Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Oldest City in the New World

The Oldest City in the New World
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Travel magazine 1929 September. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, October 2013.

This story was just located and acquired. It is an interestincontrast with another article from later, 1932, entitled ‘The Oldest City in the World’ and these images are much superior and probably taken by the author./drf
TO me—and I have found that others feel much the same—Lake Titicaca gives the impression of great age. Voyaging across this great lake on the roof of the world, one seems to be navigating waters that belong to a dead world, that hold the secrets of the ages in their impenetrable depths. And even the fact that one is traveling on a luxurious modern steamer, a miniature liner, does not dispel this sensation. Neither is it far from being the truth. On every side are the bare brown hills with scarcely a trace of vegetation; in the distance tower the endless snow-capped Andean peaks. Everywhere the steep shore slopes are covered with ancient Incan walls, with abandoned terraced plots reaching from the water's edge to the topmost summits of the hills. Ruins of great temples and palaces rear their massive walls here and there, but all seems deserted, dead, for the low stone or mud huts of the living Indians are scarcely discernible and rarely does one catch a glimpse of a human being. And beneath the waters lie countless relics of bygone races, of forgotten civilizations—idols and images and unknown, incalculable treasures in silver and gold and precious stones—the offerings to the mysterious gods of the lake, cast into its depths for countless years, countless centuries, by ancient people—by the pre-Incans and the Incans—who looked upon the lake as sacred. Ancient, too, is that mysterious spot, the Island of the Sun, whence, according to Incan allegory, came Manco Capac, the first Inca, with his sister-wife, Mama Oello, and who, so Incan mythology avers, were born of the sun and the lake.
Even Guáyqui, the tiny port on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, looks very old (although as a matter of fact it is quite modern) despite the presence of railway tracks, locomotives, motor-boats and automobiles. The low adobe houses seem almost a part of the surrounding red-brown plain. The Indians' reed boats, or balsas, with their matting sails are the same as those of a thousand years ago, and the Indians themselves, in their bright-colored ponchos, their sandals, their gaudy manias and their voluminous brilliant skirts, might well have stepped out of the distant past.
Hence it seems quite fitting that, near at hand barely twelve miles from the port, there should be the oldest city in America. This city was old at the time of the fall of Rome —perhaps before the fall of Babylon. For all we know it was thriving and populous in the time of Moses, and in many ways it is the most mysterious, puzzling city in the entire world. Here at Tiahuanaco was the center of a civilization unlike any other; a civilization that rose to great heights in art, in engineering, in industries and in religion, so far back in the dim past that no tradition, no legend, no myth of its origin or its people remains, but which left its influence upon countless other cultures and civilizations over an area of hundreds of thousands of square miles of South America.
Everything connected with Tiahuanaco seems to be mysterious and inexplicable. Even the site of the city is most unusual. It stands upon an almost level plain in a far from fertile area, with no available water near it, and almost midway between the two ranges of hills that provide the only stone in the vicinity that is suitable for buildings. Yet within a dozen miles is the vast, navigable lake abundant water, arable land and easy transportation. Many authorities have claimed that, when the city was built and occupied, it stood upon the borders of the lake and that during the countless centuries that have passed, the waters have receded.
In support of this theory they point to the remains of what they claim were docks and quays. But there is no valid geological evidence that the lake has receded appreciably for hundreds of thousands of years, and careful observations made by the engineers of the Guayqui-La Paz Railway extending over a number of years prove conclusively that, at the present time, the mean level remains almost constant and that, if anything, the lake's level is rising rather than falling. Finally, the so-called quays might just as well have been structures erected for some entirely different purpose. Moreover, there is nothing in the sculptures, pottery, decorations or other features of the remains to indicate that the Tiahuanacans were a lake-faring race.
Hence the mystery remains as to why this great city was built in such a spot, and even greater is the mystery of its downfall, its abandonment. Who were these people, where did they come from, why did this marvelous civilization spring up, develop and vanish in this one spot in an almost desert land in the heart of the Andes?
Tiahuanaco seems to have had no beginning and no end. There are no traces of an archaic or evolutionary culture leading by regular steps to the zenith of the civilization, nothing to show that there was a gradual decadence or a decline. Judged by appearances, by what we know, Tiahuanaco and its civilization might have been brought bodily, wholly perfected, from some other planet, whither, centuries later, its inhabitants returned.
