Let’s imagine an impossible journey for a moment: we take a plane and take off from eastern Bolivia, but we are in the year 1000 AD C, and conducted a reconnaissance flight over the entire western hemisphere. What would you see out of the plane’s windows? Fifty years ago most historians would have given a very simple answer to that question: two wild continents sparsely populated by scattered bands whose way of life had changed little since the last ice age. The only exceptions would be Mexico and Peru, where the Mayans and the ancestors of the Incas were almost crawling towards the dawn of civilization.
Today the idea we have is completely different in almost every way. Let’s imagine this plane from the first millennium flying west, from the paramos of Beni (Bolivia) to the peaks of the Andes. Once you start the journey you will find the elevated paths and canals that you can see today with the particularity of being in perfect condition and full of people. (Fifty years ago, such tillage work, performed in prehistoric times, was almost completely unknown even to those who lived nearby.) After a little over a hundred miles, the plane gains altitude to clear the mountains and the panorama the story changes again. Until relatively recently, researchers would have said that in the year 1000 the highlands were occupied by small, widely scattered cities and that there were only two or three large cities with solid stone buildings. Recent archaeological investigations have revealed that there were two mountainous states in the Andes at this time, each much larger than previously thought.
The state closest to Beni was centered around Lake Titicaca, a hundred-five-mile-long body of water in the Andes that straddled the border between Peru and Bolivia. Most of this region is at an altitude of 3,600 meters, maybe even higher. Summers are short; the winters are logically long. This “bleak, cold country”, as the adventurer Victor von Hagen wrote, “was clearly the last place where a culture could be supposed to have developed”. The truth is that the lake and its surroundings are relatively temperate and the surrounding land experiences less frost than the surrounding highlands. The population of Tiahuanaco, one of the many settlements around the lake, took advantage of this more or less mild climate and after 800 BC began to bloom. C. with the drainage of the wetlands flanking the rivers entering the lake, almost all of which came from the south. A thousand years later, the population had grown to the point where it was the seat of an extensive system of government, a type of city-state known as Tiahuanaco.
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Less a centralized state than a series of communities united by the center’s religio-cultural aegis, Tiahuanaco benefited from the extreme ecological differences that occur between the Pacific coast, rugged mountains and highlands and It came to to create a dense exchange network: fish from the sea, llamas from the Altiplano and fruit, vegetables and grain from the fields around the lake. Thanks to the accumulation of wealth, the city of Tiwanaku has become a marvel of terraced pyramids and grand monuments. The stone piers and dikes jutted out into the waters of Lake Titicaca, and high-bowed boats of reeds and reeds crowded their sides. With running water, a dense sewer system and brightly painted walls, Tiahuanaco was one of the most impressive cities in the world.
Alan L. Kolata, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago, conducted successive excavations at Tiwanaku in the 1980s and early 1990s and wrote that the city had a population of about 115,000 around the year 1000, along with another quarter of a million surrounding fields. These are figures that Paris, for example, would need another five centuries to reach. The comparison does not seem absurd. At the time, the area occupied by the Tiahuanaco was roughly the size of present-day France. Other researchers believe this population estimate is overestimated. It’s more likely that there were 20,000 or 30,000 in the city, according to Nicole Couture, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago who helped edit the last publication of Kolata’s work in 2003. The surrounding fields would be similar.
Which of the two approaches is correct? Although Couture was completely confident in her estimates, she stated that it would be “another decade” before the matter could be settled. Whatever the case, the exact number doesn’t affect what she believes to be the heart of the matter. “To build such a big city in a place like this is really unusual,” he said. I recognize it perfectly every time I return there.”
North and west of Tiahuanaco, in what is now southern Peru, lay the rival state of Huari, which then stretched more than a thousand miles along the backbone of the Andean Cordillera. More ironically organized and with a greater military mentality than Tiahuanaco’s, the Huari governors devised a type of forts, which they built on the same pattern and distributed along their borders. The capital, also called Huari, was located at high altitude near the modern city of Ayacucho. With a population perhaps close to 70,000, Huari was a dense maze of alleyways lined with walled temples, hidden courtyards, royal tombs and residential buildings up to six stories tall. Most of the buildings were covered in white plaster, making the city sparkle in the mountain sun.
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