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Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) was a pre-Columbian Andean empire whose most important ceremonial and political center was the city of the same name located on the Altiplano (high plateau) in present-day Bolivia. Although there is some disagreement among scholars as to the exact dates of Tiwanaku culture, it is generally accepted to have been the dominant society in the basin of Lake Titicaca from at least 100 ce to approximately 1200 ce. At its height between 500 and 1000, Tiwanaku's influence reached as far as modern-era Chile and Argentina.

Constructed at the high altitude of 12,600 feet, the ancient city of Tiwanaku comprised a ceremonial-administrative center with monumental stone architecture surrounded by more humble residential areas. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the main temples, courtyards, and stelae were constructed between 100 and 725. Although the public precinct of Tiwanaku is relatively small, excavations by the Bolivian archaeologist Carlos Ponce Sanginés have led him to conclude that the whole city covered about 420 hectares (approximately 1,037 acres) and probably had a population of between 20,000 and 40,000.

Tiwanaku exhibits great technological sophistication and complexity. The unique stone works reveal accurate masonry, flat smooth planes, and 90-degree angles. Inhabitants built boats to ferry immense slabs of rock (320,450 lbs) for their ceremonial buildings. Moreover, Tiwanaku cultures utilized stone tool manufacture and could cast bronze and gold. Using their astronomical knowledge, they mapped the annual solar cycle.

The size of the city and other Tiwanaku urban administrative centers in the Titicaca basin (Lukurmata, Pajchiri, Oje), as well as the material evidence of different social classes found during excavations of city sites, indicate that Tiwanaku society was highly stratified. Scholars believe differentiation was important to state integration. Such social complexity was possible because integration was based on coalitions and alliances, and an economic surplus was produced through the skillful use of the altiplano environment for extensive agricultural and herding activities. Near water sources, inhabitants dug canals and constructed raised fields for planting. Doing so enabled them to cultivate potatoes, other root vegetables, and quinoa. They raised alpaca and llamas as pack animals and for wool for clothing. The highland economy was also supplemented with products from other ecological zones that could not be raised on the high plateau. These items, such as the religious and politically important chicha (corn beer), as well as maize, coca, and cotton, were acquired through trade or by means of an "archipelago" system in which groups of settlers were sent by the highland state to establish agricultural colonies in the lowlands.

Indeed, rather than governing through central authority, scholars believe that Tiwanaku consisted of a federation of communities and regional centers. Elites resided at the capital ceremonial center and secondary regional centers, which were demarcated with moats. These central areas exhibited greater cultural uniformity than outlying communities. Though the red-slip clay vessels, the hallmark of Tiwanaku ceramics, appear less and less frequently outside the central religious compounds, at the same time, distinct Tiwanaku textile styles have been found in relatively distant San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Religious rituals and ceremonies, in particular, served to unify the diverse population.

Spread out from the center were corporate kin-based groups known as ayllus. Ayllus were bordered by walled compounds, and families lived in smaller housing complexes within. Ancestors were buried locally, seated, often in residential areas. There is no recorded written language of Tiwanaku, and moreover, ayllus pertaining to Tiwanaku were multiethnic and spoke different languages. Residents used headdresses to denote rank and ethnicity. Still, despite the differences, the population shared common religious and ritual identity with the Tiwanaku center, and made pilgrimages to Tiwanaku, which held utmost religious importance. The social diversity of Tiwanaku contributed to its great social complexity, yet it also might have factored in the empire's disintegration. Interestingly, scholars believe that the Tiwanaku and Wari peoples lived peacefully side by side for centuries; there is no evidence of warfare.

After about 375, Tiwanaku material culture spread through wide areas of the Andes, including Bolivian inland valleys and coastal areas of Chile and Peru. In the sixth century another major center of Tiwanaku culture emerged at Huari (Wari) in the central highlands of Peru. The origins of Huari and its connections with Bolivian Tiwanaku are not clear, but the site may have been established through conquest, and then later have operated as an independent imperial capital. Huari culture declined in the ninth century; Tiwanaku itself also waned, but survived until about 1200.

Though the evidence is inconclusive, scholars speculate that drought and warfare may have contributed to the decline of Tiwanaku. Yet the site, culture, and religion continued to hold significant influence throughout the Andean region. Tiwanaku is a sacred place of the Inca, who arrived in the region in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, hundreds of years after the civilization's decline. Indeed, the diety Viracocha, whose image is carved on Tiwanaku's 10-ton granite "Gateway of the Sun," and who is believed to have created the sun and the moon, is also central to Incan religious beliefs. Likewise, Viracocha is important to the Aymara people who populate the area in the present day.


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                                            Ann Zulawski