Pilgrimage Route Uncovered at South America's Lake Titicaca

By Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 4, 2001
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 islands—the Islands of the Sun and the Moon—that 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."

Development Concerns

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 worked—people 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.

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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