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 four hundred years (AD 550-950). 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 BC-AD 500), and expanded greatly in extent and monumentality during the later part of the period. After 500 AD, Tiwanaku was transformed into an expansive urban center, with far-flung colonies of its own.

  • Tiwanaku I (Qalasasaya), 250 BC-AD 300, Late Formative
  • Tiwanaku III (Qeya), AD 300-475
  • Tiwanaku IV (Tiwanaku Period), AD 400-800, Andean Middle Horizon
  • Tiwanaku V, AD 800-1150
  • hiatus
  • Inca Empire, AD 1400-1532

Tiwanaku City

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

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. Recently, Janusek and colleagues have 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 (AD 500-1100), 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

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 AD, the stelae change in style. These later stelae are carved from andesite, and the persons 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 for hallucinogenic resins. There is 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.

Trade and Exchange

After about 500 AD, 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 AD, 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.

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


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