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THE ISLANDS OF THE SUN
AND THE MOON
by Charles Stanish
Director, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA
Professor, Department of Anthropology, UCLA
The Islands of the Sun and the Moon house two of the greatest natural and cultural monuments of South America. Located in the southern side of Lake Titicaca straddled between Peru and Bolivia, the islands house more than one hundred and fifty ancient settlements.
The Islands of the Sun and the Moon represent two of the greatest natural and cultural monuments of South America. Located in the southern side of Lake Titicaca (3810 meters above sea level), the islands house more than one hundred and fifty ancient settlements. During the Inca occupation of the region (around A.D. 1470 - 1532) these islands were the final destination of ritual pilgrimages from all around the empire. However, recently recovered archaeological evidence indicates that the sacred nature of these islands extends back at least to the Tiwanaku Empire (A.D. 600 - 1100). Prior to this time, humans first occupied the islands as early as 2000 B.C., and have continuously lived there for millennia.
The natural beauty of these islands is impossible to describe; you simply have to visit them to appreciate it. As one ascends the summits, you gain breathtaking views of the Cordillera, the shores of Bolivia and Peru, and the Copacabana peninsula. A visit to the Islands of the Sun and the Moon should be an exciting experience and this guide will help you to appreciate their natural and cultural wonders.
An Archaeological Summary of the
Islands of the Sun and the Moon
The Inca Empire, was one of the greatest states to develop in the Americas. Last in a series of indigenous complex Andean societies, it emerged from the Cuzco region, expanded across the western highlands and coast of South America, and ultimately encompassed a territory that stretched from modern day Colombia to Chile. By the time of European contact in 1532, the Inca state controlled a population of at least six million.
The Islands of the Sun and the Moon were two of the most sacred places in the Inca State. There were hundreds of religious shrines throughout the Inca empire. These sacred locations were known as huacas. They held critical roles in defining the cultural topography of the Andes and the lives of the indigenous peoples who lived there. The Inca themselves worshipped many such huacas. Their cosmology, however, placed paramount importance on the sun. Conquered peoples were not required to abandon their own huacas, but were compelled to acknowledge the superiority of the sun and its Inca descendants.
The thousands of huacas in the Andes at the time of the Spanish invasion varied in size and significance from shrines of pan-Andean importance, such as the Island of the Sun, to local objects worshipped by a single family. Contact with a huaca required signs of respect: a prayer or an offering, or more typically both. The most powerful huacas required conspicuous amounts of goods for their maintenance and were attended by hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. These shrines were often established by the Inca state to be self-sufficient and controlled considerable areas of agricultural land and large camelid herds. Offspring of the animals and produce from the fields were sacrificed to the huaca and used to support its attendants.
When the first Spaniards arrived in the Titicaca region in the 1530's, they learned of indigenous huaca worship and its central role in Andean world views. They were told that the sun had emerged for the first time from a sacred island in a great inland lake called Titicaca. They were also informed that this island housed a series of ancient temples -- the largest of which stood beside the revered rock of the sun -- and that the Inca, after their conquest of the region, continued to worship this island as the origin point of the sun. Francisco Pizarro, the leader of the invading forces, sent three men to investigate this island. The expedition arrived at the lake in 1534 and left an eyewitness account of the massive Inca presence at the sanctuary.
This initial visit to the Island of the Sun by Europeans was followed by many others. The finest descriptions of the island come from the priests who lived along the shores of Lake Titicaca during the early seventeenth century. These include the writings of a Jesuit priest named Bernabé Cobo (1653) and the works of two Augustinians, called Alonso Ramos Gavilan (1612) and Antonio de la Calancha (1638). Cobo, one of the most accurate of the early Andean historians, provides an extensive summary of Inca activities on the Island of the Sun. Cobo personally visited the island in 1616 and observed that:
". . . Inca had many buildings constructed in order to enlarge and lend more authority to this shrine. The former temple was augmented with new and impressive buildings. In addition, it was ordered that other buildings be constructed for other purposes; these included a convent for mamaconas [chosen women] which was placed here, many magnificent lodgings and rooms to serve as a dwelling place for the priest and attendants, and one quarter of a league before one reaches the temple, there was an impressive tambo or inn for the pilgrims to stay in . . . The ruins of these storehouses remain to this day, and I have seen them myself. . ."