At the time of the Spanish Conquest, Tiahuanaco was a far more imposing city than today. At that time many if not all of its gigantic buildings were standing, its magnificent temples and marvelous palaces were nearly intact; its titanic statues were in place. But nothing, not even the imposing wonderful city, escaped the Spaniards' greed. And what the treasure-hunting Dons did not destroy the fanatical Padres did. To them it was a holy duty to destroy everything that savored of Paganism, and the wonder is that any idol, sculpture or image remained after their zealous crusade. Possibly they grew weary of destroying stone images, and it must have seemed a rather hopeless task, or perhaps they had neither the time nor the money to complete the job. And it did cost both time and money. It is recorded that at one spot, near Willcas Huaman, the Spaniards found an image, carved from a single block of stone, that measured nearly sixty feet in length by fourteen feet in diameter. To destroy this titanic statue required the united labor of thirty men working steadily for three days! Whether such stupendous images ever existed at Tiahuanaco no one knows, but even today several immense monolithic statues remain standing, chipped, scarred, defaced by vandals and by the rifle fire of Bolivian soldiers, but still gazing calmly across the plain towards the rising sun as they did thousands of years ago when Tiahuanaco was in its prime. Even the name of the city has been a matter of mystery and has caused much discussion. Its origin has been explained in various ways, the commonest and most widely accepted being that an Inca, who was staying at the spot, was brought an urgent message by a runner. In compliment to his fleetness of foot, the Inca compared him to a Guanaco, and bade him be seated, using the words "Sien te Guanáca" This, however, is a far-fetched and highly improbable explanation. In the first place, the words are a hodge-podge of Spanish and Indian, and no Inca would have used Spanish when addressing one of his own race. In the second place, the Guanaco is not a native of Peru or Bolivia but of Chile and the Argentine, and an Incan, wishing to praise a fleet-footed courier, would be far more likely to compare him with a Vicuna, an even faster creature. Finally, the word Guanaco is not identical with Huánaco. As is so often the case, those striving to explain the name of the city have overlooked the real and simplest solution. In the ancient Quichua or Hualla dialect, "Huánacu" means "dead," and Tiahuánaco would signify a place of the dead or a dead city. The use of the word Huánacu or its derivatives or root, as applied to anything devoid of life or associated with dead persons, was very prevalent among the Incans. Thus the statues of the Incas in the Temple of the Sun at Cuzco were known as the "Chuqui-huáncas," the burial ground was called "Huánacu-Pampa," etc. So we may be quite certain that the name Tiahuánaco or "the city of the dead" was bestowed upon the ruins by the Huallas or Incans who knew the place only as a deserted, forgotten city of an ancient vanished race.
Originally Tiahuanaco must have presented a most imposing appearance. Though doubtless the houses of the common people were of adobe and thatch, and have long ages ago vanished, yet the great public and ceremonial edifices were of almost incredible dimensions. As the ruins are today they may be roughly divided into three sections, known as the Akapana, or Fortress, the Kalasasaya, or Temple and the Tunca-Puncu, or place of Ten Doors. But originally, the entire area between and about these three principal groups of ruins was covered with structures, idols, immense stone monoliths, and other works of these people, who, judging by the remains they have left, might well have been supermen, giants who would have made Goliath puny by comparison. Just how the city may have appeared, even at the time of the Incas, no one can positively state.
Through the ages that had then passed since Tiahuanaco had become a veritable "Place of the Dead" and, through the centuries that have passed since the days of Incan dominion, this most ancient American city has been desecrated, looted, literally torn to bits. Choice portions of its magnificent sculptured stone work have been carried off by the natives and used to build their own miserable huts, and there is scarcely an Indian dwelling within miles of the ruins that does not possess a doorstep, a lintel, or some portion of its walls formed of fragments of Tiahuanaco. Even the rough, narrow, filthy streets of the villages are, in places, roughly paved with pieces of carved or worked stone filched from the ruins. The little Spanish church at the modern village of Tiahuanaco is almost entirely constructed of portions of the ancient town, and, flanking the entrance are the heads and shoulders of two colossal stone images that were ruthlessly knocked from the bodies of Tiahuanaco's stone gods. The Indian farmers have surrounded their stony, thin-soiled fields with walls constructed of stonework from the ruins, and vandals, collectors and curio seekers have done their part. But the greatest damage of all, the most ruthless and inexcusable destruction, was caused by the railway whose tracks run directly through the center of the ancient city. Thousands of tons of stone, idols, statues, monoliths, carved columns, magnificent doorways, immense slabs and priceless sculptures were broken up, crushed and used for ballasting the tracks.
