Tiwanaku, Bolivia: City of the Empyrean Reaches that Defies all our Conventions

The semi-subterrainian Temple, Tiwanaku. In his ‘History of the Incas’, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa tells us that after having created the Sun and the Moon, Wiracocha travelled to Tiwanaku, where he fashioned statues of all the races that were to inhabit the Andes in the age to come.  

A Strange Fascination

I cannot define what has drawn me here, but whatever it most certainly has exerted a force on me. It all began in England in 2004, when I knew I had to come here. The last stage of my trip, an overnight journey from the Chilean border to the Peruvian city of Puno – at 12,556 ft (3,827m) above sea level – left me bed-ridden with altitude sickness for several days. It was during that nauseous and breathless sojourn that something re-asserted itself in me about the nature of reality. The world most certainly was not what I had comfortably come to believe in, neither was it what I been told it was constantly. I eventually became acclimatised to the rarefied atmosphere and pressed on with my journey to Tiwanaku.

It was not as if Tiwakanu provided any clear-cut answers to my new-found revelation; it just deepened my sense of perplexity. It defied all of the rationale inculcated into me over years of teaching and of working Civil Servant. Here before me was this vast city, mostly built from immense blocks of precisely-cut stone, on a mountainous plateau that is elevated some two and a half miles (3.85 km) above the level of the sea. There are no luscious tropical fruits here, neither are there plentiful sources of game. The unforgiving mountain climate makes it a struggle to breathe, let alone grow crops.  What was it that drew people to settle here and to build this great metropolis?

The Andean metropolis

Yet people were drawn here, perhaps even in their tens of thousands. An aerial survey carried out in the 1980s identified some 420 hectares (1,038 acres) of Altiplano that displayed crop markings, indicating that the fields surrounding the present archaeological site were once part of a vast complex. Recent drone surveys have confirmed those earlier findings. What visitors see when they visit Tiwanaku today may give a very false impression of the living metropolis that Tiwanaku once was, for It is very much a twentieth-century creation.

The Tiwanku that visitors see today is but a small part of what was once a vast complex. Much of it has been reconstructed according to the ideas of Bolivian archaeologist Carlos Ponce Sanguines. (© Dave Truman).

With very few exceptions, most modern cities have grown up piecemeal, with streets and suburbs having been added in an ad-hoc manner as their populations grew. Tiwanku was not like that. Earlier aerial surveys carried out in the 1950s by the Bolivian organisation CIAT (Centro de Investigaciónes de Tiwanaku) suggested that the site was planned as a whole and that it adhered to a rigorous astronomical orientation. The metropolis’ principal thoroughfares converged on a structure known as the Akapana. Today it resembles nothing more than a rather large amorphous mound, but in its heyday it was a seven-stepped pyramid which would have looked complex when seen from above, because it appeared ‘stepped’ in plan view.

Akapana Pyramid
Today, the Akapana Pyramid appears as a rather amorphous mound within the Tiwanaku complex. When it was fully functional it was a seven-stepped truncated pyramid that had a complex geometry. The picture shows its partial reconstruction following recent excavations. Originally these adobe terraces comprised andesite blocks joined together by bronze inserts. (© Dave Truman).
How old is Tiwanaku?
The toxodon was one of about 80% of large South American mammal species that died out at the end of the last Ice Age. (Picture, Robert Bruce Horsfall).

Interestingly, when the Austro-Bolivian researcher Arthur Posnansky excavated the Akapana in the first half of the twentieth century, he found it to have been built directly over what he believed was a natural hillock. His excavations also revealed fossilised human remains, including an elongated skull. Posnansky noted that the stratum in which the find lay was the same as one in which toxodons had been found in a place not far away. This would date these very strange human remains to at least 11,700 years ago, if not even earlier. It would seem that the nucleus of Tiwanaku has a very old pedigree indeed.

