Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) is an ancient civilization that existed on the Bolivian Altiplano (the Andes highlands) near present-day La Paz long before the Incas conquered and colonized the region. Although much about the Tiahuanacotas remains unknown, archeologists have uncovered sufficient evidence to believe that the Tiwanaku ruins found near Lake Titicaca are the remnants of an ancient city and ceremonial site that functioned as the capital city of the Tiahuanacota culture.
Because the indigenous groups that live in the highlands today claim this site as their own, many tourists believe Tiwanaku was an Incan, Aymara, or Quechua site; however, the Tiahuanacota culture, unrelated to them, actually inhabited this region and built this city hundreds and possibly thousands of years prior to their arrival. The Incas entered the region later, conquering and assimilating other cultures. Because the cultures mixed, Aymaras and Quechuas today refer to themselves as descendants of the Incas, although they were not originally of Incan descent.
The Tiahuanacotas were then conquered by the Incas, and the Aymaras they had assimilated, around 1200 AD and their culture disappeared quite abrupty. The Incas claimed their god Viracocha had risen out of Lake Titicaca, created humankind, and built the city for them. Archeological evidence belies this legend.
Some scientists believe that Tiwanaku was built around 700 AD and lasted for several centuries, although the Tiwanaku civilization itself existed 200-400 years prior to the construction of the temples, gates and monoliths that tourists can visit today. Only a small percentage of the ruins have been uncovered and most remain underground. Archeologists think that at its peak the city may have housed up to 50,000 people.
A growing number of scientists believe that Tiahuanaco is as much as 14,000 years old. See why in this Tiwanaku documentary. The Tiahuanacotas were apparently very advanced in mathematics and astronomy; possibly more so than the Incas themselves.
After the Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s, the ruins were looted and the treasures they contained were sent to Spain. The Catholic Church ordered many of the artifacts found to be destroyed as it considered them idols to pagan gods. Many of the stones were used by the Spanish for construction. The few artifacts that remain are now housed in three Bolivian museums, at one on-site in Tiahuanaco and at two in La Paz. You can view some of these at the Museo Lítico Monumental (Museum of Stone Monuments) and at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología (National Archeology Museum) in La Paz, or you can take one of the many Tiwanaku Tours offered by tour operators and hotels in La Paz and see the actual site itself.