Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations

The two major highland states of the high Andes collapsed around the year 1000. Intense conflict signaled the end of Huari, whereas a combination of environmental and social factors appeared to signal the fall of Tiwanaku.

Summary of Event

Around the year 500, two large polities dominated the Andean highlands: Huari (also called Wari), with its homeland in the Ayacucho basin of central Peru, and Tiwanaku (also called Tiahuanaco), in the Lake Titicaca basin of western Bolivia and southeastern Peru. Although these contemporaries had some contact and shared a number of affinities in artifact style and motif, they appear to have developed independently in their homelands. [kw]Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations (c. 1000)
[kw]Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations, Collapse of the (c. 1000)
Tiwanaku civilization
Huari civilization
South America;c. 1000: Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations[1370]
Government and politics;c. 1000: Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations[1370]
Expansion and land acquisition;c. 1000: Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations[1370]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;c. 1000: Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations[1370]
Architecture;c. 1000: Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations[1370]
Environment;c. 1000: Collapse of the Huari and Tiwanaku Civilizations[1370]

The Huari were an expansionist people, and at the height of their power they controlled most of the Andean sierra, ranging to Cajamarca in northern Peru to the Cuzco basin in the south. They also had significant contact with coastal Peru. The capital of the Huari state was at the eponymous site of Huari, which was well in excess of 1.5 square miles (4 square kilometers) in size and had a maximum population ranging from ten thousand to seventy thousand. This center was supported by a massive irrigation Irrigation;Peru
Peru;irrigation and terracing system. Water was brought to the site by canals from a series of high-elevation springs and streams and was then distributed to hillside terraces into the agricultural fields. Maize was the principal crop, but it was supplemented by Andean domesticates, such as quinoa and various tubers. Agriculture;Peru

Huari expansion was accomplished through a variety of means, but military conquest and domination appear to have been the most important strategy. However, Huari administration of the areas within their domain varied considerably depending on what the Huari wanted from the conquered polity and its degree of political complexity. In the highland valleys relatively close to Huari, for example, it appears that the Huari forced local populations to move their settlements to somewhat lower elevations into fertile areas suitable for growing maize. The terraces of these valleys were expanded considerably, and it is likely that the Huari imported labor from elsewhere to assist in this effort. Finally, they constructed enclosures in Huari architectural style. The function of these enclosures is uncertain, but they may have served as residences for Huari administrators, as storehouses, or both.

In more distant areas, the Huari used different strategies. Instead of intervening directly in agricultural production, they concerned themselves with the extraction of prestigious goods, such as fine ceramics, metals, textiles, and marine shells. The Huari built administrative centers according to a strict architectural canon at more than thirty locations in the Andean sierra. Importantly, none of these centers showed evidence of fortifications.

The evidence on how Huari collapsed is scant, but most signs point to imperial overextension and increased conflict. The consumption of prestigious goods in the Huari core grew substantially over time, and this forced distant Huari administrators to extract ever more production from their subjects. As demands grew, probably so too did resistance, and some have argued that subject peoples resorted to violence to overthrow the Huari. Evidence for the increased level of warfare around 1000 suggests this scenario is highly plausible. It is also possible that agricultural production in the Huari core was unable to keep up with rapid rates of population growth, and this probably led to instability and conflict in the homeland itself.

Tiwanaku emerged under very different circumstances. The Tiwanaku heartland and the site itself are found on the high Altiplano just to the east of Lake Titicaca at an elevation of more than 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) above sea level. Although cold and windswept, the environment is highly productive. Tiwanaku subsistence practice focused on a combination of resources and agricultural technologies, including raised fields, rain-fed fields, camelid herding, and lake exploitation. Agriculture;Tiwanaku Raised fields were especially important; in the Andean highlands, they were used where land was prone to significant flooding or was otherwise waterlogged. They have been shown to improve soil condition, trap nutrients, and improve microclimates by minimizing the risk of frost damage to crops. However, they needed large amounts of water to function effectively, and so the Tiwanaku built an extensive canal system to maintain them, requiring a substantial investment of labor for their construction and maintenance. Irrigation;Tiwanaku

Tiwanaku is relatively large, about 2.5 square miles (6.5 square kilometers) in size, and composed of residential areas, platform mounds, and large sunken courts, which were the scenes of important rituals. The layout of roads and streets shows the site was carefully planned, and at its zenith, it was one of the largest urban centers in the Americas.

