for National Geographic News
Describing what they call "the Andean equivalent of Canterbury," two scholars have documented numerous ancient sites at South America's Lake Titicaca that were a popular pilgrimage route as long as 2,500 years ago.
The sites are on two islandsthe Islands of the Sun and the Moonthat lie in Lake Titicaca, straddling the borders of Peru and Bolivia.
Believing that the sun and the moon first arose from the islands, the Inca built temples for worshiping the heavenly bodies about A.D. 1500 and the area became a popular pilgrimage route.
But two anthropologists who have been studying the islands' ruins have discovered shrines dating as far back as 500 B.C., which indicates that the islands were regarded as a sacred place even by civilizations that pre-dated the Incans.
"Ritual ceremonies were being conducted on these islands when Socrates was giving his lectures at the Acropolis," said Charles Stanish of the University of California-Los Angeles, co-author of a new book on the research findings. "The Inca didn't create something new, they usurped the sacred places of earlier peoples."
During their ongoing study of the area, Stanish and co-author Brian Bauer of the University of Illinois in Chicago found 185 archaeological sites. Their research revealed that the islands have been occupied much longer than thought, dating back to hunter-gatherers of 2000 B.C.
The mapping of the area's ruins revealed the ancient pilgrimage route that led the pious from the mainland to the far end of the islands, where the shrines were located.
"If you've read The Canterbury Tales, you have a sense of how the pilgrimage route workedpeople would travel along and leave offerings at dozens of sites," said Stanish. "This," he added, "is the Andean equivalent of Canterbury."
The travel service Lonely Planet calls the Islands of the Sun and Moon the "Tibet of the Americas" because of their isolation and natural beauty. The deep blue water of the lake, which is more than 100 miles long, is framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Andes.
As knowledge of the islands' significance as a sacred place grows, Stanish and Bauer are concerned that the area could become a popular archeological attraction for tourists, escalating degradation.
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