Tiwanaku started as a small town in about 1,000 BC. It grew over the years to become the center of a powerful empire that controlled much of present day Bolivia, northern Chile, southern Peru, and parts of Argentina. It's economy was based on an agricultural system that used elaborate raised planting beds (sukakullos) to produce huge crops in what is now an arid plain. It is estimated that the Tiwanaku farmers produced 7 times as much food per hectare as farmers produce on the same land today. The population of the city is believed to have reached 50,000, with another 100,000 living in the surrounding countryside.
Around 1,000 AD, the Tiwanaku empire collapsed, probably as the result of a long drought. Over a period of 50 years, the population died or moved away, and the empire disappeared. When the Spanish arrived, most of the buildings were still intact, but the discovery of gold artifacts in the buildings led to their destruction. The Spanish issued licenses to loot the site, much like the mining licenses they issued throughout the region. In later years, the best statues were taken away for sale to museums in the US and Europe. Many of the stones were used to build new buildings, or were dynamited to produce crushed rock for railroad ballast.
Today, the modern town of Tiwanaku is small and quiet (see the panorama above). There is little left of the ancient city, and only a small portion that has been excavated. The few remaining stone idols have been gathered in a museum at the site (see photo #1, at left). There are a number of other kinds of stone carvings on display. The museum also contains many examples of pottery, dating from throughout the occupation of the area. The changing pottery designs are used to identify the different eras of Tiwanaku civilization. We started our visit in the museum, then moved on to the excavations nearby.