Puma Punku: Enduring Enigma
Why Does One of the World’s Greatest Ancient Mysteries
Remain Virtually Unknown?
By Brien Foerster
On the high, arid plains of Bolivia, some 11 km from the southern edge of South America’s largest lake, Titicaca, brood the ruins of a once proud human accomplishment, Puma Punku. The name itself derives from the Native Aymara language, still in use by millions, mainly in the rural areas of Peru and Bolivia, and roughly translates as being “Door of the Puma.” However, it was most likely constructed by people long before the Aymara, and thus we have no idea what the builders called it.
Rather than an entity unto itself, Puma Punku is in the vicinity of, and indeed a part of, the far more famous Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) complex, the latter being less than 1 km away from the former. However, less than 10 percent of the visitors who make the trip across the Peruvian border, or the 72 km from La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, to see Tiwanaku, ever visit Puma Punku. To a great extent, the reason for this is that while Tiwanaku has a museum, a large parking lot, restaurants, and flags waving to attract attention, Puma Punku lies inside a rusting wire fence, with only a small sign of faded letters and crumbling paint to welcome any visitor.
From a distance, Puma Punku simply appears like a small cluster of toppled, leaning and broken stones, more akin to a quarry or rubbish yard than one of the world’s most intriguing, and least understood, megalithic masterpieces. If the average visitor to Tiwanaku would dare to simply walk through the gate and saunter a few hundred feet, they would be shocked at what their eyes would behold. Technically precise, as in almost perfectly flat, hard stone surfaces that hint of having been machined, confront the observer, a far cry from the standard academic idea that seemingly primitive Native Aymara or related people dressed and polished the grey andesite with stone hammers and copper or bronze chisels.
The enduring questions always remain. Who made Puma Punku? When, how, and why? Current understanding of this complex is limited due to its age, to the lack of a written record, to the current deteriorated state of the structures, and due to treasure hunting, looting, and stone mining for building stone and railroad ballast, and to natural weathering. Also, destructive, rather than constructive archaeological missions in the past, mainly at the Tiwanaku site, have caused the Bolivian government to hesitate at letting any further digs commence.
The extraction, wanton destruction, and recycling of much of the Puma Punku site can be easily seen in the small nearby town also called Tiwanaku, where many of the buildings, including the church, contain the tell-tale grey andesite blocks with smooth flat surfaces, which clearly came from Puma Punku. Also, a cursory walk by this author in November of 2011, along the nearby railway, allowed the examination of stones, grey in color with sharp angles and flat planes that led me to believe that here, too, lay the remains of the once magnificent structure.
As for age, Alexei N. Vranich of the University of Pennsylvania obtained a radiocarbon date in 1999 from the lowermost and oldest layer of mound fill forming Puma Punku. This layer was supposedly deposited during the first of three construction epochs and dates the initial construction of Puma Punku at 1510 ±25 BP. Since the radiocarbon date came from the lowermost and oldest layer of mound fill underlying the andesite and sandstone stonework, the edifices must, it is argued, have been constructed sometime after 1510 ±25 BP. Below this layer, only sterile middle Pleistocene (the geological epoch which lasted from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago) sediments were found to exist by Vranich.
However, the total area that has been excavated thus far of the site, though, is just less than 2%, which consists of many cross-contaminated layers—that is to say layers of age, older and newer, that intermix and therefore provide no accurate basis upon which the true date of each individual strata can be evaluated along with subsequent finds.
The more drastic dating view, that espoused by the engineer Arthur Posnansky, and more particularly about the nearby Kalasasaya temple at Tiwanaku than Puma Punku, has been shunned by the academic world ever since he wrote about the topic. In his book Tiahuanaco: The Cradle of American Man (1945), Posnansky claimed that the Kalasasaya pyramid’s sight lines aligned perfectly with the two extremes of the summer and winter solstices in precisely the year 15,000 BC. A further study, done by the German Astronomical Commission in 1926, tested Posnansky’s finds and revealed that the angle of obliquity of the Kalasasaya sight lines correlate with a date in either 10,150 BC or 4050 BC. Angle of obliquity is the angle between the Earth’s equator and the ecliptic. The obliquity oscillates between limits of about 22° and 24°.6 with a mean period of some 41 000 years.
Tiwanaku is often written about without the inclusion of Puma Punku as a distinct entity and at times it is not even mentioned. From UNESCO’s own website, the organization that gave Tiwanaku a world heritage designation, we get the following:
“Tiwanaku began as a small settlement, in what is known as its ‘village period,’ around 1200 BCE. During the 1st century CE, Tiwanaku expanded rapidly into a small town. This may be attributable to the introduction of copper metallurgy, to the consequent availability of superior tools and implements and to the creation of irrigation systems.”
