Section XI Twenty Pages -
Sunday, July 31, 1932
Digitized by Doug Frizzle September 2010
The Gateway of the Sun at Tiahuanaco, the World's Largest Piece of Prehistoric Monolithic Sculpture
From a Painting by A. Hyatt Verrill
The Oldest City in the World
By A. Hyatt Verrill
Author of "Old Civilizations of the New World," "The American Indian," "Thirty Years in the Jungle," Etc.
TIAHUANACO, Bolivia, the oldest city in America and perhaps in the entire world, is situated on the trans-Andean plain, 12,000 feet above the sea-literally on the roof of the world. Here, ten miles from Lake Titicaca, are the astonishing ruins of a city populous in the days of Moses, old before the fall of Babylon and ancient at the time of the fall of Rome.
An expedition of the American Museum of Natural History now at Tiahuanaco—the first in thirty years that has received permission from the Bolivian government to excavate at these ancient ruins—has been on the ground for several months and will soon return to New York. Dispatches have announced many important discoveries. Among the noteworthy finds reported are a number of stone images or idols, one more than twenty feet in length; quantities of beautiful though broken pottery, and sculptured stones covered with strange hieroglyphs, or symbols.
When the Inca dynasty was founded, fully 1,000 years ago, this most ancient of cities had been a deserted ruin for so long that the Indians had no legends or traditions as to its origin or its former inhabitants. So the Incas called it Tiahuanaco—"The Place of the Dead"—and let it go at that.
No one can say with certainty when the city was built. But Dr. Rudolph Muller, the eminent German scientist and astronomer, computes its age as between 10,000 and 14,000 years! This he bases upon very careful astronomical observations to determine the extent to which the axis of the earth has shifted since the city was built. The sun-dial arrangement, used by the Tiahuanacans for determining solstices and other dates was the basis for his calculations. Using a formula adopted by the French Society of astronomers, Dr. Muller gave the city's age as 14,500 years. Unable to credit this almost inconceivable lapse of time, he tried another formula, and obtained 10,500 years as the age of Tiahuanaco. Even this would make it the oldest known city on earth, a city antedating by centuries Ur and Ish and the Pyramids. Yet even then, in that dim and remote era of the world's history the people who built this great city beyond the Andes' summit were a highly civilized race, possessing an advanced knowledge of astronomy and mathematics, having a written or at least an inscribed language, and with engineering and architectural abilities which never have been equaled.
Not only is Tiahuanaco the oldest city in America if not in the world—it is also the world's most mysterious city. For no archeologist can hazard a guess as to the identity of the race that built it, why it was deserted, how the people accomplished titanic feats which have no parallel anywhere, whence they came or whither they went or why it should have been built on the lofty plain where its amazing ruins now stand.
It is one of the true wonders of the world; a city absolutely unique. Nowhere on earth is there anything that resembles it in architecture, sculpture or culture. There are no known traces of an earlier culture from which Tiahuanaco might have been developed; no signs of a decadence. Judged only by what is known of Tiahuanaco it might well have been created by one of Aladdin's jinn and inhabited by giants, or brought bodily from some other planet.
Imagine a vast city covering more than a square mile, with immense edifices built of blocks of stone weighing hundreds of tons each and fastened in place not with cement or mortar, but with huge staples and bolts of solid silver!
A city with a stone-faced pyramid 200 feet in height and 700 feet square, towering above the magnificent temples and palaces, with a great stone stairway leading to the summit, where was a huge stone reservoir!
A city with a temple, with a stone-paved court 500 feet square, surrounded by hundreds of great stone columns twenty feet in height, with sculptured stone idols twenty to sixty feet in height, and with a titanic stone gateway hewn from a single block of rock!
Perhaps of all the remains of this once great city, this "Gateway of the Sun," as it is called, is the most famed and the most striking. Hewn from a mass of hard arsenite rock fifteen feet in length, eleven feet in height and nearly three feet in thickness, this marvelous specimen of stone cutting is the largest known example of prehistoric monolithic sculpture in the world. But it is fully as remarkable for the sculptures that cover it as it is for its size. Occupying the entire surface of one side above the doorway is a facade of 112 symbolic figures surrounding a great central figure of the "Condorgod" or so-called Sun God, all in bas-relief and embellished with intricate ornamental designs.