Tiwanaku conquered or annexed much of the southern highlands but at a relatively slow pace. Aside from its core in the Lake Titicaca basin, Tiwanaku did not control large, contiguous blocks of territory. Instead, it established trade relationships with neighbors or far-flung polities or created colonial enclaves in locations with key economic resources or high agricultural potential. The area around what is now called Cochabamba in Bolivia was one such colony, as was the Omo site in southern Peru on the western flanks of the Andes. However, they also conquered smaller polities, especially in the lake basin, as is evidenced by the trophy head iconography of the large sunken court ritual center at Tiwanaku called the Akapana. Rituals and feasting were also important ways by which Tiwanaku elites maintained their power and convinced or coerced others to submit to their control.

There is clear evidence that c. 900 the Tiwanaku Empire began a steady decline. The Omo colony was destroyed by conflict, but it is not clear whether it was destroyed by a rebellion or by outside forces. Colonies in northern Chile were abandoned as well, and trade relationships also contracted.

The cause of this decline remains hotly debated. Some authorities have argued that the immediate cause of the Tiwanaku collapse was a long drought that began around 1000. A persistent and intense drought would have made raised field farming untenable, and if these fields were in fact the most important part of the subsistence agricultural system, the Tiwanaku elite would have been unable to maintain themselves and their people. However important the drought might have been as a cause of the Tiwanaku collapse, it is clear that it cannot be the only cause, because Tiwanaku’s fortunes started declining well before the drought’s onset. If this is the case, it suggests that politics, not environmental change, led to this collapse. What sort of political process may have occurred is uncertain, but there is no evidence of widespread violence, nor is there a sense that epidemic disease or hunger was a contributing factor. However, the drought after 1000 certainly hastened Tiwanaku’s fall. By 1100, Tiwanaku had been abandoned, as were all of the other large Tiwanaku centers, and the population of the basin was dispersed into much smaller towns and villages.


The collapse of these two highland empires created something of a power vacuum in the Andean highlands. Although coastal states continued to thrive and grow, in both the Huari and Tiwanaku homelands the collapse of political centralization led to the creation of large numbers of small polities that engaged in constant warfare with one another. In Tiwanaku’s former domain, this led to population movements as some groups tried to move away from the violence. Others built large hilltop fortresses that served as refuges when enemies appeared. This situation of small-scale, endemic warfare persisted in the Andean highlands for the next three hundred years until the Inca expanded out of their homeland in the Cuzco basin and created the largest empire in the ancient Americas.

Further Reading

  • Isbell, William Harris. The Rural Foundation for Urbanism: Economic and Stylistic Interaction Between Rural and Urban Communities in Eighth-Century Peru. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. A comprehensive and systematic discussion of the archaeology at site of Huari.
  • Jennings, Justin, and Nathan Craig. “Politywide Analysis and Imperial Political Economy: The Relationship Between Valley Political Complexity and Administrative Centers in the Wari Empire of the Central Andes.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 20 (2001): 479-502. A clear and compelling reconstruction of how the Huari administered their empire.
  • Kolata, Alan L., ed. Agroecology. Vol. 1 in Tiwanaku and Its Hinterland: Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. An important collection of papers that describe the ecological foundations of Tiwanaku civilization.
  • Kolata, Alan L., ed. Urban and Rural Ecology. Vol. 2 in Tiwanaku and Its Hinterland: Archaeology and Paleoecology of an Andean Civilization. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. A collection of papers on the archaeology of Tiwanaku.
  • Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001. A very useful synthesis of Andean prehistory.
  • Stanish, Charles. Ancient Titicaca: The Evolution of Complex Society in Southern Peru and Northern Bolivia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. An excellent synthesis of the prehistory of the Titicaca basin.