A string of religious shrines on two popular Bolivian islands in Lake Titicaca started attracting worshippers at least 2,000 years earlier than previously thought, researchers from UCLA and the University of Illinois at Chicago reveal in a new book.
"We have long known that the Inca built shrines on the Islands of the Sun and the Moon as early as 1500, but we now have clear evidence of shrines that go back to 500 B.C.," said Charles Stanish, a UCLA associate professor of anthropology and co-author of "Ritual and Pilgrimage in the Ancient Andes: The Islands of the Sun and the Moon" (University of Texas Press, June 2001). "Religious ceremonies were being conducted on these islands when Socrates was giving his lectures at the Acropolis."
However, the researchers expressed concern that their findings, when coupled with the islands' natural beauty, may escalate degradation.
"It will be a real challenge to make sure that development spurred by the growing tourist industry does not mar these important sites, so that scholarship can continue to explore the evolution and significance of these religious shrines," said co-author Brian Bauer, University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor of anthropology.
In addition to combining historical writings by Spanish colonists with artifacts gathered by archaeologists on the islands in 1895, Stanish and Bauer made three research trips between 1995 and 1997, exploring and excavating these sacred places.
They found 185 archaeological sites, dating from 2000 B.C. with the first hunters and gatherers, to the well-preserved Incan temples dedicated to the Sun and the Moon.
The scholars' mapping of the ruins also reveals 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," Stanish said. "This is the Andean equivalent of Canterbury."
The islands' elaborate temples and astronomical observation points were maintained by large numbers of imperial attendants including "chosen women" and "colonists" serving the many people who made pilgrimages, the researchers write. The islands were so important in the Incan world that the kings of Cuzco traveled to Lake Titicaca to pay homage at the island shrines.
According to Andean traditions, heavenly bodies first rose from these islands. Sacred Rock, a large rock surrounded by a stone sanctuary near the north end of the Island of the Sun, was believed to be the origin of the sun, researchers have long surmised. But Stanish and Bauer discovered that a man-made stone formation adjacent to Sacred Rock frames the setting sun during the summer solstice. They believe priests or other elites would have observed the solstice from the confines of this sanctuary.
Stanish and Bauer also located a nearby platform that provides views of a distant ridge with the foundations for two stone pillars, which also would have framed the setting sun during the summer solstice. The discovery of the platform near the sanctuary raises the possibility of a two-tiered system of worship like that of medieval Europe.
"The nobility stood near the spot where the Sun was born and witnessed the solstice from that location," Stanish said. "Simultaneously, the commoners could partake, but at a distance. Like a serf standing at the back entrance of a medieval church, they had the right, perhaps even the obligation, to witness the ceremony."
With carbon-dating techniques and a wealth of pottery shards and previously unearthed treasure, the researchers were able for the first time to determine that the islands also held special significance for pre-Incan civilizations, notably the Tiahuanaco (A.D. 400-1000) and the Chirpa (500 B.C. to A.D. 400).
"During Tiahuanaco times, you see imported material from the mainland appearing at the shrine site," Bauer said. "Clearly, the kings of Tiahuanaco, like the Incan kings a millennium later, were visiting the islands and trying to incorporate these holy sites into their growing state."
Bolivia's mountainous Islands of the Sun and Moon are popular with tourists, offering fascinating lore with breathtaking views of the snow-capped Andes surrounding the azure waters of Lake Titicaca. The researchers believe the islands may some day rival Peru's world-famous site of Machu Picchu as a tourist destination.