The Incas Believed The World Began Here – So They Built A Giant Temple Complex

Published April 5, 2018
Updated July 24, 2018

Pumapunku is as mysterious now as it was when it was at its peak.


Wikimedia CommonsThe Pumapunku archeological site.

The Pumapunku is a large stone structure that is part of the Tiwanaku monument site in Western Bolivia. Pumapunku, which means “The Door of the Puma” in Aymara, is a large terraced mound with a western and eastern court.

According to Incan tradition, it is the site where the world was created. The temple complex was built on a layered foundation with layers of sand alternating with heavy stones that sit in deep trenches. This foundation had to support the weight of three layers of stone walls.

In its prime, the complex is thought to have been square with a walled eastern court, an unwalled western court, and a terraced platform mound. Some archaeologists believe the site was built to align with the sun, with the sunrise aligning directly with the center of the temple of the first day of spring.

Pumapunku is believed to have been created between 536 and 600 AD. This is especially remarkable because of the size and width of the stones, which would have been very difficult to cut and move. This massive undertaking would have had to have been constructed with the help of a large labor force. The stones were finely cut in such a way that they fit together, creating a large interlocking stone structure of H-shaped blocks.

Pumapunku Engravings

Wikimedia CommonsPieces of Pumapunku that show the engravings that lock the bricks together.

The precision with which each stone was shaped to interlock with the others indicates an advanced society that had a sophisticated understanding of both masonry and geometry.

Analysis of some of the unfinished stones indicates that they were built using stone hammers before being finished and sanded with a combination of flat stones and sand. Archaeologists believe the Pumapunku complex also had pavement, irrigation, and sewer lines, indicating an advanced understanding of civil engineering.

The temples at Tiwanaku were sites of both spiritual and cultural significance, believed to have been in use from 700-1000 AD. The Tiwanaku believed that the temples at Pumapunku were in the middle of Heaven and Earth, and people from all across the area came to the site for worship and ceremonies.

Visitors would use hallucinogenic drugs to enhance their spiritual experience. Modern testing of hair samples indicate that even women and young children took part in these hallucinogenic ceremonies. Archeologists have found evidence of snuffing kits in Tiwanaku remains, indicating that they preferred to inhale their mild-altering substances through ceramic tubes. Inside these kits trace remains from seeds of the vilca tree have been found, which is believed to have hallucinogenic properties.

Pumapunku Landscape

Wikimedia CommonsThe Pumapunku site from another angle, where the open courtyard was likely to have stood.

They believe that when woman sniffed the drugs, and would pass the intoxication on to their children through pregnancy or breastfeeding. Human sacrifice was a common practice at this time, and scholars have found signs that this ritual was performed at these temples. Evidence of human remains has been found strewn across the Pumapunku site, as well as relics of other ceremonial tools, such as masks, kits, ceramic objects depicting images of warriors, and trophy skulls.

The site was at its peak from around 700 to 1000 AD, when it began to decline.

By that point, the Tiwanaku civilization had grown to around 400,000 people, all of whom were reliant on the elaborate infrastructure of irrigation to provide food. At around 1000 AD, a lengthy drought seems to have caused a rapid decline, as a lack of water led to failing crops. The Tiwanaku people disbanded, abandoning the Pumapunku site and dispersing across the nearby mountain ranges.

The Pumapunku structure is thought to have never actually been finished. Whatever other additions may have been planned for the mammoth stone structure, there’s no denying its significance, both for the Tiwanaku people and as a modern-day historical site.

Next, check out some of the world’s oldest structures. Then, take a look at the “city of giants” found in Ethiopia.

Aimee Lamoureux
Aimee Lamoureux is a writer based in New York City.
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