Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) is believed to be the centre of a Pre-Inca civilisation, started by Aymara people from the Lake Titicaca basin in Peru and Bolivia over 2,000 years ago. It is a mysterious ruined city of very ancient origins, that arose about 600 BCE on the shores of Lake Titicaca; its waters are now about 20 kilometres away to the north.
Construction of the city and ceremonial site began around 700 CE and flourished for several centuries. At its height, the city was home to 20,000 inhabitants and covered 2.6 square kilometres of land. It was built with massive blocks weighing up to 100 tons. The stones, fitted together without mortar, were cut, squared, dressed, and notched with a precision equaled in no other aboriginal South American civilisation, including the Inca. By the year 1000, Tiahuanaco culture had spread to Eastern Bolivia, Northern Chile and Peru. It flourished for about 200 years, then died when Lake Titicaca's water level lowered and the shoreline receded from the city. However, the culture lived on through its strong religious influence on the Incas.
Archaeologists have divided the history of Tiwanaku into five periods:
Advent of Tiahuanaco civilisation to mid-5th-century BCE. Finds from this period include multicoloured pottery and human or animal effigies made of painted clay.
5th-century - 1st century BCE. Artefacts include ceramic vessels with horizontal handles.
1-300 CE. Tricolor pottery in geometric designs, decorated with images of stylised animals.
The Classic Period, 300-700 CE. This period produced the large stone structures seen today, and the use of bronze and gold indicates trade contacts. Pottery includes human heads and faces with bulging cheeks, indicating the coca leaf was in use by this time.
The Expansive Period, 700-1200 CE. A period of decline, with less elaborate pottery and few construction projects.
The Incas, who later moved to the region, believed the city was built not by an earlier civilisation, but by the god Viracocha himself. For the Incas, Tiahuanaco was the place where the first humans were created and the capital from which Viracocha reigned over the civilisation. Since the arrival of the Spanish, the treasures of Tiahuanaco have been scattered all over the world. Its gold was looted by the Spanish and some artefacts were destroyed by Catholic zealots who considered them pagan idols. Other statues were kept by the church or sold by the church as curiosities. Larger stones were used for Spanish colonial construction projects, including the bed of the railway that passes near the site. Fortunately, some of the artwork made its way to museums and a portion still remains in Bolivia. The largest stone statues have been left on site, while other artefacts can be seen at the on-site Museo Litico Monumental and the Museo National de Arqueologia in La Paz.