Lake Titicaca: before the Inca, the Tiwanaku worshipped


Famous religious site was in use much earlier than previously thought. Andrew Masterson reports.


Puma-shaped incense burners were among the pre-Inca artefacts recovered from the waters around the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.

Teddy Seguin

The Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, is one of the most famous sacred locations associated with the Inca people, but archaeologists have shown that the site was a centre for religious worship a thousand years before great Andean civilisation arose.

In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences researchers led by archaeologist Christophe Delaere from the University of Oxford, UK, reveal the results of underwater excavations in the Khoa Reef near the Island of the Sun.

As well as uncovering several items of historical and archaeological interest by dredging through sediment, the researchers used sonar and underwater three-dimensional photogrammetry to scan and map the reef.

It had already been established that between 500 and 1100 CE, Lake Titicaca was the province of the Tiwanaku – one of the two great civilisations that occupied the Andes before the rise of the Incas in the fifteenth century. (The other was the Wari society, which based itself near the city of Ayacucho in what is today Peru.)

Delaere and colleagues recovered a number of items thought to have ritual connotations, including ceramic feline incense burners, and shell or stone ornaments. They also found the remains of juvenile llamas, thought to be sacrificial offerings.

“People often associate the Island of the Sun with the Incas because it was an important pilgrimage location for them and because they left behind numerous ceremonial buildings and offerings on and around this island,” says co-author Jose Capriles from Penn State University, US.

“Our research shows that the Tiwanaku people, who developed in Lake Titicaca between 500 and 1100 CE, were the first people to offer items of value to religious deities in the area.”

The feline incense burners depicted pumas, known to be an animal with strong religious connotations for the Tiwanaku. Also present were a number of anchors, suggesting that rituals were conducted, at least in part, on boats.

“It was a strategic and ritually charged place,” says Capriles.

“At the Island of the Sun and the Khoa Reef, religious specialists could come together for sacred ceremonies. The ritual offerings they made here demonstrate the transitioning of societies from more local-based religious systems to something that had a more ambitious geopolitical and spiritual appeal.”

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  1. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/03/26/1820749116
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