Stone faces in the walls of the Tiahuanaco temples

Was Tiahuanaco the Seat of the Mightiest Ancient Civilization in the Americas?

In Bolivia at 4000 meters above sea level, right in the middle of the Andean plateau, stands the megalithic city of Tiahuanaco, which represents a fascinating enigma and one of the most important places for the archaeology of Latin America. Its vestiges tell a millenary history that was partly lost in the darkness of the centuries but echoes in the majesty of its stone buildings. Who were its people then? And above all when was Tiahuanaco built?

Tiahuanaco Temple, Bolivia. (Public Domain)

Tiahuanaco Temple, Bolivia. ( Public Domain )

The Obscure Origins of Tiahuanaco

Archaeologists, scholars and researchers have tried over the years, sometimes without success, to untangle this complex maze of elusive information and impenetrable secrets where history is lost in legend, and in the mythology they look for clues to compose this fascinating puzzle. But what are the true mysteries of Tiahuanaco?

We do not know the real name of ‘Tiwanaku’. In fact, Tiahuanaco is a Quechua name, attributed to it by the Inca, at the beginning of the fifteenth century. According to one of the most widespread interpretations, Tiwanaku would literally mean “the city of God”. However, the real name of Tiwanaku was perhaps Taypikala “the stone in the middle”, or more probably Phoukara, “Shining light of the Sun”. When the Incas led by the legendary emperor Pachacutec came to Tiwanaku for the first time, they felt invaded by astonishment, as a manuscript of the conquest says: “similar buildings had never been seen”.

The Gateway of the Sun at Tiahuanaco. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Gateway of the Sun at Tiahuanaco. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

At the Roots of History

There are several hypotheses about the dating of the culture of Tiwanaku, according to some it developed from the beginning of the sixteenth century BC, for others, however, its birth could date back to the third millennium BC. But it was the father of Bolivian archaeology, Arthur Posnasky, who threw a true aura of mystery on the origins of Tiahuanaco: in his fundamental study titled Tiahuanacu: The Cradle of American Man , Posnasky claimed, based on his archeo-astronomical calculations made on one of the most relevant structures of the city, the Kalasasaya (built either in 4,050 BC or in 10,050 BC), that Tiahuanaco already existed in 15,000 BC!

For sure we know that when the Inca arrived, the city was completely in ruins. Indeed, the end of Tiwanaku remains one of the many unsolved enigmas of pre-Columbian archaeology.

The same scenario presented itself to the eyes of the Spanish conquistadors who visited these places in the 16th century, remaining literally speechless in the face of the incredible dimensions of the buildings.

To tell it is Pedro Cieza de Leon, who in his Crónica del Perú of 1549 described Tiahuanaco:

The builders of these great foundations and fortifications are unknown to us, and we do not know how much time has passed since their time, since today we see only walls of fine workmanship erected centuries and centuries ago. Some of these stones are consumed and in ruins, and there are others so imposing that one wonders how the human hand could carry them to where they are today. I would venture to say that these are the oldest antiquities in all of Peru … I asked the natives if they went back to the time of the Incas, but the natives, laughing at the question, they repeated what I have already said: they were built before the reign of the Incas; but they could not indicate or speculate who or why had erected them.”

Huge fortified walls at Tiahuanaco. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Huge fortified walls at Tiahuanaco. ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )

Already at the time, the reporter highlighted one of the most controversial aspects of the Bolivian city that even today has not found a complete explanation; that is how and by what means it was possible to transport the huge blocks of stone from the quarries that are a little more than a hundred kilometers (62 mi) away. The mysteries also encompass the type of instrumentation used to set up these megalithic blocks. But the very location of Tiahuanaco is the main enigma: it is believed, in fact, that the city was originally a port settlement and stood on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The problem, however, is that the lake is currently located about 20 kilometers (12.5 mi) from Tiahuanaco, which is also located 30 meters (98.5 ft) higher than the coastline. So, it should be assumed that after the foundation of the city, something caused the lowering of the lake level or the raising of the surrounding area. The mysteries do not end here.