The other side of the huge gateway is even more amazing as an example of stone cutting. Here the ornamentation takes the form of severe moldings in geometrical designs framing six deep niches. Four of these are on the upper portion of the gateway, two on each side; and below these, one on each side of the portal, are larger niches. Not only are these rectangular recesses cut to a depth of several inches, but they are so accurately and mathematically executed that not even by using a steel square, micrometer dividers and a millimeter scale could I find a deviation of more than one-fiftieth of an inch in their angles, lines or surfaces!
To the ordinary visitor the most interesting and astonishing feature of the ruins is the gigantic size of the stones used in the construction of the buildings. There are flights of stairs with each step a single squared cut stone twenty feet in length, ten feet in width and three feet in thickness, flanked by ornately sculptured stone monoliths fifteen feet in height, which serve as newel posts. Yet these huge masses of cut stone are puny things compared to the stupendous slabs that once formed the walls of buildings—slabs larger than any others known in prehistoric architecture.
Blocks weighing sixty to eighty tons each are so numerous they scarcely attract notice; many weigh more than 200 tons each! And all as accurately and smoothly cut, trued, squared and carved as if sawed and planed by the most modern machinery—though for that matter no modern machine is capable of duplicating the work performed by the unknown ancient inhabitants of Tiahuanaco. Moreover, many of these stupendous slabs of hard arsenite rock are elaborately sculptured. Everywhere are geometrical designs cut deeply into the rock or left in bold relief—moldings, squares, rectangles, crosses and Greek key designs.
Often, too, these are cut far into the stone in a series of concentric steps to a foot or more in depth, the deepest portion being only a few inches square. And in many places there are identical patterns in high relief and evidently designed to fit into the recessed cuttings, thus locking the stones together, and so accurately cut that there is less than a millimeter variation in angles or size in a feat of mortising that few modern artisans could duplicate in wood, to say nothing of stone.
In other cases the titanic slabs were designed to serve as tiling for floors. About the edges of these numerous niches were cut, like seats, deeply into the stone, and intended, no doubt, as resting places for idols or statues.
Everywhere along the edges of these enormous stone slabs are numerous deep T-shaped recesses, frequently with the cross of the T extending through the stone as a perforation. In many places two or more of these cuts still remain in line so that their purpose is obvious, for, as I have said, the blocks were originally held in place by immense metal staples or keys. Until quite recently it has always been thought that these keys were of copper or bronze, but as several have been found which are of silver it is safe to assume that all were of the same metal.
This explains why the great structures, built of blocks of stone which should have endured forever, have fallen apart and are shapeless ruins today. Had the stones been fastened in place by means of bronze or copper staples the Spaniards doubtless would have passed them by and the buildings of Tiahuanaco, its palaces and its temples might be standing intact in all their impressive size and marvelous architectural details today. But the conquering Dons, coming upon the ancient deserted city by the lake, saw in the great silver staples only so much wealth. Each of the silver fastenings weighed many pounds and there were hundreds—thousands—of them—a fortune in silver holding the stones in position. Ruthlessly the avaricious conquerors wrenched and pried them loose, leaving the massive walls ready to topple and fall at the first earthquake or to collapse under the wear and tear of the elements through the centuries to follow.
Indeed, vandalism has played a far greater part in the destruction of this ancient city than have earthquakes, storms or the passage of countless thousands of years.
Not only did the Spanish soldiers rip the silver fastenings from the walls of the imposing buildings; the fanatical priests who accompanied them wrought even greater destruction. To their minds the utter annihilation of everything hinting of paganism or idolatry was a sacred duty. Much as we may regret and decry their misguided ideas, we cannot but admire their thoroughness.
Wherever they found a sculpture, a statue, an image, a temple, an altar or anything else connected in any way with the religion of the natives they literally tore it to pieces; and here at Tiahuanaco were stone idols, figures, statues and sculptures by the thousand, even though the people who had raised and worshiped them had vanished ages before and no living inhabitant remained to be converted to Christianity.
What a glorious orgy of holy destruction the padres must have had! It is recorded that in one spot they found an image carved from a single block of stone that measured sixty feet in length and fourteen feet in diameter. By the united labors of thirty men the huge monolith was reduced to fragments in the course of three days. Truly a triumph in the field of destruction—but what an irreparable loss it was to history and to science!
