Researcher excavates ancient Inca pilgrimage site

April 18, 2001

The Islands of the Sun and the Moon--two islands on Bolivia's side of Lake Titicaca, long known as sites of Incan shrines--are likely to have been the destination for ritual pilgrimages by worshippers a thousand years or more prior to the Incan empire, according to a new book co-authored by a University of Illinois at Chicago professor.

In the book, "Ritual and Pilgrimage in the Ancient Andes - The Islands of the Sun and the Moon" (University of Texas Press, 2001) Brian Bauer, UIC associate professor of anthropology, and UCLA anthropologist Charles Stanish write that the islands' elaborate temples and astronomical observation points were maintained by large numbers of imperial attendants including "chosen women" and "colonists" serving the many people who made pilgrimages. The islands were so important in the Incan world that the kings of Cuzco traveled to Lake Titicaca to pay homage at the island shrines.

In addition to combining historical writings by Spanish colonists with artifacts gathered by archeologists on the islands in 1895, Bauer and Stanish made three research trips between 1995-97, exploring and excavating these sacred places.

They found 185 archeological sites, dating from 2000 B.C. with the first hunters and gatherers, to the well-preserved Incan temples dedicated to the Sun and the Moon. Bauer and Stanish's mapping of the ruins also reveal the ancient pilgrimage route that led the pious from the mainland to the far end of the islands, where the shrines were located.

Dating the sites and artifacts produced a new discovery. Both islands held special significance to pre-Incan civilizations, notably the Tiahuanaco (A.D. 400-1000).

"During Tiahuanaco times, you see imported material from the mainland appearing at the shrine site," says Bauer. "How do we know this? With the Tiahuanaco comes all these fancy artifacts and offerings.

Clearly, the kings of Tiahuanaco, like the Incan kings a millennium later, were visiting the islands and trying to incorporate these holy sites into their growing state."

Bolivia's Islands of the Sun and Moon are today tourist destinations, offering fascinating lore with breathtaking views of the snow-capped Andes surrounding Lake Titicaca. Bauer predicts the islands may some day rival Peru's world-famous site of Machu Picchu as a tourist destination. While he welcomes the development, Bauer hopes the island's archeologically important sites receive the management they deserve so that tourism and scholarly research can grow together amicably.

University of Illinois at Chicago

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