It is a place of tantalizing clues about a civilization largely lost to history: ancient monoliths aligned to the cosmos, puzzling symbols on the archways, stone gods, and bejeweled skeletons—all perched on a high, rocky plain where it seems impossible that humans could have survived 1,500 years ago.
With these elements, the ancient city of Tiwanacu, on the shore of Lake Titicaca in western Bolivia, is a standby in legends that span continents and centuries. It figures prominently in ancient Incan mythology as the birthplace of mankind, and it has been cited as a candidate for the lost city of Atlantis (based on faulty research from the 1920s).
As archaeologists continue to excavate the site, which flourished between the years 500 and 950 before abruptly collapsing, they are piecing together the story of an ancient spiritual capital that thrived in the inhospitable heights of the Andes.
Tiwanacu is as much a marvel of engineering as it is of early spirituality. Though it predates the Incas by over a millennium, the ruins suggest an advanced irrigation system, using raised fields, and the ability to transport large amounts of stone over long distances.
Like Stonehenge, to which the site is often compared, Tiwanacu has many stone gates and monoliths that align with the arc of the sun on the solstices or equinoxes, and some experts argue that early Andeans had decoded the migration of constellations and incorporated those patterns into the structures as well.
Doomed. Archaeologists believe that rapid changes in the ecology of the region doomed the original inhabitants in the mid-10th century. Nearly 500 years later, as the expansive Incas were spreading through the Andes, they restored the site to its spiritual significance and stitched its story into their own legend of creation, in what proved to be a common practice for the various Andean peoples at the time. "There are a couple of different origin myths, and a lot of them converge on Tiwanacu," says Alan Kolata, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago who has excavated part of the site. "It is clear that Tiwanacu had broad cultural prestige throughout the Andean region."
Unlike other popular pre-Columbian settlements such as Peru's famed Machu Picchu, however, there has not been a major effort to tell Tiwanacu's historical story well to visitors. "Unfortunately, Bolivia doesn't command the resources to put together an international-quality museum," Kolata says.
The tourists who do visit the site often arrive by bus from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, and return the same day without much interaction with the local Aymara population, says Clare Sammells, one of Kolata's doctoral students, who studies the site and the surrounding area. Because the local residents remain deeply connected to the site, she says, it is a backdrop sought out by Bolivian leaders. The site also attracts New Age devotees drawn by its supposed location as a nexus of spiritual energy.
Each June, thousands of people converge on Tiwanacu to watch the sun rise. "The site was built to be a pilgrimage in its original construction, and it very much still evokes these feelings of grandeur," Sammells says of the event. "It's so cold, that night in June, that when the sun rises, it really brings a sense of the sun rising for the first time."
Much of that grandeur, Kolata argues, is a product also of the surrounding landscape. Tiwanacu is surrounded on three sides by mountains and on one side by a lake, and the environment is central to its mythic qualities. "There is something about that landscape that really does transform you," he says. "At night, you have this incredible sky with the Milky Way just laid out before you."