Pilgrimage Route Uncovered at South America's Lake Titicaca

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Preserving the ancient sites will be a challenge, said Stanish, who compared the Islands of the Sun and Moon to the ruins of Machu Picchu, the world-famous Inca ruins in Peru. "As more people begin to realize how wonderful and spectacular this place is, there's a real fear that in the end we could wind up ruining the very thing that makes it what it is," he said.

It's a classic development problem, Stanish explained.

Currently, agriculture and fishing are the main source of livelihood for people on the islands, and such activities can support only a limited number of people. But as tourism grows, more people will move to the area in search of economic opportunities.

"The pressures of large tour companies to make it more into a Disneyland kind of place will be immense," Stanish said. "It's really important that the local people have a stake in the tourism economy. If they do, the sites will be preserved."

Stanish and Bauer helped build a community center in the area so the local people could learn more about the value of the islands' cultural resources. "If the locals have a stake—they're running the bed-and-breakfasts, the shops, and so on—it will be in their interest to preserve the island," Stanish said.

Filling in the Picture

The islands' well-preserved Inca temples dedicated to the sun and the moon have interested scholars and visitors for years.

By carbon-dating pottery shards and other finds, however, the researchers were able to determine for the first time that the islands also held special significance for pre-Inca civilizations, notably the Tiahuanaco (A.D. 400-1000) and the Chirpa (500 B.C. to A.D. 400).

Besides revealing temples and the pilgrimage route, the research has identified ancient agricultural fields, canals, cemeteries, settlements, and other archaeological features that are enabling scholars to construct a more complete picture of pre-industrial civilizations in the region.

"We knew from the first eyewitness documents left by the Spanish in 1534 that the Inca people made pilgrimages to these islands and regarded them as sacred places," said Stanish.

The islands' elaborate temples and astronomical observation points were maintained by large numbers of imperial attendants who attended the many people who made pilgrimages to the sites. The islands were so important in the Inca world that kings traveled to Lake Titicaca to pay homage at the shrines.

"We're proud that we found every site before they've been destroyed, and our book and the thousands of photographs we took will enable historians in the future to reconstruct what we found," said Stanish.

Ritual and Pilgrimage in the Ancient Andes: The Islands of the Sun and the Moon is being published in June by the University of Texas Press.

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