Uncovering the Tiwanaku: Lost Kingdoms of South America, Dr. Jago Cooper

I haven’t had much exposure to South American archaeology but I just caught up with a great documentary on the Tiwanaku people of Bolivia. A group that grew significantly in power between circa AD 300 and AD 1000. Dr. Cooper’s documentary explored several themes surrounding their rise and subsequent fall such as how the Tiwanaku transported the large boulders that built their famed architecture, how, surprisingly, ‘Chicha’ beer was an integral part of building social and labour communities and the use of hallucinogenic drugs and snuff were used in religious ceremonies!

Verzonken Temple, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Tiwanaku, Bolivia, with thanks to Benjamin Dumas via Creative Commons

The Tiwanaku are particularly famed for their awe-inspiring structures such as Sunken Temple near the South shore of Lake Titicaca and Kalasasaya which are both composed of large stone boulders and used complex carving skills to be produced. Dr. Cooper investigated how such large stone boulders were transported across Lake Titicaca. The answer?

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Boat made from Totora Reeds, with thanks to terrydu via Creative Commons

Totora reeds! While there was no access to wood near Lake Titicaca making wooden boats unviable, the reeds on the banks of the lake meant that the Tiwanakus braided the reeds to create solid floating boat structures such as the one shown in the above picture. The reeds themselves have a fibrous membrane within them making them stronger and more resilient for use on water. In 2010, experimental archaeologists tested the theory by building a giant one of these – they managed to sail a 9 tonne rock across the lake, not bad eh for a few woven reeds?

The Tiwanaku practiced a religion that centred itself around worship of the natural environment. All monuments built by them are not in honour of a king or monarchy (it is suspected that there was no monarchy as it was a universally labour intensive society) but rather in the honour of the mountains that watered their crops through meltwater from snow. The Tiwanaku had priests who would hold ceremonies in which they would drink beer in ‘keros’ highly decorated ceremonial vessels and take hallucinogens (powdered from seeds of the Vilca tree).

Tiwanaku Benjamin Dumas

Statue showing use of a snuffbox and beer drinking vessel, with thanks to Benjamin Dumas via Creative Commons

A distinctive feature of Tiwanaku skulls is that they underwent a form of deformation – a cultural practice used to differentiate themselves from others and to be able to identify themselves as a cultural elite. In order to obtain said skull shape, shaping began in infancy when the child’s head was put between two boards and bound.

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skull deformation image by 10b travelling via Creative Commons

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