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Ancient Ruler's Tomb, Gold Trove Found in Bolivia Pyramid

Kelly Hearn in Buenos Aires, Argentina
for National Geographic News
August 6, 2007
 
A 1,300-year-old skeleton buried with a cache of gold artifacts has been found in a Bolivian pyramid, archaeologists say.

The remains are believed to belong to an elite member of the ancient Tiwanaku culture, which thrived on the shores of Lake Titicaca from about A.D. 400 to 1200 (see Bolivia map).

Scientists found the bones and offerings this spring in the upper reaches of the Akapana pyramid, a heavily looted temple experts say is one of the largest pre-Hispanic structures in South America.

The condition of the artifacts and the skeleton's location inside the pyramid lead researchers to believe the individual held high status.

"We believe the individual was a priest or a government figure in the Tiwanaku civilization," Danilo Villamor Encinas, an official with Department of Archaeology of Bolivia, said.

The bones, unlike others found in the pyramid, bear no physical markings of having been ritually sacrificed, he said, and the body was found near the top of the temple rather than at the base, where bones are typically found.

Bolivian archeologists who first announced the find in March said the corpse had been buried with a llama, believed to aid in passage to the afterlife, as well as a gold headband and a fist-size gold pendant.

Researchers have since found a third gold figurine, Villamor said.

"It is very small figurine of gold with two eyes and a mouth and is similar to others found at the site," he said.

Villamor added that the individual—a diminutive 25-year-old male—had suffered from malnutrition, perhaps as a child.

"This called our attention, because normally a person that enjoyed a high social rank would be well fed and well cared for," he said.

"This leads us to speculate that this individual lived during a time of cultural stress where there would have been widespread shortages of resources."

Little-Known Civilization

The Tiwanaku civilization arose on the wind-swept high plateaus of Bolivia's Altiplano region.

During its height from A.D. 500 to 900, the culture expanded beyond its capital city-state to parts of modern-day Argentina, Chile, and Peru (see South America map).

For reasons not fully understood by scientists, the civilization disappeared before the rise of the Inca and the appearance of Spanish conquistadors.

Some scientists have suggested that a drought in 1200 may have caused the decline. But other experts dispute the theory.

What is not disputed is the rarity of finding a complete skeleton and jewels in the 1,200-year-old pyramid, which experts say has been heavily ransacked by looters.

In the early 1900s railway workers also reportedly used the base of the pyramid as a stone quarry.

"Finding something intact like this is great considering how looted the pyramid is," said Alexei Vranich, a Tiwanaku expert and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

But he said the recent finding does little to clear up archaeologists' fuzzy understanding of the pyramid's role in Tiwanaku life.

"In the last year several interesting skeletal finds have come to light, but we're still a bit unclear how the pyramid functioned," he said.

A 2005 study of remains found near the pyramid by John Verano, a forensic anthropologist at Tulane University, supported theories that Akapana was a place of human sacrifice, Vranich said.

(Read related story: "Ancient Peru Torture Deaths: Sacrifices or War Crimes?" [April 29, 2002].)

"Several of the early skeletons found were clearly sacrificed individuals found at the precise location were a shaft of light shines out of a temple doorway on the sunset of the day of the solstice," Vranich said of Verano's work.

(Verano is the recipient of past grants from National Geographic's Committee for Research and Exploration, but the 2005 research was not funded by National Geographic Society.)

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