The Akapana Pyramid Mound, Tiahuanaco, Bolivia. Franciso Javier Argel (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Akapana Pyramid Mound, Tiahuanaco, Bolivia. Franciso Javier Argel ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )

A few years ago, I met the members of the Italian team led by archaeologist Lorenzo Epis President of Akakor Geographical Exploring and Dr. Soraya Ayub, Head of scientific projects who had identified a series of secret underground tunnels inside the pyramid of Akapana, one of the most enigmatic buildings in Tiahuanaco. The two members of the team that conducted the PAAK-AKAKOR project research started in 2006 and 2007, explained how Tiahuanaco constituted an archaeological complex of enormous interest. Among the major works is the famous “Sun Gate2, cut in a single andesite stone block of about 10 tons, decorated with 48 figures divided in three rows around a character that the Andean call “God”.

The Templete Subterraneo is a vast area, located about two meters below ground level, at the front of the entrance to the Kalasasaya and has a quadrangular plan bounded by vertical monoliths on which are depicted, among other things, more than 170 faces of human races such as Caucasians, Negroids, Asians and Semitics! How was it possible to portray ethnic groups that, according to official accounts, they did not know? Its drainage system for rainwater is extraordinary, maintaining a 2% inclination. Very important from an archaeological point of view is the presence of the so-called Pachamama monolith, also known as the Bennett monolith, in honor of its discoverer in 1932 or Estela 10. The monumental statue weighs about 20 tons and holds in one hand a cup and in the other a knife while anthropomorphic motifs, animals and geometric shapes are engraved on its whole body.

Pachamama monolith or Bennett Monolith, Tiahuanaco Museum, Bolivia. (CC BY 3.0)

Pachamama monolith or Bennett Monolith, Tiahuanaco Museum, Bolivia. ( CC BY 3.0 )


The Kalasasaya (or the temple of the pillars), on the other hand, is a structure that extends for about two hectares, with various constructions inside and appears to be oriented in the direction of the cardinal points. The astronomical function of the Kalasasaya is known. During the winter solstice (June 21st, Tiahuanaco is in the southern hemisphere), the Sun rises (for an observer located at the middle of the west wall with his back to the wall, from now on Point A), in the North-East corner of the temple. During the summer solstice (December 21st), the Sun rises on the South-East corner. During the two equinoxes (autumn, March 21st, and spring, September 21st), the Sun rises in the center of the central portal of access to the temple, which is displaced with respect to the center, 1,116 meters to the north for the reason that will be explained shortly. According to Posnansky, the Kalasasaya was in fact, a petreous calendar, which would have passed on to future generations precious knowledge, such as the dates of the solstices and equinoxes, so important to know the propitious moment for the sowing of cereals (corn, quinoa etc..), and for the cycles of the Andean camelid breeding.

Section of Kalasasaya temple of the pillars. (CC BY 2.0)

Section of Kalasasaya temple of the pillars. ( CC BY 2.0 )

El Fraile

The famous monolith of El Fraile, is located in Puma Punku about 1 kilometer from the main complex, which expresses an extraordinary architectural quality, with pyramidal structure and blocks of basalt and ardesite of over 400 tons, on top of which a quadrangular depression clearly suggests the existence of a possible temple, a building of colossal dimensions, undoubtedly one of the greatest of Tiwanaku's architecture.

Ruins of Puma Punku (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ruins of Puma Punku ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )


And finally, the Akapana a seven-level pyramidal building covered with cyclopean blocks of limestone and refined andesite, for centuries simply known as “La carrera” - the quarry -, a name that enables us to guess how much of this extraordinary building has been lost in the course of the centuries. With a base of about 180 meters (590 ft) on each side and a height of 35 m (115 ft), now reduced to less than half, the Akapana is one of the largest man-made platforms in the world.

Unlike the great Mesoamerican pyramids, the pyramid Akapana has a base of scaled shape, which recalls the plant of an Andean cross. A detail repeated several times throughout the ceremonial center. Seven overlapping steps originally rose up to a height of about 35 meters (115 ft), crossed by imposing stairways flanked in turn by pedestals and statues of black basalt. Some of these statues, recently brought to light, depict the physiognomy of seated puma or human figures with extraordinarily plastic and precise features.

Akapana pyramid in the process of excavation. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Akapana pyramid in the process of excavation. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The ascent to the top of the pyramid was probably marked by a succession of monolithic portals in andesite, of which only one remains in situ, fallen and broken into several parts. Currently only two parallel rows of pillars, still half-buried, remain of the ancient temple to indicate the position of what was probably one of the two main entrances, precisely oriented towards the rising and falling of the sun. Surely it was used for religious functions and rites, but it also represented a laboratory and an advanced astronomical observatory, which used a “pool” about 30 cm (12 in) deep and with a crosslinked surface area of 100 square meters (1076 sq ft) in the shape of an Andean cross.

