Question: What ancient sacred city took “getting high” to a whole new level?
Answer: Tiwanaku, Bolivia
At 13,000 feet above sea level, the settlement at Tiwanaku was one of the ancient world’s highest cities in more than one way. In addition to its elevation, it was also a place where the citizenry consumed a literally dizzying array of hallucinogens.
The most recent carbon-dating shows Tiwanaku’s main buildings to have been constructed between 100-200 BC. With an urban core covering two square miles on a windswept plain, it was the home of a pre-Inca people who were sophisticated architects (see more below), with divided social classes, arts, and sports. At least 10,000 lived there at its peak (and some say up to 40,000).
They left no written records, but thanks to continued excavation, restoration, and research, a rich portrait of life there has emerged over the years. One of the fascinating finds is the presence of psychotropic drug residue on objects and in human hair samples. Some of the samples were found on a massive platform known as Pumapunku. With multiple terraces, the 1,600-foot-long structure dominated the city center (despite having never been finished).
Pumapunku was designed for ceremonial significance. Its sunken courtyard, accessed by a stone portal and a walled passage, is designed to be illuminated perfectly by sunrise on the first day of spring. The people at Tiwanaku believed it was the meeting point of heaven and earth, so visitors came from far beyond the city to witness its power. To enhance their experience, they took hallucinogenic drugs, sniffing narcotics through specially-designed ceramic tubes. No doubt, this made visiting Pumapunku feel even more mystical.
It wasn’t an isolated practice, as traces of hallucinogens were found in the hair samples of men, women, and even children, and it is believed nursing mothers passed the drugs on to their babies. For some at the sacred site, however, the drugs served another purpose: as a sedative to calm the subjects of human sacrifice before their slaughter, a final escape from earth before meeting the gods.
Fascinating Facts About Tiwanaku
- The people of Tiwanaku domesticated llamas and alpacas, the former for use as pack animals and the latter for their fur in weaving.
- Farmers grew potatoes and quinoa in raised fields outlined with canals of water channeled down from the mountains.
- Evidence shows that there were a variety of skilled workers, including jewelers, ceramicists, and weavers, but all their income went to the elites for distribution to cover all commoners’ needs.
- Pumapunku’s builders were adept at civil engineering, employing pavement in the city center, as well as sewer lines and an urban irrigation system.
- The city was divided into barrios by class, with similar groups each living in compounds mapped out by thick adobe walls.
- Neighborhoods had multiple family dwellings (with kitchens and bedrooms), some with their own storage and patios, outlining shared plazas.
- The barrios were arrayed around a city center ringed with a hand-made moat.
- The city center contained the most important buildings, as well as the homes of the ruling class, which commoners never got to enter.
- Within the ring of the moat, the earliest structure was the Sunken Temple, where steps lead visitors down to stone monoliths decorated with what are assumed to be gods.
- The Sunken Temple was perfectly square (89’ x 89’), its symmetrical walls decorated with faces, some brooding and others seemingly shrieking, intended to represent the deities.
- The adjacent Kalasasaya platform was built over an existing residence, which some scholars suggest showed a change of leadership trying to bury the legacy of their predecessors.
- Also within the moat section was the Akapana, a 55-foot-tall terraced stone monument meant to resemble a pyramid set into the hillside.
- Dozens of skeletons have been found in the Akapana, some of which show that the bodies had been hacked apart with sharp blades (before or after death).
- The diverse structures show a unified and meticulous approach to architecture, with lengths measured in luk’a (roughly 24-inch units) and employing the Pythagorean theorem.
- Around 1000 A.D., the population dwindled and the city was abandoned in the following years, with one theory being that environmental changes yielded a drought that forced the citizenry to move.
- After it emptied, Tiwanaku remained a site of religious pilgrimage for people on the Andean plains.
- When the Inca empire rose, they marveled at the site much as we do today, and proclaimed Tiwanaku “the birthplace of mankind.”