As a result of all this, the ruins today are in pitiable shape, and at first glance seem scarcely more than meaningless piles of hand-worked stone. But even so their immensity, their perfection and the classic beauty of their sculptures cannot fail to arouse the wonder and the admiration of even the most indifferent observer. And as one examines them more closely and becomes accustomed to the surroundings, one can, in a measure, reconstruct Tiahuanaco in one's mind, and can—inadequately—visualize the buildings as they were in the long ago when the Condor-God was worshiped in the great temple.
Parts of the ruins may be viewed from the railway, and several of the great stone columns and images are within a few yards of the tracks. But to see the best of the ruins, to obtain any idea of their extent and their titanic proportions, one must walk about amid the remains.
Nearest to the railway, and most prominent of all, is the so-called fortress or Akapana, a pyramidal hill of artificial origin that rises to nearly two hundred feet above the fairly level plain. It is accurately placed so that its four sides are in line with the cardinal points of the compass, and at the base measures about seven hundred by five hundred feet. Originally, no doubt, its sides were completely faced with cut stone, like the pyramids of the Mayas and the Teocalli of the Aztecs. But few of these blocks remain, the greater portion having been broken up for use on the railway. Once, too, a magnificent stone stairway led to the summit of the hill where there was an immense basin, apparently for holding water, and, from this, a conduit or pipe line of beautifully cut stone troughs led down the pyramid. Why the ancient Tiahuánacans should have devoted such an immense amount of labor and time to erecting this great mound merely to place a basin at its summit, or why, once they had done so, they should have installed a drain, are unsolved mysteries. Assuredly it had some very important and definite purpose. Possibly it was a sort of reservoir to be drawn upon in time of drought or necessity; but in that case the question of how water was conveyed to the summit is as great a mystery as the pyramid itself. Unless the climate of the district has vastly changed, the rain alone could never have been counted upon to keep the huge cistern filled, but possibly thousands of toiling human beings may have carried water up the steep stairway by hand. At any rate, whether it was a reservoir, a fort, the site of a temple or the residence of the Tiahuánacan monarch, today it is scarcely more than a stone-littered hill, and the casual passerby would never give it a second glance or dream it was raised by the hands of men.
About one thousand feet from the base of this former pyramid is the so-called Temple of the Sun, or Kalasasaya, perhaps the best preserved of the ruins. Here is an immense rectangular terrace nearly five hundred feet square with its edges outlined by rows of cut stone columns from fifteen to twenty feet in height. Originally the entire area within the boundaries of these columns was paved with carefully cut and fitted stones, but between the natives and the railway builders, who found these paving blocks most useful for their purposes, scarcely a trace of the ancient pavement now remains. Originally, also, the upright columns were connected or capped by timbers or other stones, for the tops are carefully and accurately mortised, evidently with the purpose of supporting lintels. At a short distance from the ruins, and facing the east, is a solitary huge stone image, its face marred and scarred by vandals and time, but still gazing with an enigmatical smile towards the rising sun, though it alone remains of all the hundreds of similar statues that once flanked the temple. Access to the Kalasasaya is now easy from any side, but in the days when it was in use the only entrance was by way of a flight of great stone steps on the eastern side. Each step is a single slab of cut stone nearly twenty feet in length by ten feet in width and over three feet in thickness, and the whole is flanked by two huge, sculptured stone monoliths.