The Akapana tunnel we found is located in the upper part of the pyramid and its opening is positioned next to an Andean cross shaped pool, used as an astronomical observatory, as the stars were mirrored in it and could thus be studied easily. This tunnel has the shape of a linear conduit, perfectly arranged towards north (there is a variation of 8° - the magnetic decay of the geographical coordinates must however be considered). The first section is a pit of 3 meters (10 ft), perfectly vertical, which leads to a sub-horizontal conduit, which has a small inclination of 15°; after about twenty meters (66 ft) another vertical shaft of 2.5 meters (8 ft), leads to another stretch with the same inclination of the first one. The shape is always regular, until you get to a rough spot; where probably an earthquake or another strong geological event has caused a breakdown of the structure. The most surprising thing is that thanks to the engineering of the Tiwanakotas there has been no collapse of blocks, as they have been very well set with each other. Thus, the duct has collapsed but has leaned homogeneously. Since no glue was used, a gap between a millimeter and a centimeter has opened up between the rocks. This allowed the infiltration of rainwater, which was enriched by calcium carbonate contained in the calcarenarie (sandstone with percentages of calcium carbonate), have created stalactites and stalagmites in the whole extension of the following duct, creating a real caving environment.

Akapana pyramid is huge and offers much opportunity for further exploration. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Akapana pyramid is huge and offers much opportunity for further exploration. ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )

The final section of the conduit is obstructed by clayey sediments that blocked exploration, but on the bottom we could see the presence of lateral ducts which, having the E- W direction, lead towards the inside of the pyramid. Our project is to return to carry out excavations in this tunnel, in order to finish this exploration. The tunnels could lead to the outside through a maze of passages to allow the priests to go from the top of the pyramid, in the perimeter temples, or in the lodgings, away from the pyramid for a possible escape, or in secret rooms where to meet, or perform rituals, these rooms could contain objects or artifacts that would reveal most of the secrets of this civilization.

The Akapana pyramid is the largest building erected by the Tiahuanacota culture. (Boliviaesturismo)

The Akapana pyramid is the largest building erected by the Tiahuanacota culture. ( Boliviaesturismo)

The Pyramid of Akapana is crossed by a maze of passages, tunnels and pipelines, in turn intersected by vertical wells and smaller collectors, as evidence of an engineering work with few equals in the ancient world, to the point of suggesting daring analogies with the identical conduits inside the great pyramid of Giza and thus give rise to an incredible succession of hypotheses about the existence of secret chambers inside or below the pyramid. Also worthy of note is the extraordinary technical quality achieved by the ancient builders in the assembly of stone blocks, well attested by a series of dovetail joints that guaranteed a perfect seal of the floor joints. Of particular importance is the perfect definition of the symmetries and the corners of the structures, the processing of the stones and the support systems used.

The astronomical orientations of the constellation of Aquarius and Scorpio will be the object of the study analysis. A datum detected on site is the perfect orientation towards the Magnetic North of the tunnel explored, which points towards the “Cordillera Real”, an important spiritual deity for these populations. In light of this, it is not to be excluded that future tunnels will be directed towards other cardinal points or towards other symbols.

As the researcher Sorya Ayub points out, the Tiahuanaco civilization knew very well the science of sound propagation and always used this technique inside its temples and an example was observed in the Kalasasaya temple. The explored tunnel does not differ from this theory because, although the team had radios to keep contact between the external and explorative teams, these were never used because, thanks to the perfect sound propagation, they could hear from the outside and with great clarity the voice of people in any part of the tunnel.

This is further evidence that this tunnel was not just for water collection but was a real way of passage and communication between the priests. And if indeed in light of all these historical, archaeological, astronomical and geological anomalies, the culture of Tiahuanaco was much more ancient than what the official sources want us to believe? The research continues …

Top image: Stone faces in the walls of the Tiahuanaco temples. ( CC BY 2.0 )

By Massimo Bonasorte

Dr Massimo Bonasorte  is the founder and publisher of the magazine  Veritas Arcana .


Posnansky, A (1945). Tihuanacu, the cradle of American man . La Paz: Ministerio de Educacion, 1945-1957.

Cieza de Leon, P. (1549). Segunda parte de la crónica del Perú. Available from:


Are there any ancient cities that we know the pre-Columbian name of?

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