Conventional archaeology cannot provide answers to any of these questions. Evidence that does not fit the relatively recent inception of the site (c. 3,500 BP) is conveniently forgotten, or is swept under the proverbial carpet.  Although Posnansky photographed the skull, it is nowhere to be found today, despite having been sent off to a museum in La Paz. Similarly, conventional wisdom relies almost exclusively on carbon 14 dating and related methods to draw the picture of Tiwanaku’s chronology. Conveniently, this reinforces the idea that Tiwanaku’s past can be but a comparatively recent one.

I have discussed some of the technicalities of Tiwanaku’s dating elsewhere, but it is worth emphasising here how so much evidence has been brushed aside simply because it raises awkward questions. Even though Posnasnky’s astronomical dating of 17,000 years BP has been shown to be too old, subsequent studies at the site using the same methodology have continued to yield dates that are nearly as early. Curiously, they all agree on a dating of between 11,300 and 12,000 years ago – a period that corresponds to the end of the last Ice Age.

Is astronomical dating valid?

I need to point out here that this method of astronomical dating was originally developed by Sir Norman Lockyer. It is now largely, if reluctantly, accepted as valid for the dating of certain Egyptian and Greek temples and for Phase III of Stonehenge. Yet somehow, the astronomical alignments producing the above dates of all four cornerstones of the Kalasasaya Temple at Tiwanaku are dismissed as mere ‘coincidences’.

Kalasasaya corner stone
One of the four corner megaliths of the Kalasasaya Temple at Tiwanaku that has been used to establish the date of its erection of between 12,000 and 11,300 BP. The adjoining walls are a 20th century reconstruction. Note the extreme weathering of the stone, which was most probably rectangular originally. (© Dave Truman).

Ultimately, whether we  interpret evidence in terms of a larger pattern, or as a result of a random ‘coincidence’ depends upon  our values. Even so, I think many people would be hard put to to repudiate Maria Sholten D’Ebneth’s rediscovery that Tiwanaku sits on an alignment of Andean ancient and sacred sites, stretching all the way to northern Peru. 

If this is indeed no mere ‘coincidence’, then consider the feat of surveying required,  not to mention the knowledge of the Earth’s dimensions and of its curvature.

Mystery of the megaliths
The ‘Lintel’ sits in a part of Tiwanaku called the Kantatalita, where geophysical surveys have recently identified a pyramid buried deep in the mud. Like many pieces of worked andesite at Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, it displays recesses that once housed metal inserts, which were probably bronze. Were these just for securing the stones, or did they function electromagnetically? (© Dave Truman).

The massive worked  stones that lie scattered across the Altiplano are perhaps what raise the most questions in people’s minds, if they think about Tiwanaku and neighbouring Puma Punku at all. How were they moved? Why are some of them cut so precisely? Were they just for buildings, or are they the scattered fragments of machines? There are hundreds of more questions that have been asked, but very few who ask have considered the nature of the stones themselves. By far most of the megaliths at Tiwanku are either red (sometimes striped) sandstone, or grey andesite. (Incidentally the same combination of stones was used at Puma Punku). My research has focused on the andesite, but I also think that the great sandstone blocks need further consideration. The two types of stone may well have complementary properties that were understood by the paleo-engineers who constructed both sites.

Magnetic anomalies

Some of the andesite blocks here on the Altiplano have very unusual properties indeed. They contain lumps of a mineral called magnetite, which as its name suggests, is highly magnetic. Sometimes you can see the black lumps of magnetite near to the surface of an andesite megalith. When this is so, the megalith’s surface is often stained an orange colour, because the air oxidises the magnetite into haematite – common rust.

Andesite block Puma Punku
Andesite block showing a relief carving of a chakana (Andean Cross) exposed during the recent excavations at Puma Punku. It was not possible to test whether this stone created a magnetic anomaly, but other blocks marked with the chkana at both Tiwanaku and the Puma Punku Pyramid certainly do. (© Dave Truman).

Those who built Tiwanaku and Puma Punku knew about the presence of magnetite in these rocks, Indeed, they chose these stones deliberately for their unusual magnetic properties. This is evident  because those megaliths that change the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field most acutely are nearly always marked with a chakana, or Andean Cross. In other words, the builders were quite consciously engineering changes in the Earth’s magnetic field in this locality.