Because the Island of the Sun was a major center for the Inca, facilities were maintained by individuals brought in as colonists directly from Cuzco, the capital of the empire. Cobo, who states that two thousand colonists were transported to the island by the Inca, writes: "[the Inca] brought in other people from Cuzco, in whom he could put the trust that the gravity of the case required. He made a moderate-sized town one league from the temple, and the majority of the inhabitants were colonists of Inca blood and lineage."
Cobo's descriptions of the Island of the Sun are supported by those of Ramos Gavilan and Calancha. Both of these authors, like Cobo, provide extensive eye-witness accounts of the Inca remains on the island, what offerings where made to the sacred rock, how pilgrimages where conducted there, and the network of paved trails which took the pilgrims from the southern end of the island to the shrine complex on the northern end. Perhaps most importantly, Cobo, Ramos Gavilan, and Calancha all provide detailed descriptions of the Inca shrine complex which included the sacred rock or "Titikala", a temple to the Sun and other deities, and a large labyrinth-like structure which housed the Mama Kuna ("chosen women" of the Inca who attended the shrines). Furthermore, each of these early writers state that the Inca built their temples on the remains of older ones and that the Island of the Sun was worshipped long before the Inca arrived there. We also learn from these earlier writers that a large temple was built on the Island of the Moon which was staffed by only females. These caretakers, and the temple it itself, were dedicated to the cult of the Moon, which was closely associated with feminine elements of the cosmos.
There are about a dozen major Inca sites on the Islands of the Sun and the Moon, and approximately 80 Inca sites in total. Most Inca sites are not recognizable, since they were composed of small hamlets located on the hillsides. They survive as only scatters of Inca pottery in farmed fields. The most notable sites visible with standing Inca architecture were not the locations of commoners, but were instead institutions built and maintained by the Inca state.
When the Inca occupied these islands, they repaired and expanded the ancient road system (see map below). Archaeologists have been able to trace this road system. Inca roads were 2-3 meters wide, and sometimes paved with flagstones. You can still see sections of the original prehistoric pavement on many parts of the island. You will also notice a number of now-ruined drainage canals, about 20 cm wide, on parts of the road, which were built by the prehistoric peoples to prevent erosion.
The First Peoples of the Islands
The Inca were not the first occupants of the Titicaca Region. Archaeological research has demonstrated that humans first settled the lake region around 7000 B.C. and we have evidence of settlement of the Island of the Sun by at least 2000 B.C. In the last few years, archaeologists have excavated a site in the community of Challa that was one of the first human occupations on the island. The site is not visible from the surface, but it is located in between two streams above the plain. This would have been an ideal location to live since it had a continual source of fresh water, was close to the lake for fishing, and provided a good base area from which to hunt.
Sometime around 1200-800 B.C., the peoples of the Titicaca Basin and its islands began to plant food and domesticate llamas and alpacas. Today, you can see thousands of agricultural terraces covering the island. Many of these terraces are used today, but most were probably built hundreds, or thousands of years ago. In the plain of Challa you can see the remains of ancient raised fields and canals, built very early to farm this rich area. From a distance, the fields look like giant waffles. They were used to raise the soil out of swampy areas and make rich growing platforms. Canals from the hills above fed the fields with fresh water. Raised fields were a very sophisticated agricultural technique used by the people on the island for thousands of years. Like others elsewhere in the Titicaca region, the Challa raised fields were abandoned around A.D. 1100, probably due to a progressive drought.
The Tiwanaku Peoples
Around A.D. 500, the great high plateau state of Tiwanaku emerged as the dominant culture of the region. The capital of Tiwanaku is located in the southern Lake Titicaca Basin in the Tiwanaku Valley of Bolivia. At over 3800 meters above sea level, Tiwanaku ranks as one of the highest ancient imperial capitals in the world. The site was founded around 400 B.C. as a modest village. By A.D. 900, Tiwanaku influence and control extended over 350,000 square kilometers, an area larger than modern Great Britain. During its peak, the capital of Tiwanaku boasted a huge stone-faced pyramid, cut stone enclosures, elite residences, exquisitely decorated buildings, a system of subterranean canals, and at least four square kilometers of residential buildings. The Tiwanaku imperial economy was based on the intensive utilization of raised fields, camelid pastoralism, terrace agriculture, an extensive exchange and colonial system, and the organization of large numbers of laborers for state projects. There was a rigid social and political hierarchy expressed in elaborate art and architectural styles.
