"Gateway of the Sun" at Tiahuanaco, as published by E.G.Squier, "Peru Incidents of Travel", 1877

Tiwanaku: Alternative History in Action

Tiwanaku, it just “feels” older.

The fabulous and remarkable site of Tiwanaku has been much studied in the past 30 years. In fact, a recent bibliography of items pertaining to Tiwanaku and its place in Andean archaeology runs to dozens upon dozens of entries (see this site; see also this link for a more specific bibliography on the site of Tiwanaku itself).

In the course of all this study the following conclusions have been reached (all provisional, pending further evidence and study).

Temple of Kalasasaya

Tiwanaku was a ritual city which, at its height, was home to perhaps 40,000 people and the central ritual center for perhaps 500,000 people living in the three surrounding valleys. It was sustained by intense cultivation of the surrounding region, the irrigation system of which is still traceable and has been much studied. Radiocarbon (C-14) dates and pottery analysis tell us that, although the first human occupation appeared no earlier than ca. 1500 BC (possibly much later: this date is suspect), the site only started to become a monumental city around 600 BC and continued in use until about AD 1000; its peak was between AD 100 and 900. Field surveys of the surrounding valley have uncovered numerous satellite settlements of the great city, marked by similar architectural features (on a smaller scale) and the same pottery (esp. Tiwanaku styles IV and V). Pottery analysis, a staple in archaeological analysis, also shows the proliferation of Tiwanaku styles IV and V around the Central Andean region, unearthed in confirmed archaeological contexts. The interpretation of this distribution is unclear: was it due to a Tiwanaku empire or a cultural and/or economic sphere of influence? Further work may help answer this crucial question. The collapse of the Tiwanaku state is also something of a mystery, as is always the case when a complex and impressive culture disappears — 1500 years later, people are still debating why the Roman Empire fell, or even if it “fell” at all! In the case of Tiwanaku, one possibility is that a famine induced by drought crippled the irrigation system and led to internal turmoil. More work is needed to test this hypothesis, however. Thus, our state of knowledge about Tiwanaku is pretty good, but not perfect. It is improving all the time, the more work is done on the site and its environs. This is a situation entirely typical of “conventional” archaeological investigations — a picture emerges gradually, as the evidence is collected, collated, and hypotheses developed to explain it.

Enter the Alternative Historians

What does Mr. Hancock do with all of this information, gleaned from dozens of careful studies of the site and its surroundings, from close analysis of its artifacts and art, from C-14 dates derived from archaeological context, and from the study of Tiwanaku’s context in Central Andean history? What does he do? He ignores it. He claims that:

Minimal archaeology has been done over the years (BBC Horizon interview, at Hancock’s website).

See here and here again to see the myriad of studies recording the “minimal archaeology done over the years.”

Mr, Hancock’s extensive research failed to bring to his attention any of these works and he does not cite them in either Fingerpints of the Gods or Heaven’s Mirror. His statement that:

I think what’s important to stress about Tiahuanaco is that this is a mysterious site about which very little is known

should be amended to:

I think what’s important to stress about Tiahuanaco is that this is a mysterious site about which I know very little.

That would be closer to the truth.

At the site itself, the stones aren’t in their original positions. Many were moved and smashed when a railway was built through the centre of the site in the 19th century.

Instead of consulting any of these works, Mr. Hancock bypasses them and relies on the more than 50 year old imaginings of Arthur Posnansky, who studied the site in the early 1900s to the 1940s. Neither an archaeologist nor a geologist, Posnansky became convinced that the alignment of certain stones at Tiwanaku with the solstices and peculiar marks on the mountains around Tiwanaku suggested it had been a port city some 17,000 years ago. His conclusions, published in 1943 in Tihuanacu: The Cradle of American Man have never been taken seriously. And with good reason. The “shoreline” Posnansky identified on surrounding mountains was the result of the formation of the river valley in which Tiwanaku sits (see C. Clapperton, Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology of South America [Elsevier. New York, 1993]) and the stones cannot be aligned with stars, since the Spanish smashed the idolatrous site when they found it, and it was used for centuries afterward as a handy quarry for building materials by locals, including the inhabitants of La Paz. Travellers as late as the 1920s saw statues and stones from Tiwanaku re-used in settlements all round the region. At the site itself, the stones aren’t in their original positions. Many were moved and smashed when a railway was built through the centre of the site in the 19th century. Given all this, you can’t argue from star-alignments with stones that the site is 17,000 years old; that would be pure guesswork. Hancock admits this in his BBC interview when he says:

I think the astronomical indications on the site are intriguing but not conclusive

and elsewhere:

the site itself has been used as a quarry for at least the last 150 years by the builders of La Paz and other areas in Bolivia has certainly damaged and devastated that site.

So what use are star-alignments, then? Finally, alternative but less spectacular explanations for the alignment of the buildings are also available, but go entirely unmentioned by Hancock.

Mr. Hancock and his son, Sean Hancock, criticize the radiocarbon (C-14) dates for Tiwanaku as unreliable (An Answer to Graham Hancock and Analysis of Hancock’s Position Statement on C14). However, the proposed “astroarchaeological” dates for Tiwanaku are as follows:

Posnansky 17,000 yrs ago (15,000 BC) – Posnansky (1943)
Neil Steede 12,000 yrs ago (10,000 BC) – TV documentary “Mysterious Origins of Man”;


Recently Steede has averred a date in 7000-5000 BC, even though his stellar alignment calculations point squarely at 7000 BC only Dr Oswaldo Rivera 12,000 yrs ago (10,000 BC) – interview transcripts (that is, not published)

Temple of Kalasasaya at Tiwanku in 1903

There is therefore a 10,000-year divergence between the high and low astronomically-calculated dates for the site. To get a perspective on what this means, remember that a span of 10,000 years represents twice the entire recorded history of humankind (writing emerged about 3,000 BC). The C-14 samples excavated from Tiwanaku are consistent and show deviations in decades or centuries (at Tiwanaku the greatest deviation is ± 200 years). But this and the other indicators of age derived from excavation represent unacceptably imprecise dating methods for Graham and Sean Hancock. For them a system of dating with a deviation of ten millennia is more convincing. They must be kidding.

Given the admitted unreliability of astro-archaeological alignments, on what basis does Hancock agree with Posnansky and justify bypassing dozens, if not hundreds, of studies of the site and its context done in the intervening years? The answer: his feelings —

I think, above all else for me personally, its as much intuition as anything else – the site feels wrong for the date range that is ascribed to it by orthodox archaeologists. It just feels older. It’s very difficult to prove anything like this, and I’m not trying to prove it.

If you can’t make an historical argument from evidence and have to rely on admittedly unprovable feelings, what sort of historical argument are you making?

Answer: a bad one.