Since UNESCO is the international body, which designated Tiwanaku as a world heritage site in 2000, its lack of even a mention of Puma Punku as a structure or entity, while thoroughly documenting the Akapana, Kalasasaya and subterranean Templete “temples,” is a curious fact. There is a separate Internet link for Puma Punku, via UNESCO, namely http://whc.unesco.org/en/documents/111167, but it actually just refers you back to Tiwanaku, where Puma Punku is not described.
As to the construction of the main temples of Tiwanaku, the dates most commonly used are that the majority occurred during the so-called Classic Period, AD 300-700. The Tiwanaku culture, a name prescribed to those that lived there during this period (although the name they actually called themselves is lost) is thought by many researchers to have ended reasonably abruptly about AD 950. Alan Vranich, cited earlier, and the head of the Tiwanaku Project, personally states:
“I’m placing the end of Tiwanaku a bit earlier than most at AD 950 based on the last carbon date we have associated with a monumental structure. Something important happened around that date that radically transformed Tiwanaku.”
What that “event” seems to have been was a prolonged drought, the result of an intense El Nino meteorological situation that could have lasted 40 or more years. A more or less complete abandonment of the site and area would have occurred; and most of the buildings, aside from those made of stone, would have basically returned to the earth since they were made of adobe mud with grass-thatch roofing. At its height, Tiwanaku was believed to have, according to whichever source you check, a population of between 15,000 and 30,000 people, covering an area of about 6.5 square km. However, satellite imaging was used recently to map the extent of fossilized suka kollus (an ingenious system of raised bed farming) across the three primary valleys of Tiwanaku, arriving at population-carrying capacity estimates of anywhere between 285,000 and 1,482,000 people.
Yet, only the stone remains, and the most mysterious aspect of the Tiwanaku and Puma Punku complexes is that none of the stone came from an on-site location. In general, the buildings at both Tiwanaku and Puma Punku were made from two classes of stone—red sandstone, and either grey or green andesite. The sandstone, from which the largest edifices and many of the foundations were made, came from a quarry about 10 km away, based on petrographic analysis. But even more perplexing are the grey andesite blocks more frequently seen at Puma Punku that presumably came from the area of Copacabana, about 90 km away.
The largest of the red-sandstone blocks is estimated to weigh 131 tons, though early Spanish chronicles have stated that much larger ones existed in the past, most likely broken up and recycled for other building projects, as stated above. How these could have been moved has been hotly debated. Since trees of any size do not exist in the area, the idea of wooden rollers can’t be used.
And as for the grey andesite blocks from Copacabana, some weighing 40 tons, one theory is that they were transported some 90 kilometers across Lake Titicaca on reed boats, then laboriously dragged another 10 km to the city—quite a foolish notion.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the largest, and most refined, workmanship in the area is generally found at Puma Punku, but not exclusively. The foundation stones, some as large as 131 tons, such as Puma Punku’s Plataforma Litica, at 7.81 meters long, 5.17 meters wide, and averaging 1.07 meters thick, are also found in close proximity to, but not at Tiwanaku—structures that are rarely visited. The entire area has been so heavily picked over and damaged for building materials that few, if any, of the stones are in their original positions, aside from the red sandstone foundation blocks, which could only have been moved by some catastrophic force. Possible ideas for that force include the near pass of a comet, or spillover from a nearby lake as the result of a meteor impact, perhaps 11,500 years ago.
To the west of the large pyramidal mound called the Akapana, in Tiwanaku proper, there are several grey andesite blocks of astonishing precision, the likes of which are more commonly found at, and presumed by many to be exclusively the domain of, Puma Punku. What it could suggest is that Puma Punku and its amazing examples of stone craftsmanship, which marvel even brilliant engineers such as Christopher Dunn, author of Giza Power Plant and Lost Technologies Of Ancient Egypt, is not so much a matter of physical location, but of time period.
Even the casual observer, one would hope, notices that the technical level of craftsmanship at the major Tiwanaku structures, Akapana, Kalasasaya and Sunken Temple are not as high as what is more commonly seen at Puma Punku. The joinery is not as fine, the edges are not as crisp, and the surfaces are not as flat. However, as noted above, some stones in the vicinity look like they were simply moved to their current, seemingly random positions directly from Puma Punku.
