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Tiwanaku Empire

Timeline and Description


Thatch-Roofed Houses at Tiwanaku

Thatch-Roofed Houses at Tiwanaku

Photo 24 / Stockbyte / Getty Images
Outer Wall at Tiwanaku Civilization Site of Kalasasaya Temple, Bolivia

Outer Wall at Tiwanaku Civilization Site of Kalasasaya Temple, Bolivia

Chlaus Lotscher / Photolibrary / Getty Images
Monolithic Statue at Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Monolith of human figure at Tiwanaku Tiahuanaco archaeological site, Pre-inca, Bolivia

Chlaus Lotscher / Photolibrary / Getty Images

The Tiwanaku Empire (also spelled Tiahuanaco) dominated portions of what is now Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia in South America for four hundred years (AD 550-950). The capital city, also called Tiwanaku, was located on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, on the border between Bolivia and Peru.

Tiwanaku Chronology

  • Tiwanaku IV (Tiwanaku Period), AD 400-800
  • Tiwanaku V, AD 800-1150

The capital city of Tiwanaku lies in the high river basins of the Tiwanaku and Katari rivers, at altitudes between 4200 and 3800 meters above sea level. The basin floors on which the Tiwanaku lived were marshy and flooded seasonally because of snow melt from the Quelcceya ice cap. The Tiwanaku farmers used this to their advantage, constructing elevated sod platforms or raised fields on which to grow their crops, separated by canals. Large acqueducts were also constructed at satellite cities such as Lukurmata and Pajchiri. Raised agricultural field systems stretched the capacity of the high plains to allow for protection of crops through frost and droughty periods.

Tiwanaku Lifestyles

Because of their high elevation, crops grown by the Tiwanaku were limited to frost-resistant plants such as potatoes and quinoa. Llama caravans brought maize and other trade goods up from lower elevations. The Tiwanaku had large herds of domesticated alpaca and llama, and hunted wild guanaco and vicuña.

During the Late Formative period, the Tiwanaku Empire was in direct competition with the Huari empire, located in central Peru. Tiwanaku style artifacts and architecture have been discovered throughout the central Andes, a circumstance that has been attributed to imperial expansion, dispersed colonies, trading networks, a spread of ideas or a combination of all these forces.

Far-flung places where Tiwanaku artifact styles, architecture or people have been identified include San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, Juch'uypampa Cave in Bolivia, and Chan Chan in Peru.

After 700 years, the Tiwanaku civilization disintegrated as a regional political force. This happened about 1100 AD, and resulted, at least one theory goes, from the effects of climatic change, including a sharp decrease in rainfall. There is evidence that the groundwater level dropped and the raised field beds failed, leading to a collapse of agricultural systems in both the colonies and the heartland. Whether that was the sole or most important reason for the end of the culture is debated.

Archaeological Sites

Lukurmata, Khonko Wankane, Pajchiri, Omo, Chiripa, Qeyakuntu, Quiripujo (Bolivia), Juch'uypampa Cave, Bolivia, and San Pedro de Atacama (Chile); there is also evidence for a colony (or something) at Chan Chan (Peru).

Archaeological Studies at Tiahuanaco

Archaeologists associated with the study of Tiahuanaco include Arthur Posnansky, David Browman, Alan Kolata, and Clark Erickson. Much of the recent work has been on the environmental factors that led to the Tiwanaku collapse, and reconstruction of raised field agriculture in the region. Also involved in the excavations have been the descendants of the Tiwanaku, the Aymara. The most recent excavations have been completed at the capital city by Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania.


The best source for detailed Tiwanaku information has to be Alvaro Higueras's Tiwanaku and Andean Archaeology.

This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Climate Change and Archaeology.

Albarracin-Jordan, Juan 1996 Tiwanaku settlement system: The integration of nested hierarchies in the lower Tiwanaku valley. Latin American Antiquity 7(3):183-210.

Bandy, Matthew S. 2005 Energetic efficiency and political expediency in Titicaca Basin raised field agriculture. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(3):271-296. (free)

Binford, Michael W. et al. 1997. Climate Variation and the Rise and Fall of an Andean Civilization. Quaternary Research 47:235-248. (free)

Blom, Deborah E. 2005 Embodying borders: human body modification and diversity in Tiwanaku society. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 24(1):1-24.

Goldstein, Paul S. 2005. Andean Diaspora: The Tiwanaku Colonies and the Origins of Empire. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.

Janusek, John W. and Alan L. Kolata 2004 Top-down or bottom-up: rural settlement and raised field agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23(4):404-430.

Kolata, Alan L. 1986 The agricultural foundations of the Tiwanaku state: A view from the heartland. American Antiquity 51(4):748-762.

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