The Islands of the Sun and the Moon were important to the Tiwanaku State. There is a cluster of Tiwanaku settlements near the Sacred area on the Island of the Sun that includes a site called Chucaripupata. This site is at least six hectares in size and may be the largest Tiwanaku occupation on the island. The pottery from the site is very fine, indicating that the people who lived in Chucaripupata were of noble status and that important rituals were conducted there. Excavations on the Island of the Moon have recovered Tiwanaku offerings beneath its major Inca ruins as well. These findings indicate that the Inca were not the first to worship these islands as the origin places of the Sun and the Moon but that these religious traditions extend back to the Tiwanaku people.
The Great Aymara Kingdoms
The collapse of the Tiwanaku state around A.D. 1100 ushered in the period known in Quechua as the "Auca Runa" or "time of warriors." For the Lake Titicaca region this was a time of regional development as the separate lake groups which had once been under the control of Tiwanaku reformulated themselves into independent polities. This was, however, also a period of intense warfare and small political entities built huge fortified villages. During this period, population on the islands declined dramatically and the local political and economic organization collapsed.
There are a number of small sites of this time period on the islands. The large hill called Cerro Pucara in the middle of the Island of the Sun has a series of walls that may have been used for defense. The word "pucara" means "fortress" in Aymara and Quechua. There are other sites as well, but you can not see any houses or other structures on the settlements because the walls have since collapsed.
The Inca occupation
Of course, it is during the Inca conquest the we enter into the proto-historic period where our 16th century documents provide detailed information. During the Inca Period there was an increase in population on the islands. Like the earlier Tiwanaku occupation, many of the Inca sites are located in the sanctuary area. The Sacred Rock area has an impressive cluster of settlements, including standing Inca architecture adjacent to the rock. Furthermore, Cobo's remark that the Inca constructed two large village sites on the island is corroborated by archaeological survey data: the village sites of Kasapata and Apachinaca correspond remarkably well to his description of the location and size of these villages. The Challa area in the middle of the island was the most important prehispanic agricultural zone. This area continued to be occupied during Inca times, although the primary occupational zone for the Inca expanded across the bay to the Challapampa region. The Inca occupation, in fact, represents the highest population levels of the Island of the Sun until recent times.
The Islands of the Sun and the Moon were incorporated into the Inca empire in the middle of the 15th century A.D. As we discussed earlier, the Inca, following the beliefs of the Tiwanaku peoples hundreds of years earlier, created a great pilgrimage center on these islands. As you visit the islands you have a unique opportunity to see many of these archaeological sites. However, please remember that archaeological sites are unique and irreplaceable resources. They are our most important means of understanding the past lives of the Andean people. Do nothing to disturb the sites and take nothing from them.
Major Archaeological Sites on the Island of the Sun
The Sanctuary Area
The focal point of solar worship for the Inca and other prehistoric cultures on the Island of the Sun was the rock from which the sun first rose, near the northern end of the island. This area is separated from the rest of the island by an east-west running wall (photo right), and contains three separate clusters of well preserved Inca buildings and a large Tiwanaku site. The northern end of the sanctuary area is defined by a small ridge that forms the northwestern horizon.
One of the most detailed descriptions of pilgrimages to the island comes from Bernabé Cobo. According to this author, the pilgrims first arrived at the town of Yunguyo, about seven kilometers from Copacabana, and it is interesting to note that Yunguyo still marks the boundary between Bolivia and Peru. In Inca times, access beyond Yunguyo was restricted, and available only to pilgrims, priests, and those who maintained fields on the island. To gain access, the pilgrims had to speak with a confessor, and do penitence. They also abstained from salt, meat, and chile peppers, after which they could proceed to Copacabana, where a second confession was made. They then traveled by boat from the mainland beyond Copacabana to the island and walked to its northern end. Ultimately, most pilgrims were not allowed to enter the sanctuary. Instead, they arrived at the wall, about 200 paces from the sacred rock. At a gate called Intipunku (Sun Gate), from where the Sacred Rock is first seen, the pilgrims handed their offerings to the priests of the shrine.
