Tiwanaku Civilization Flourishes in Andean Highlands Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Tiwanaku civilization became the second great empire in the Andean highlands, flourishing because of its unique agricultural methods, which adapted to extremely cold weather, and because its political system sought to unify and incorporate rather than transform or remake outlying territories.

Summary of Event

Tiwanaku, located more than 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) above sea level in the Central Andes, Andes, Central was the capital of a civilization situated at the highest elevation of any world empire for more than five hundred years. Its origins lie in the Early Intermediate period, from c. 200 b.c.e. to c. 200 c.e. (also named Tiwanaku phases I, II, and III). During this period, Tiwanaku began as one of several small temple dominions, political clusters that united agropastoral communities around Lake Titicaca. Subsistence was based on the cultivation of tubers (potato, oca, ullucu) and native grains (quinoa, cañihua), supplemented with meat from herds of llamas and alpacas and fish and waterfowl. Villagers lived in rectangular and circular houses of stone set in mud mortar, with thatched roofs. Agriculture;Tiwanaku [kw]Tiwanaku Civilization Flourishes in Andean Highlands (c. 500-1000) [kw]Andean Highlands, Tiwanaku Civilization Flourishes in (c. 500-1000) Tiwanaku civilization South America;c. 500-1000: Tiwanaku Civilization Flourishes in Andean Highlands[0050] Religion;c. 500-1000: Tiwanaku Civilization Flourishes in Andean Highlands[0050] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 500-c. 1000: Tiwanaku Civilization Flourishes in Andean Highlands[0050] Expansion and land acquisition;c. 500-c. 1000: Tiwanaku Civilization Flourishes in Andean Highlands[0050]

The Pajano religious Pajano tradition dominated the area, with a variety of local religious practices and cosmologies, but during the Early Intermediate period, there was a syncretic convergence into a more uniform, standardized religious tradition, with particular emphasis on dualism, metamorphosis, and fundamentalism, known as Yaya-Mama Yaya-Mama[Yaya Mama] . Religious observances were centralized in the larger villages, where ritual structures included platform mounds, sunken rectangular temples, and associated plazas with stone monoliths, sculptures, and plaques depicting the deities. Religion;Tiwanaku

During this period, there was additional investment in landscape capital, especially the increased construction of raised fields and canals. The canals were built either parallel or at right angles to the sun’s path, resulting in the maximum capture of solar energy, which, when radiated at night, protected the fields from frost and freeze losses because of the city’s high elevation. The canals also mitigated the impact of both excessive rainfall and drought, greatly reducing agricultural risk. Irrigation;Tiwanaku

By the latter half of the Early Intermediate period (c. 200-c. 600), Tiwanaku was flourishing. Smaller local groups began coalescing into a few hierarchical settlement clusters in the Tiwanaku region. At Tiwanaku itself, a subterranean temple was built, along with the central sunken courtyard of the Kalasasaya temple. Architecture;Tiwanaku The nearby village of Iwawe was established as a lake port, principally for the importation of andesite for construction purposes. In the adjacent pampa areas, intensive farming became more important, and large quantities of basalt hoes were being imported. By the end of the Late Formative period from about 200-500 and overlapping with the Early Intermediate, (also called Tiwanaku phases I-III), Tiwanaku had emerged as the area’s primary center and had cemented its control over the religious and political spheres enough to begin its expansion out of its local valley.

The more specific time period called Tiwanaku IV (c. 500-c. 800), the first period of Tiwanaku hegemony over surrounding areas, is marked by the promotion of a state suite of ideologies, sacred symbols that served as markers of status and identity through a kind of theater state Theater state;Tiwanaku , and reciprocal relations between the elites and local groups, in which direct control of production (such as craft fabrication and agricultural activities) remained in the hands of a nested hierarchy of local groups integrated into reciprocal state obligations through elaborate feasting practices.

The theater state was centered on a series of grandiloquent public temples in the heart of the city, most of which were enclosed within a large, rectangular, moated precinct. Tiwanaku was a planned city, with its sewer system, roads, entry gates, and ritual structures laid out along cardinal axes. The architecture was aligned within a few degrees of the cardinal directions (the north-south axis usually 6 to 11 degrees east of true north), with major doorways, ramps, and entrances to these temples on an east-west axis aligned with the sun’s path. The buildings displayed megalithic construction, employing stones up to 131 tons (119 metric tons) in weight. Because of the lack of mortar, large stones were held in place by gravity or secured by copper and bronze clamps set in drilled holes. Floors were constructed of red, green, or other deliberately colored clays, and walls show remnants of polychrome murals.

Images of the deities were on wall plaques and massive stone stelae up to 24 feet (7.3 meters) high. Some stelae show evidence of being covered with gold leaf and multicolored painting. The priests communed with the gods with the help of hallucinogenic drugs. One of the most typical Tiwanaku artifact assemblages is the hallucinogenic complex, comprising carved stone mortars and pestles, stone bowls and cups, wooden snuff trays, pottery incensarios and bowls, wooden and bone snuff tubes and spoons, specialized textiles, and gold and ceramic keros, all decorated with sacred images. Control of symbolic knowledge was more important than control of resources.