The most glaring example of an out-of-place object, the facts of which most tourists don’t know and frankly aren’t told, is that of the Sun Gate icon, the most commonly photographed work in the entire area. It was found and recorded in the late 1800s half-buried in mud, and snapped in two. It is positioned inside the Kalasasaya courtyard, where the perimeter’s wall standing stones are a somewhat softer grey green andesite. Three other “gates” exist in the area: two at Puma Punku, broken and lying face down, and another on top of the Akapana pyramid, again broken, and looking out of place from what else is seen on the pyramid.
What blurs the situation even more is that reconstruction was done at the Kalasasaya in the 1960s. The original stones would have resembled a more Stonehenge-like style, spaced evenly apart and standing straight up. Unfortunately, the parties that made the reconstructions decided to close the Kalasasaya with a wall that they themselves built. Added to this, the 2009 state-sponsored restoration work on the Akapana pyramid was halted due to a complaint from UNESCO. The restoration had consisted of plastering the pyramid with adobe, despite it being unclear whether the result would bring the pyramid back to its original state.
Many grey andesite stones, as finely shaped as those seen at Puma Punku, not only litter the interior of the Kalasasaya but are also stacked in random piles, along with inferior red sandstone blocks from what I regard as the Tiwanaku period of building, all over the area. Many have been used in the Kalasasaya wall “reconstruction,” but others are also still buried in the mud in many places.
This can be seen on top of, and flanking the sides of, the Akapana, in the Kalasasaya courtyard and at Puma Punku. It literally seems that the amount of hardened mud in the area, with immaculately shaped grey andesite blocks protruding, even from the sides of archaeological trenches two or more feet deep, suggests that a massive wave of iron-ore-rich mud once buried the entire complex. The area within the kilometer separating the Puma Punku and Kalasasaya complexes has been surveyed using ground-penetrating radar, magnetometry, induced electrical conductivity, and magnetic susceptibility. The geophysical data collected from these surveys and excavations have revealed, in the area between both the Puma Punku and Kalasasaya complexes, the presence of numerous man-made structures. These include the wall foundations of buildings and compounds, water conduits, pool-like features, terraces, residential compounds, and widespread gravel pavements, all of which now lie buried and hidden beneath the modern ground’s surface. So, clearly, there is more than meets the eye, because much is still underground.
Another clue may be in the stone sculptures found depicting what many have suggested are the likenesses of the creator god, or ancestor Viracocha. They are either made of grey andesite, or red sandstone. What is most striking about the differences between the two is the level of craftsmanship, the grey andesite ones being of a much higher technical quality. As I believe that the more precise and earlier work done in the area was of the grey andesite, from the Puma Punku period, the Viracocha figures seem to confirm that.
The drainage systems of the Akapana and Puma Punku include conduits composed of red sandstone blocks held together by ternary (copper/arsenic/nickel) bronze architectural clamps. This would also include the massive flat stones that seemed to be possible foundation stones. The I-shaped architectural clamps of the Akapana were created by cold hammering of ingots of the metal alloy. In contrast, the clamps of the Puma Punku were created by pouring molten metal into I-shaped sockets.
However, the above is a rather simplistic overview, since many different shapes and sizes of clamps appear to have been in use, especially at Puma Punku. The sockets themselves vary greatly in technical quality, again suggesting that some are much older and finer than others. This adds possible evidence to the idea that the Puma Punku period, as I have suggested, was more technically advanced than the Tiwanaku period. Pouring molten metal in place would require an on-site foundry, while cold hammered clamps could have been made at a central location either at Tiwanaku or elsewhere.
Protzen and Nair, in their 2000 article entitled, “On Reconstructing Tiwanaku Architecture,” noted that, “throughout the period of the site, certain buildings changed purposes causing a mix of artifacts that are found today.”
That is clearly the case, and what this article is about; that is, the distinct periods of construction where different materials were used, to some extent, but definitely different technologies and techniques—Puma Punku period being first, Tiwanaku occurring next, and then the occupation by the present Aymara people beginning approximately 1,000 years ago.
Christopher Dunn and this author will be visiting Puma Punku and Tiwanaku from August 1 to 10 of 2012, with a group of 30 guests, and shall endeavor to “dig deeper” into the mysteries of this area. Both of us were recently on an episode of Ancient Aliens, Season 4, with author and publisher David Hatcher Childress and Hugh Newman of Megalithomania, who will also be joining the author for a different tour in November. For more information visit http://www.hiddenincatours.com.