Many of the features that Cobo mentions are still identifiable. The sanctuary wall beyond which the pilgrims could not pass, is today a low mound of stone that crosses the island. The sacred rock is a large uncut crag of red sandstone. Cobo also describes a large architectural complex that is today called the Chincana, and notes the presence of a small set of buildings now called Mama Ojlia [also, Mama Ocllo] and a set of natural marks on the bedrock which were believed to be the footsteps of the first mythical Inca, Manco Capac. On the other hand, some features that Cobo mentions, like a round altar stone in front of the rock no longer exist. This round stone had a hole into which large amounts of chicha (corn beer) were poured during ceremonies. Although this offering spot has been destroyed by looters, recent archaeological excavations in the area have recovered remains of a fine stone canal which drained the liquid offerings from the rock area.
The Sacred Rock (Titikala)
The sacred rock from which the sun rose is a large exposed slab of reddish, sandstone, that lies near the center of the sanctuary area. A small U-shaped plaza was constructed adjoining this rock. The southwest side of the plaza is defined by the Inca road which leads from the sanctuary to the elaborate Inca remains of the Chincana. It was in this plaza, near the rock that Cobo saw the round hole into which chicha was poured as an offering to the sun. The far-side of the rock descends much of the distance down to the lake. Cobo calls this broad descending side, "the convex side of the stone," and says it was covered in cumbi, a finely woven cloth. He states that the plaza side of the rock was covered with sheets of gold and that an altar was located in the prominent concavity near its center.
There is currently a table-like-rock across the Inca road from the Sacred Rock. Photographs of the site taken in the early 1900's indicate that this rock is not in its original position. It was most likely unearthed during one of the many looting episode which the area as suffered and has only recently been placed in its current position.
About 300 meters southwest of the rock is an elaborate Inca ruin called the Chincana (the labyrinth), which offers impressive views of the lake and the far distant shore of Peru. Its walls, constructed with field stones and earth mortar, were once covered with mud plaster and painted various colors. The Chincana contains the trapezoidal doors and niches indicative of Inca architecture. While these superficial Inca elements are abundant, the overall plan of the complex is distinct from those found in the Cusco area. In the Inca heartland, and in most Inca administrative centers elsewhere in the empire, Inca structures were constructed in the form of a cancha (enclosure), formed by three or four independent structures around a rectangular, or square, courtyard area. In contrast to this basic cannon of Inca architecture, there are many rooms within the Chincana connected by twisting passageways. The multiple passageways and internally connected rooms lend a maze-like feeling to this complex. Following information provided by the early Colonial writers archaeologists believe that the Chincana was a support facility for the shrine complex and it housed the women who cared for the shrine. (Photo, above)
The small site of Mama Ojlia is located halfway between the sanctuary gateway and the Sacred Rock. There are the poorly preserved remains of two or three small structures above the trail and those of a large structure below. Excavations in these buildings have recovered carbon remains adjacent to Inca pottery which provided dates of A.D. 1450 and A.D. 1490. Cobo suggests that the large structure may have served as a Temple of the Sun. The so-called footprints of Manco Capac are found between this small site and the Sacred Rock. (Photo left)
This is a large pre-Inca site located within the shrine complex. It is situated approximately 200 meters southeast of the sacred rock. The site was first noted by the Swiss archaeologist Adolph Bandelier in 1894 during his fieldwork on the island, and he accurately described the site as a quadrangular platform "lined by walls and surrounded by lower terraces on three sides, . . . " Many of Bandelier's archaeological finds from this site as well as his collections from other sites on the Islands of the Sun and the Moon can be seen in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
June Solstice Observations from the Rock Area
On the June solstice (21 June), the sun can be seen, from the sacred rock plaza, to sets between two, small, poorly preserved structures on the northwest ridge. On this same day, the sun can also be seen to set between these structures from a platform on the ridge just outside of the sanctuary wall. Research on Inca astronomy indicates that these markers were built on the ridge by the Incas to mark this important day. The Inca elites most likely watched this annual event from the plaza area, while the commoners watched it from the platform area outside the sanctuary.