Politically, Tiwanaku was more an incorporating than a transforming polity. During Tiwanaku IV, the political organization was a loosely centralized, segmentary state, built on a nested hierarchy of local territorial segments called ayllus. Tiwanaku was an archaic state of limited means that carefully expanded into a few key strategic areas, beginning c. 600-650. It employed multiple strategies to integrate state and local power as the situation mandated, using both direct and indirect mechanisms for political control, employing federation, annexation, colonization, conquest, ports of trade, or locally inserted mitmaqkuna groups. Areas of direct control included the establishment of new sites, state intensification of agricultural production, formalization of road systems, resettlement of major portions of the population, and specialization of production, while areas of indirect control exhibited a variety of other policies utilized to co-opt local elites or secure mutual political benefit. Militarism seems to have been little employed; there are no known fortifications of Tiwanaku culture, and illustrations of warriors are rare.

The economy appears to have been based primarily on staple finance, rather than wealth. There was no apparent merchant class, and during Tiwanaku IV, there is little evidence of top-down managed state production. The city seemed to be composed initially of small multiethnic neighborhoods, swollen at periods by massive numbers of visiting pilgrims. Production was a cottage industry, rather than state organized, controlled by the household or ayllu. The cottage industries included both fancy ceremonial ceramics and quotidian daily wares; lithic workshops in which obsidian arrowheads and basalt hoes were produced; lapidary areas in which sodalite, turquoise, and other decorated items were fabricated; and possibly areas in which metal items were produced, including the tin and ternary nickel-tin bronzes that first appeared in the Andes during the Tiwanaku period. The limited distribution of these materials outside of Tiwanaku, as well as their extremely standardized forms, suggests that even though they were crafted in residential compounds, distribution was controlled by elite groups.

The relationship between elites and commoners was of reciprocal obligation. Evidence for reciprocity comes from the large quantity of serving dishes, storage jars, and refuse found near the major theater-state temples associated with the feasting events, and the evidence is supported by the fact that corn rose suddenly in importance at Tiwanaku. Corn generally cannot be grown at this altitude, but it is the main ingredient in chicha (a beer made from fermented corn), a critical component of Andean feasting events.

The end of Tiwanaku IV was marked by increasing status differences and social hierarchies. There was a gradual fragmentation and reorganization of the socioeconomic base. Early Tiwanaku V (800-1000) was typified by a period of sociopolitical, economic, and ideological consolidation and was marked by a series of massive urban renewal projects. Large sectors of both the ceremonial core and the residential zones were razed, with new structure types built in their place. Late Tiwanaku V (1000-1150) was a long phase of environmental crisis, political disintegration, and settlement dispersal.


The initial Tiwanaku state rose because of its laissez-faire political approach, which resulted in the creation of a polity that survived for an exceptionally long period. The shift in strategies in Tiwanaku V, around 1000, to seizing more direct control over certain regions, transforming their relationships from alliance or federation into state-administered provinces, began its demise. The Tiwanaku V political approach became openly exploitive and thus onerous to the subject populations. In Late Tiwanaku V, environmental conditions deteriorated, exacerbated by a severe long-term drought. Political allegiances and control slowly eroded; gradually many areas dropped their allegiances or linkages with the Tiwanaku state. The final collapse of Tiwanaku was both a cultural revolution that resulted in the formation of an entire new set of sociopolitical alliances and a corresponding new set of agropastoral productive strategies; it was as much the result of sociopolitical fragmentation as it was of environmental determinism.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albarracin-Jordan, Juan. “Tiwanaku Settlement System.” Latin American Antiquity 7 (1996): 183-210. Summary of the details of the Tiwanaku settlement system from the author’s doctoral dissertation, supplemented by further work in his Bolivian homeland.
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    xlink:type="simple">Bermann, Marc. “Domestic Life and Vertical Integration in the Tiwanaku Heartland.” Latin American Antiquity 8 (1997): 93-112. Discussion of the development of secondary political centers in the hinterlands by the Tiwanaku polity and their relationship to the capital city.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browman, David. “Political Institutional Factors Contributing to the Integration of the Tiwanaku State.” In Emergence and Change in Early Urban Societies, edited by Linda Manzanilla. New York: Plenum Press, 1997. Discussion of the variety of different political strategies the Tiwanaku peoples adopted in order to control access to resources and markets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Janusek, John. “Craft and Local Power: Embedded Specialization in Tiwanaku Cities.” Latin American Antiquity 10 (1999): 107-131. Discussion of the various attached specialists and independent specialists found in Tiwanaku, and their socio-political integration in the state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Janusek, John. “Out of Many, One: Style and Social Boundaries in Tiwanaku.” Latin American Antiquity 13 (2002): 35-61. Discussion of the various political strategies that the Tiwanaku peoples employed in statecraft.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolata, Alan. Tiwanaku: Portrait of an Andean Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993. Summary of Tiwanaku from one of the major American excavators at the site.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolata, Alan, 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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kolata, Alan, 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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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.
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    xlink:type="simple">Stanish, Charles. Ancient Titicaca: The Evolution of Complex Society in Southern Peru and Northern Bolivia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. An ambitious overview of the rise of civilization around Lake Titicaca. Chapter 8 focuses on Tiwanaku, but the previous chapters are also useful in explaining the culture’s historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanish, Charles. “Tiwanaku Political Economy.” In Andean Archaeology I: Variations in Sociopolitical Organization, edited by Helaine Silverman and William Isbell. New York: Kluwer Academic, 2002. Discussion of Tiwanaku political economy, as it was integrated into the broader regional context of socioeconomic contexts of the South-Central Andes.

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