Puma Punku: This Ancient Andean Site Keeps Everyone Guessing
Puma Punku is a Pre-Columbian archaeological site in Bolivia that is steeped in wonder and mystery. The architecture found in the ruins astounds archaeologists and historians and has inspired advanced ancient civilization and ancient alien theories.
Puma Punku (Pumapunku, Puma Puncu) which means “door of the puma,” is part of a larger archaeological complex known as Tiahuanacu (Tiwanaku), and is considered one of the most important sites of Andean archaeology. The unique nature of the site raises curiosity regarding its builders, when it was constructed, and its purpose. These mysteries have arisen ever since the Inca civilization first laid eyes on the ruins of a site that was abandoned centuries before they came across it.
Stone blocks at Puma Punku, Bolivia. (Adwo /Adobe Stock)
When Was Puma Punku Built? Controversial Dates
When an Austrian explorer named Arthur Posnansky performed a study on Puma Punku back in 1926 he put forward the idea that it’s one of the oldest archaeological sites on the face of Earth - dating back to at least 13,000 BC. Posnansky was one of the first modern explorers to examine the site but his hypothesis continues to have many supporters.
Archaeologist Neil Steede, for example, has discussed how the astronomical alignments of the main temple at the site do suggest that it was built to coincide with the summer and winter solstices and the spring equinox as these events would have been seen 17,000 years ago.
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Another group of archaeologists used the carbon dating method to date the construction of Puma Punku to between 400-600 AD. People who disagree with this later date often argue that the radiocarbon dating results provided by anthropology professor William H. Isbell of the University of Illinois are inaccurate and provide an unreliable date range.
The debate on Puma Punku’s construction date and its builders continues.
The Tiwanaku Archaeological Complex
Today, Puma Punku is little more than an assortment of interesting weather-worn stone ruins at first glance, but scholars believe it was once a wonderous site for the Tiwanaku culture. It is one of the main features of the Pre-Columbian Tiwanaku archaeological complex, which also includes the Akapana and Akapana East stepped platforms, the Kalasasaya, Putuni, and Kheri Kala enclosures, and the Semi-Subterranean Temple. There is also evidence of buried homes and irrigation systems laying beneath and between the various features of the Tiwanaku complex.
Virtual reconstruction of an entire andesite building at Puma Punku. (A. Vranich, 2018)
Unfortunately, weather isn’t the only factor that has harmed the site. Amateur archaeological excavation and looting are believed to have occurred repeatedly over the centuries. Several stones have been repurposed for other construction projects, and scholars also believe that many pieces of jewelry, ornaments, metal artifacts, and bright potsherds have been dug up and removed.
In the past, the Tiwanaku culture had made the area an agricultural and trading center which may have supported up to 400,000 people during its heyday. Tiwanaku was the major culture in the region between 700 and 1000 AD, and they controlled not only the Lake Titicaca area, but also stretched their hold over other parts of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile.
A reed boat on Lake Titcaca. (saiko3p /Adobe Stock)
However the Tiwanaku complex was suddenly abandoned sometime around 1000 AD. The general belief is that droughts and possibly civil unrest caused the inhabitants to seek refuge in the surrounding hills. Others say people left due to an earthquake and possibly a huge wave hitting the site.
Either way, when the Inca people reached the site in 1470 it was evident that Tiwanaku had been deserted for centuries. But the Inca were quick to realize the sacred nature of the site and soon added their own mythical story to it.
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How Were Puma Punku’s Stones Cut? Another Mystery
Puma Punku is a large site which expands across a distance exceeding the dimensions of two football fields. It was once an earthen mound with carved red sandstone walls that would have shone in the sun. Archaeological evidence suggests that it once had large courtyards on the eastern and western sides and a wide courtyard at the center.
The most intriguing thing about Puma Punku is the stonework. The red sandstone and andesite stones were cut in such a precise way that it’s as if they were cut using a diamond tool, and they can fit perfectly into and lock with each other.