Why the padres ceased their destructive campaign before every idol, image and sculpture was eliminated is something of a mystery. Perhaps the conquerors were impatient to march and seek greater riches than Tiahuanaco offered in the form of silver staples and could not wait for their priests to break up the remaining idols. Possibly they were appalled at the number of stone images and realized the hopelessness of their task. At all events, they moved on, leaving the massive structures of a forgotten race to their fate and leaving scores of great stone idols undisturbed.
But the destruction of Tiahuanaco and its wonders did not end there. Through the four centuries that have passed since then wanton vandalism and destruction have been almost continuous. Every Indian farmer in the vicinity found the ruined city a source of stone for erecting walls about his fields. The slovenly little Indian village near the ruins has its streets paved with fragments of sculptured stones from the ancient city, and many a thatched Indian hut has an ornate, magnificently carved stone doorway filched bodily from the ruins in front of the little church—itself built of stone-work from the ruins—are the heads and shoulders of two colossal stone statues. Possibly they were decapitated by the priests in the days of the conquest, but more probably, finding entire images too large to be moved, the builders of the church knocked the heads from their bodies.
Even the few great stone monuments still standing among the ruins have been wantonly defaced and partly destroyed by soldiers who have used these priceless archeological treasures as targets, for rifle practice.
Finally, and playing greater havoc with the ancient city than the rapacious Dons, the zealous padres, the ignorant Indian farmers, the villagers and the soldiery combined, came the railway.
Straight through the marvelous city the tracks were laid. Ruthlessly buildings, monuments, sculptured columns and idols were throw down and incalculable treasures in pottery and other relics ground to bits by the hungry maws of steam shovels. Then, as a fitting culmination to all this, over 500 trainloads of sculptures, stonework, monoliths and stairways were broken up and crushed to be used in making fills and ballast for the roadbed!
In its heyday—even at the time of the conquest, when it had been deserted for untold centuries—Tiahuanaco must have been a most imposing, most beautiful and an enormous city. The existing ruins show that it covered an area more than a mile square, with paved streets, long rows of great columns, colossal statues and monuments, magnificent temples and palaces and its great stone-faced pyramid rising high above the plain, But today little remains except in three widely separated areas—the Kalasasaya, or Temple of the Sun, with its rows of stone columns and its impressive, marvelous monolithic gateway and gigantic stairway, the Tunca-Punca, or Palace of the Ten Doors, where the largest slabs of stone are lying where they fell after the Dons had pried the silver staples free, and the Akapana or Fortress, the great artificial hill from which the stone facing, the long flight of stone steps leading to the summit, the great stone reservoir, the stone conduit to the base and the monuments that crowned it were crated away, broken up and used in ballasting the railway.
And of all the hundreds—probably thousands—of gigantic stone statues or idols that once stood about Tiahuanaco only one remains, scarred and defaced by bullets, chipped by vandals and curio seekers, but still erect, gazing with sphinx-like, enigmatical face toward the rising sun. If only he could speak what an amazing story he might tell!
Could he but relate all that has passed beneath his sightless eyes the mysteries of Tiahuanaco would be the explained, the myriad puzzles of the past would be solved. We would then know how the inhabitants of the ancient city performed their amazing feats of stone cutting without—as far as is known—the use of steel tools; feats beyond our present comprehension, for no bronze tool ever found would cut hard rock, and no expert stone worker of today will believe for an instant that the accurately and mathematically and perfectly cut Tiahuanaco work was accomplished by the use of stone implements.
Even if the full story of Tiahuanaco is forever sealed behind the stone features of the solitary image much new light will doubtless be thrown upon it when a full report of the museum’s expedition is made public. One noteworthy discovery made was the image of a man with heavily bearded face.
Herein, perhaps, lies the key that may eventually solve all the riddles of Tiahuanaco and other ancient civilizations of America, for the bearded figure is doubtless a statue of the Bearded God— the Feathered Serpent of the Aztecs, the Kulkulcan of the Mayans and the Wira Kocha, or Bearded One, the supreme deity of the pre-Incans. This was the legendary bearded white man who, according to tradition, came from the “Land of the Rising Sun,” who taught the people their religions, their arts, their sciences and their civilizations, and then vanished after prophesying the downfall of their civilizations and the coming of the Spaniards.
Who can say how much of this ancient tradition is legend and how much is truth?
However that may be, the Bearded God is as great a mystery as is Tiahuanaco, the oldest, most puzzling of the ancient American civilizations.