Initial Period Origins of Titicaca Basin Civilization


                                                                General Introduction


1.  Prior to 4th millennium BC there was seasonal nomadism by hunters between the coastal region and the high plains (altiplano).  By engaging in this way of life hunting groups could exploit both the rich maritime resources of the coast and the camelid grazing habitats of the high Andes.


2.  Sometime close to the 4th millennium BC the adoption of agriculture and domesticated animals led to permanent settlement with highland communities around Lake Titicaca basing their subsistence on the agro-pastoralism (mix of agriculture and herding of llamas and alpacas) and lowlanders primarily on agriculture with some fishing.


3.  In this pattern of settled villages the two zones continued to interact with altiplano dwellers sending llama caravans to lower zones to obtain lowland agricultural resources that could not grow easily in the frost-impacted highlands (a modification of the “vertical archipelago”).


4.  In earlier times and times of regional decentralization the caravans were probably operated by semi-nomadic groups traveling well-established trade routes between the sparsely settled harsh lands lying south of Lake Titicaca (the Bolivian and Chilean altiplano) and their coastal and eastern woodland hinterlands.  This activity formed a pattern of mutual dependence between settled agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralist/traders who may well have been linked by kinship in many cases.


5.  At certain times the entire system came under the domination of strong highland polities - Pukara, Tiwanaku, Cuzco/Inca.  During these times it served as the internal structure that served to diffuse the ideology of the center to colonies and subjugated peoples of the peripheries and to link them in economic and political unity.



                                                 Earliest Societies of the Titicaca Region.




1.  The Wankarani cultural complex was a village-based society located in the high plains southeast of Lake Titicaca with an extension eastward into the warmer, rainier areas around Cochabamba and subsisting chiefly on agro-pastoralism.  Principal crops were potatoes and quinoa on the altiplano and maize around Cochabamba.


2.  Wankarani villages date to early second millennium B.  They were usually quite small but the largest has been estimated to hold up to 4000 people.  If so they were probably the sites of emergent social complexity and hierarchical government.  They consist of clusters of circular thatched adobe houses often surrounded by a protective adobe wall.  There is no sign of ideological symbolism with the possible exception of stone llama heads used in household ritual of unknown form (showing the importance of llamas to highlanders). 


3.  Wankarani people used undecorated pottery and stone tools, and were among the earliest metal workers of the Andes (copper at around 1200 BC).  This would suggest the beginnings of industrial organization and labor specialization.


4.  There is no indication of political unification in the Wankarani complex.  This society probably comprised autonomous ayllu communities linked by common culture and by llama caravans across the altiplano. 





1.  Also in the 2nd millennium BC, starting around 1200 BC and extending through the 1st millennium, another, more complex social system emerged around the southern shores of Lake Titicaca.  This was the Chiripa, named after its type-site.


2.  Chiripa shows the beginnings of the Titicaca tradition of monumental architecture.  Its central feature is an artificial mound that evolved from a plain stone-faced platform to a platform mound containing a central sunken court in which contained an embellished stele and stone plaques.  Semi-subterranean houses surrounded the platform.  This architectural complex became a persistent feature of Titicaca Basin architecture.


3.  Chiripa stone sculpture was executed in the so-called Yaya-Mama style that diffused through the Titicaca Basin in the 1st millennium BC.  This is the earliest evidence for inter-regional belief systems and the broadening formal communication system that they anticipated.


4.  The earliest Chiripa pottery is similar to Wankarani, largely utilitarian and undecorated.  Later periods are characterized by fine incised and painted polychrome ceramics, starting a tradition of such styles that lasted until the end of the Tiwanaku civilization.       


5.  The presence of a public architectural center of social integration, the carved stone images and “elite” polychrome ceramics indicates that Chiripa in its later phases was a more complex society than Wankarani where the restricted corpus of ritual items was confined to the household.  These features are characteristic of an emerging dominant ideology with its specific codified symbolism, features of a society where a ruling group was separating itself in status and political power from the population at large.


6.  Economically, Chiripa participated in the agro-pastoralism of the Titicaca Basin and altiplano but in addition utilized the resources of Lake Titicaca - fish, fowl, aquatic plants.  Most Chiripa sites are consequently located near the lakeshore.  This broad economic base fostered the growth of sedentary and ultimately urban settlement with large accumulations of people living in a relatively small area.  This contrasts with the area in which Wankarani culture emerged which was one of very sparse resources and vast distances between habitable areas.  Here some degree of nomadism remained a viable and sometimes necessary alternative to sedentary agricultural life.




Yaya-Mama Style


1. In the late Ist millennium BC the communities of the Titicaca basin and immediately adjacent areas adopted a style of stone sculpture using stone plaques and standing steles.  The widespread sharing of the style indicates that regional communities were in close contact with each other.


2.  This “Yaya-Mama” style depicted a variety of animals - serpents, other reptiles and humans, representing them commonly in dual forms (male/female, paired animals and serpents) that may reflect the complementary duality that characterizes basic Andean conceptions of the cosmic order.


3.  The Yaya-Mama style may well have been ancestral to the representational imagery of late Chiripa (see above), Pukara, and Tiwanaku although they each developed their own specific features.




1.  During the 1st millennium BC another more influential society emerged on the northern side of Lake Titicaca.  The Pukara society incorporated earlier communities of the Chiripa period (like the Chiripa-like center of Qaluyu on the northern shore of the lake) and ultimately dominated the entire circum-lacustrine region by 200 BC, ruling the region from its central site (Pukara), located 75 kms. to the north of the lake.


2.  Pukara became the first urban center in the region with a large residential area interspersed with elaborate public buildings.  The most important of these was a large complex of well-built stone and adobe buildings built on a terrace surrounding a religious space dominated by a sunken central court containing (as at Chiripa) carved stone steles.


3.  As was the case with Chiripa, Pukara’s subsistence base incorporated agriculture, herding and fishing, with specialized communities engaged in each of these pursuits. These groups lived in smaller towns and villages, which together comprised a multi-scale settlement pattern dominated by the focal center of Pukara.


3.  Pukara art was one that incorporated several classes of ideological symbols.  Monumental sculpture continued the tradition of two-dimensional stone plaques that commenced at Chiripa as well as tall steles carved in the round in abstract and human forms.  “Diagnostic” ceramics are painted in various colors in panels bordered by incised lines.  These ceramics are finely made in a variety of non-utilitarian forms (trumpets, goblets with human and animal adornos).


4.  Settlements with monumental architecture and stone sculpture attest to the Pukara’s direct control of the circum-Titicaca region in the first 200 years AD while pottery and textile of Pukara style occur frequently in the middle Andean and coastal valleys to the west on the adjacent Peruvian and Chilean shores.  These distant occurrences suggest that Pukara either sent colonies from the home area to dominate these areas for their broad agricultural resources, or controlled a wide-ranging system of peripheral communities whose leaders participated in the wider ideological prestige of Pukara and utilized its ideological symbolism for this purpose.