Puma Punku Stone Blocks – Bolivia. (Adwo /Adobe Stock)
Visitors still marvel at the geometric wonders of the matching H-shaped blocks with approximately 80 faces placed in a row, and the precise cuts and the regularity of the stones – suggesting prefabrication and mass production were employed. Interviews with modern day stonemasons have revealed that even with today’s advanced technology, it would be extremely difficult to replicate the precision observed in the stones found at Puma Punku.
This is part of the reason why many people have suggested that the ancient inhabitants of Puma Punku had received ‘outside help’ to create the site. Others say that Puma Punku’s residents had technology available to them which was later lost – perhaps power tools and even lasers.
On the more conventional side, it’s suggested that the stonemasons were just very capable with the tools available to them and there was a lot of manual labor involved in transporting and working the stones. The conventional explanation for how the stones were worked says that they were first pounded with stone hammers to create depressions, then ground and polished smooth with sand and flat stones.
Stone block at Puma Punku, Bolivia. (Adwo /Adobe Stock)
There are varying reports on the weight of the largest stones – ranging from 140 tons to 800 tons, with the larger number often provided by sources leaning towards alternative explanations on how the site was built. The accepted dimensions for the largest stone at Puma Punku are 7.81 meters (25.62 ft.) long, 5.17 (16.96 ft.) meters wide, and 1.07 meters (3.51 ft.) thick. The second largest stone block at Puma Punku is 7.90 meters (25.9 ft.) long, 2.50 meters (8.20 ft.) wide, and 1.86 meters (6.10 ft.) thick.
Generally it is agreed that the large red sandstone blocks were quarried about 10 km (6.21 miles) away from Puma Punku and the smaller, more ornamental andesite was sourced about 90 km (55.92 miles) away on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Although the Puma Punku megaliths are the most eye-catching aspects of the site, the majority of the architecture is made up of smaller stones.
Precisely carved stone at Pumapunku ruins, Pre-Columbian archaeological site, Bolivia. (Matyas Rehak /Adobe Stock)
How the material arrived at the site is also a matter of debate but many experts believe that the stones were generally shipped across the lake in reed boats and then dragged overland by the large Tiwanaku workforce to reach the site. Llama skin ropes, ramps, and inclined planes, may have all been used in overland transport. More alternative suggestions say the stones could have been moved with some sort of large lifting vehicles – which mainstream archaeologists do not believe existed in the area at the time.
Legends Surrounding Puma Punku and Humanity’s Creation
The Tiwanaku people who inhabited Puma Punku were polytheistic and had a special focus on agriculturally-themed gods. Their creator god is believed to be depicted in the famous Sun Gate, which many scholars think was once located at Puma Punku and only later moved to Kalassaya.
According to the local myths, Puma Punku is related to the gods and the time of the first creation. Legends state that the first inhabitants had supernatural powers and were able to move stones from the ground and carry them through the air using sounds.
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Sun Gate at Tiwanaku, Bolivia. (Matyas Rehak /Adobe Stock)
The Inca people accepted those legends and added that Viracocha – their creator god (and the figure depicted on the Sun Gate in their interpretation) – first made humans at that site. In the legends, it is said that this is where all of humanity’s ancestors, people of various ethnicities, set out to populate the world. For a time, the stone portraits found at Tiwanaku were believed to depict those first humans. Later interpretations suggest the faces are former rulers of the city.
Stone portraits Tiwanaku, Bolivia. (Matyas Rehak /Adobe Stock)
It is little wonder that Puma Punku continues to draw in curious minds with so many unanswered questions and alternative theories available to understanding its origins and creation. It continues to be one of the world’s most mysterious ancient sites and is definitely worth exploring.
Top Image: Megalithic cut stones at the Puma Punku archaeological site, Tiwanaku, Bolivia. Source: dmitriy_rnd / Adobe Stock
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