Energetic Tiwanaku

This raises the question of why they would want to engineer the magnetic field. My previous article on Pukara Grande mentioned the work of John Burke in relation to telluric currents. Burke conducted a series of experiments at Tiwanaku’s Akapana Pyramid, where he placed seeds inside its chambers as thunderstorms approached. He found that the seeds grew much more vigorously, and produced much higher yields, than control specimens.

Storm approaching the Akapana Pyramid.
A storm approaches from the South, what was once the truncated summit of the Akapana Pyramid. (© Dave Truman).
Picture of the same storm approaching the Akapana taken with an Oldfield Filter. Notice the accumulation of colours in the cloud above the Pyramid’s summit and on the side away from the approaching storm. Does this indicate fluctuations in the Earth’s electromagnetic field generated by the storm? Compare this photograph with those of a storm approaching Pukara Grande. (© Dave Truman).

Natural electromagnetic fluctuations at Tiwanaku are certainly affected by the presence of thunderstorms there. I have found that the distortions in the magnetic field around these andesite blocks become accentuated as storms approach. On one occasion the compass needle even started to spin in an anti-clockwise direction! More productive harvests would have obvious benefits, especially in this difficult growing environment, but was it the only reason the builders sought to engineer the Earth’s magnetic field here?

Bird manA shamanistic citadelBird man

Another feature of the Tiwanaku complex that conventional archaeology treats inconclusively is shamanism. True, it acknowledges that shamanism was practised here – at least during the the relatively late period when it recognises it was occupied – but it leaves the subject at that.

On the other hand,  I consider that shamanism was a central feature of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, perhaps especially during the very early dates discussed above. Could it really be that the engineering of the Earth’s magnetic field was intended to facilitate shamanistic practices there?

Certainly, shamans might be asked to produce greater crops, but there were  other reasons as well. One curious fact about magnetite is that we actually manufacture it in our bodies. In humans, most of it can be found at the top of the nasal passage and around the centre of our foreheads. This is very close to the pineal gland, which has been associated with the ´third eye´ in many spiritual traditions.. Could it be that we are sensitive to these natural fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and that the magnetite our bodies produce can sense these?  Many researchers think that we are. Perhaps the engineering of the magnetic field at Tiwanaku was also intended to induce altered states of consciousness in the shamans who practised there.

The more I have studied Tiwanaku, the more I have realised that shamanism was central to the very being of the place. Its strange relief carvings have been the cause of many theories. Some, including myself, think that several of them may even hint at large mammals that became excinct at the end of the Ice Age. One thing they are not, however, are realistic representations of any animals – from whatever era.  Invariably, they are exotic combinations of birds, serpents, mammals and humans in what can sometimes seem a baffling mixture of features.

Feline heads at Tiwanaku
Feline heads are abundant in the relief carvings at Tiwanaku. Sometimes they adjoin serpentine bodies, as well as sporting avian hads. This is in addition to as the feline-human therianthrope the chachpuma. (Public domain).

One of the most striking amongst all of these is a creature called the  chachapuma. In a sense, it would be wrong to think of the chachapuma as a cobination of man and puma, because it is really a dynamic transformation from human to feline. Even the most conventional archaeologists recognise this to be a shamanistic motif, which seems to be associated with journeys into the spirit-world.

Here, it is worth understanding the meaning of the name Puma Punku in English: it means ´Gateway of the Puma´. Is it just coincidence (that word again) that doorway and gateway imagery abounds at both Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, including the famous Gateway of the Sun? Perhaps these ´doorways´ were not simply the constructional devices we so often assume them to be.    

The Gate of the Sun
The Gate of the Sun as it was in the early 20th century, before its repair and when much of it was still buried under the Altiplano mud. Local traditions of the Aymara people asserted that this was a gateway where the souls of the dead gathered in order to meet the god Wiracoha and to gain entry to a realm known as Alax Pacha. (Public domain).

I don´t think I shall ever solve all of the mysteries of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku, but it is the fascination of what´s difficult that keeps me returning to this ruined city on the Altiplano.







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