But by far the most interesting object in the temple, in fact the most interesting and remarkable object in the entire city, is the Gateway of the Sun, as it is called, and which, in all probability, served as the portal to an inner temple in Tiahuánacan days. This magnificent piece of sculpture measures nearly fifteen feet in length by eleven feet in height and two feet in thickness and is pierced by a rectangular doorway nearly five feet in height and over two feet in width. It is cut entire from a single block of andesite rock—the largest single piece of stone sculpture in the world. But remarkable as it is for size, and as an example of the ancient stone cutters' skill, one scarcely notices this in view of the far more remarkable sculptures that cover it. Upon one side, the upper portion above the doorway, it is completely covered with a beautifully-carved facade in low relief. Although no one can decipher the carving, yet it unquestionably had a very real significance to the inhabitants of Tiahuánaco, and its motif is easily recognized. The largest and central figure is that of the Tiahuánacan supreme god, commonly known as a sun-god. In all probability, however, it was more in the nature of the Pre-Incan Pachacamac or the Condor-god, creator of the universe, maker of the lake and "He who Upheld the Heavens." Rays or feathers encircle his head, and these terminate in beautifully designed miniature heads of the jaguar, the symbol of the Night or Moon-god. On either side the chief deity is flanked by forty-eight other figures, twenty-four to a side, all facing the god and depicted as running towards him. In all probability these were symbolic of the god's supreme power and the homage paid to him by the lesser deities. Beneath the throne on which the god himself is seated is a row of sixteen carved figures showing small replicas of the god's head, as well as the heads of condors, separated by ornamental designs.
The opposite side of the portal, though wholly different, is even more remarkable. Here, the surface of the stone is bare of ornamental bas-relief carvings, but is decorated with a severe geometrical design. On the upper portion, at the opposite ends of the gateway, are four rectangular niches, two to a side, and on the lower portion there is a rectangular niche on either side of the doorway. These niches, which are cut into the hard rock to a depth of nearly six inches, together with their ornamental frames or borders, are so accurately cut and so mathematically perfect that even by means of a steel square and a millimeter scale I could not find a deviation of more than one-fiftieth of an inch in their angles or surfaces. This is perhaps the most astonishing feature of the Tiahuanaco stone work. At the Tunca-Puncu ruins, nearly a mile southwest of the temple, such geometrically and mathematically cut squares, rectangles and crosses are abundant. Often they are carried into the rock in a series of concentric steps to a depth of a foot or more, the final, deepest niche being only two or three inches square. In places, too, there are cross or key-shaped sculptures in high relief which obviously fitted into recesses of the same forms, thus locking the stone together, and the most painstaking measurements prove that the greatest variation in size between these recesses and the projecting crosses is less than a millimeter! How any human beings could have performed such amazingly accurate work in a hard refractory rock with only stone tools is a mystery that no one has been able to explain.
Even today, our most skilled stone-cutters, equipped with steel tools and machinery, would find it a difficult undertaking to duplicate the feat, and yet, as far as known, the ancient Tiahuánacans had no knowledge of steel, and no bronze or copper implement has ever been found that will make the least impression on the rock.
But regardless of how they did it, the ancient inhabitants of Tiahuanaco accomplished it, and, judging from the remains, did not find it a very difficult undertaking at that. To many, however, the immense masses of cut stone upon the low mound of Tunca-Puncu are more remarkable than the sculptures. Originally the mound, like the Akapana, was faced with stone, and immense stone steps led from the plain to the summit where there was a stupendous stone building the exact purpose of which is unknown. But, unlike Akapana, the stones that surfaced the Tunca-Puncu mound were of colossal size, while the structure that surmounted it was built of stone slabs that are far larger than any others known in prehistoric architecture.
Some of these are estimated to weigh over two hundred tons each, while slabs weighing sixty to one hundred tons are abundant, and all are as accurately and smoothly cut, trued and squared as though cut and planed on some gigantic machine.
Several of the largest of these immense slabs formed huge platforms or floors, and about their edges are numerous niches or recesses cut into the rock. Originally, these probably served as resting places for idols or statues. Although called the "Place of the Ten Doors" yet there is little evidence to show that the structure ever had ten doors. Far more probably there were no doors whatever, the building being more in the nature of an open colonnade with columns supporting sculptured lintels.
It was probably roofless, for in many places there are basin-like hollows and drains cut into the rock, with gutters evidently designed to carry off water that fell within the structure. With the place in the regrettably ruinous state it is in today it is difficult to say what it was like originally or what purpose it served. But that the stones were not cemented together, but were locked or keyed in place by immense metal staples is evident. Everywhere about the edges of the mammoth blocks of stone are T-shaped recesses cut deeply into the rock, and sometimes with a perforation extending entirely through the slab. In places, two of these mortises still remain in line so that it is easy to see how the metal staples held the two slabs together.
