvenile llamas, supporting researchers claims that the lake played an important role to the elite at Tiwanaku. Within the city, and within many of the satellite cities, Goldstein and colleagues have recognized ritual spaces, made up of sunken courts, public plazas, doorways, staircases, and altars.

Trade and Exchange

After about 500 CE, there is clear evidence that Tiwanaku established a pan-regional system of multi-community ceremonial centers in Peru and Chile. The centers had terraced platforms, sunken courts and a set of religious paraphernalia in what is called Yayamama style. The system was connected back to Tiwanaku by trading caravans of llamas, trading goods such as maize, coca, chili peppers, plumage from tropical birds, hallucinogens, and hardwoods.

The diasporic colonies endured for hundreds of years, originally established by a few Tiwanaku individuals but also supported by in-migration. Radiogenic strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of the Middle Horizon Tiwanaku colony at Rio Muerto, Peru, found that a small number of the people buried at Rio Muerto were born elsewhere and traveled as adults. Scholars suggest they may have been interregional elites, herders, or caravan drovers.

Collapse of Tiwanaku

After 700 years, the Tiwanaku civilization disintegrated as a regional political force. This happened about 1100 CE, and resulted, at least one theory goes, from the effects of climate change, including a sharp decrease in rainfall. There is evidence that the groundwater level dropped and the raised field beds failed, leading to a collapse of agricultural systems in both the colonies and the heartland. Whether that was the sole or most important reason for the end of the culture is debated.

Archaeologist Nicola Sherratt has found evidence that, if the center did not hold, the Tiwanaku-affiliated communities persisted well into the 13th–15th centuries CE.

Archaeological Ruins of Tiwanaku Satellites and Colonies

  • Bolivia: Lukurmata, Khonkho Wankane, Pajchiri, Omo, Chiripa, Qeyakuntu, Quiripujo, Juch'uypampa Cave, Wata Wata
  • Chile: San Pedro de Atacama
  • Peru: Chan Chan, Rio Muerto, Omo

Additional Selected Sources

The best source for detailed Tiwanaku information has to be Alvaro Higueras's Tiwanaku and Andean Archaeology.

View Article Sources
  1. Baitzel, Sarah I. and Paul S. Goldstein. "From Whorl to Cloth: An Analysis of Textile Production in the Tiwanaku Provinces." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, vol. 49, 2018, pp. 173-183, doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2017.12.006.

  2. Janusek, John Wayne et al. "Building Taypikala: Telluric Transformations in the Lithic Production of Tiwanaku." Mining and Quarrying in the Ancient Andes, edited by Nicholas Tripcevich and Kevin J. Vaughn, Springer New York, 2013, pp. 65-97. Interdisciplinary Contributions to Archaeology, doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-5200-3_4

  3. Goldstein, Paul S., and Matthew J. Sitek. "Plazas and Processional Paths in Tiwanaku Temples: Divergence, Convergence, and Encounter at Omo M10, Moquegua, Peru." Latin American Antiquity, vol. 29, no. 3, 2018, pp. 455-474, Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/laq.2018.26.

  4. Knudson, Kelly J. et al. "Paleomobility in the Tiwanaku Diaspora: Biogeochemical Analyses at Rio Muerto, Moquegua, Peru." American Journal of Physical Anthropology, vol. 155, no. 3, 2014, pp. 405-421, doi:10.1002/ajpa.22584

  5. Sharratt, Nicola. "Tiwanaku's Legacy: A Chronological Reassessment of the Terminal Middle Horizon in the Moquegua Valley, Peru." Latin American Antiquity, vol. 30, no. 3, 2019, pp. 529-549, Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/laq.2019.39