Other Major Sites on the Island of the Sun
There are a number of other notable archaeological sites outside of the sanctuary area on the Island of the Sun.
Kasapata is a large Inca site with standing architecture, located approximately 30 minutes on the sanctuary road from Challapampa. The site conforms to the description of a large Inca village described by Cobo. Large, cut stone blocks dot the landscape, suggesting that a public structure was situated near the center of the site. There is a single building about 40 meters long which can be seen from the trail. (Visitors are asked not to enter these ruins since it involves cutting across several agricultural fields). This large building was not a "palace" as some have suggested but was a typical Inca "tambo" or way station where travelers were housed and fed. Archaeological research demonstrates that the site was a densely occupied village, located in prime maize-growing land.
The site of Tintinhuayani, located above the plaza in the community of Challa, is the principal pre-Tiwanaku site on the island of the Sun. Although little architectural remains are visible on the surface today, excavations at the site indicate that it was settled by at least 1500 B.C., and that it was occupied continually to around A.D. 100. In its earliest periods, Tintinhuayani was a major workshop of imported obsidian, a sharp volcanic glass quarried far away in the mountains. Around 200 B.C. or so, Tintinhuayani was the center of a culture that included the entire island and was contemporary with other important sites such as Chiripa and Early Tiwanaku on the mainland. Excavations indicate that during its height, the Tintinhuayani people's built a large plaza complex on the top of the hill, probably surrounded by cut stones.
This site is located on the ridge separating the communities of Yumani and Challa, along the major road leading to the Sacred Rock. It is a large site with a continuous occupation from at least the Tintinhuayani Period (ca. 200 B.C. - A.D. 400) to the Inca Period. Although this site now largely appears as a series of cultivated fields, it was most likely one of the Inca villages described by Cobo, and may have housed many of the colonists brought in from the Cuzco region.
Fountain of the Inca and Pilco Kayma
The major Inca port for the island was located on its southeastern tip, the point of land closest to the mainland. From the boat you can see a line which runs from this point up to the village of Yumani. This is the Inca road which lead arriving pilgrims to the sanctuary area. Below this trail are the two most visited sites on the Island of the Sun: the Fountain of the Inca and Pilco Kayma. The Fountain of the Inca is located in a lush crescent of the island, now shaded with eucalyptus trees (a nineteenth century introduction). There is a long stairway to the fountain which rests in the middle of the hill slope. The fountain is still used by the people of Yumani, since their village has no water. The fountain area offers a beautiful of view of the Bolivian cordillera as well as the Island of the Moon.
A short boat ride, or a 20 to 30 minute walk, will take you from the fountain to the Inca ruins of Pilco Kayma. This is an exceptional two story building once covered in mud plaster. It is best known for its closely clustered interior chambers, its large corbeled vaults, and its large doors which face the lake. Like the major ruin on the Temple of the Moon, this structure portrays a mixture of classical Inca and regional Lake Titicaca architectural features.
The Museum at Challapampa
There is a small museum in Challapampa that has ancient pottery and some metal objects. Many of the objects come from Johan Reinhard's underwater research near the northern end of the island, while other have been donated by the people of the Challapampa. The museum is open on an as-needed basis. Ask your guide or people in the community to let you into see the exhibit. There is a small entrance fee.
Major Archaeological Site on the Island of the Moon
Iń ak Uyu (The Temple of the Moon)
One of the best preserved ruins of the Lake Titicaca region can be seen on the small Island of the Moon (also called the Island of Coati). The ruins, Iń ak Uyu, are located on the northern side of the island and an impressive set of terraces lead from the dock to them. As one enters Iń ak Uyu there is a large terrace wall built with finely fitted classic Inca stone masonry. A compound rests above this wall which the early historians of the region tell us was a Temple of the Moon staffed with female attendants. The 19th century explorer and diplomat Ephraim Squier visited the island in the 1860's. He produced an outstanding map of the site shows many details which have since been lost to erosion and vandalism. The U-shaped complex was once covered with plaster and painted red and yellow. Today, while almost all the paint has washed away, the building still contains what has been described as the most handsome edifice on either island. Many of the plaster designs are not typical of the Inca but reflect local Lake Titicaca artist traditions. There is a small entrance fee to enter the ruins.
Text and maps used with the permission of the author.