It has been assumed by many that these staples were of copper, but last year an employee of the railway discovered one of them intact, and, instead of being of copper, it proved to be of solid silver. This is not, however, surprising. Silver is abundant in Bolivia, it was widely used by all the ancient races, and as it had no intrinsic value to them and was far stiffer and stronger than copper it was far more suitable for locking the great stones in position. And the fact that the staples were of silver explains in great measure why the massive structure collapsed. To the Spaniards, copper would have meant little —it was far too worthless to pay for the time and trouble necessary to tear the staples from the stones. But silver was a different matter. Each of the great staples weighed many pounds; there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, and the rapacious Dons wrenched and pried them loose, thus allowing the massive stones to fall apart and tumble to the earth. Possibly, very probably, many of the silver staples still remain in the lower portions of the stones, buried beneath the mammoth slabs, but even with modern devices and steam power it would cost far more to move one of the masses of cut stone than the metal would be worth, even though there were hundreds of them.
Where the Tiahuánacans secured the stone they used, or how they transported it, have always been mysteries. No similar stone exists within six miles of the city, and it would appear to have been an Herculean, an impossible task to have dragged these blocks, weighing one hundred to two hundred tons, across the sandy plain. And the theory that they might have been brought on rafts across the lake is even more improbable.
The problem has been the more perplexing because it has always been held that no ancient American race ever discovered the wheel. But last year, while carrying on investigations at Tiahuánaco, I discovered two immense stone disks that might well have served as wheels. Both of these were at Tunca-Puncu. One was concealed beneath a fallen mass of stone, the other was partly covered with a fragment of a slab and was deeply embedded in the earth. They were approximately seven feet in diameter by eighteen inches in thickness, and were pierced with square holes in the centers. At first sight they might have been mistaken for Spanish mill-wheels, or arastras, but as far as known no Spanish mill ever was situated near the spot, and there is no reason why one ever should have been there. Moreover, they differed materially from any mill-wheels I have ever seen, and they were of the same stone and the same class of workmanship as the structure itself.
With such wheels, fitted to a fixed axle, it would have been a fairly simple matter to have transported the blocks of stones from the hills to the site of the city. Their width would have prevented them from sinking deeply into the sandy soil, and, by slinging the stone beneath the axle by means of ropes, they could have been dragged along by man power. Having no wood of any size the Tiahuánacans would have been forced to use stone wheels if they used any. As a stone wheel, rotating upon a wooden axle, would have ground through the latter in no time, it would have been quite natural to fit a fixed axle with squared ends, and allow this to rotate in a greased sling. Perhaps these great stone disks were never used as wheels. Perhaps they belonged to a later epoch than the Tiahuánacans. But personally I believe they were wheels, and that they were used in transporting the immense stones. Who can say? Who will ever know?
Of the inhabitants of this oldest American city we know little. Although many skulls and skeletons have been found in and about Tiahuanaco, it is doubtful if any are those of the builders or the original denizens of the city. More probably they are the remains of the later pre-Incas and Incans, for we know that these races occupied the district for many years. At all events, all the skeletal remains thus far discovered are not different, anatomically, from those of the living Indians of Bolivia.
However, that the Tiahuánacans were a highly cultured and civilized people, and that their arts and industries were not confined to the erection of stupendous buildings and to amazing sculptures, is proved by the pottery, the metal work and the other artifacts that have been obtained from the site. In their ceramic ware the Tiahuánacans had few equals and no superiors among the prehistoric races of South America, and throughout Peru, Bolivia and even in Chile, one finds pottery, textiles, carvings and other objects showing the strong influence of the Tiahuanaco art and culture.
Not only was their pottery beautifully modeled and magnificently decorated with painted designs, but in addition, they were past-masters in the plastic art, and modeled most lifelike and accurate figures of men, birds, reptiles, beasts, gods and inanimate objects. Many of their jars are of the effigy type, others are of the portrait type, and the features, the expressions, the very characters of the individuals depicted are truly marvelous. Often, too, they modeled large, life-sized hollow images, some apparently representing gods, others heroes, others monarchs and individuals. And from these and their portrait jars we can obtain a very good and no doubt accurate idea of the personal appearance, the costumes and the habits of the people. Judged thus, the Tiahuánacans were obviously of the so-called Indian race.

Though Tiahuánaco may be shrouded in mystery, though we may know nothing of its origin or its past, though no one can decipher the sculptures and the hieroglyphs that decorate much of the pottery, though even the Incas and their predecessors knew so little of the ancient race that they referred to the city merely as the "Place of the Dead," yet we may be sure that the oldest of American cities was built and occupied by real Americans.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.