Lost Kingdoms of South America; In Search of Medieval Britain

The second episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America is about the Tiwanaku people, who lived in what is now Bolivia between about 500AD to about 1100AD. The main area they lived in is a large plateau in the Andes over 3500 metres above sea level. Cooper opened the programme by visiting some modern subsistence farmers in the area & showing us how difficult life can be on the plateau. The Tiwanaku people started out near a large lake on the plateau (Lake Titicaca) – this lake creates a slightly warmer micro-climate, and the soil near the lake is more fertile than elsewhere. The Tiwanaku increased the area where they were able to farm by using networks of channels between raised fields to irrigate the soil using the meltwater from the mountains.

The main archaeological site for the Tiwanaku people is a vast temple complex (over 5 square kilometres in area) called Tiwanaku – which means “stone at the centre”. This was constructed using massive stones brought across the lake, and made into walls for ritual areas & carved with faces of ancestors and gods. The religion of the people was about gathering together to make offerings to the gods controlling the environment, so that they would have successful harvests etc. Cooper went to a modern Bolivian “start of the growing season” festival, which was nominally Christian (in that it happened partly in a church, and people brought banners of Christ crucified with them) but also derived from the ancestral festivals of the people (and involved all the surrounding people in the area coming together and having a party). As with the Chachapoya this appears to’ve been a civilisation where there wasn’t such a strict hierarchy as we’re used to – there’s no indication of kings or leaders as such, no memorials to a single person. Instead the social bonds were formed at these festivals & a combination of close ties to the rest of the people and friendly competition is what drives the larger scale projects that require collaboration.

The rituals of the Tiwanaku people appear to’ve involved beer, and hallucinogens – the statues left at the site of Tiwanaku are normally of a person holding a beer cup in one hand and a snuff pipe (their drug paraphenalia) in the other. The archaeologist Cooper was talking to told us that the temple would originally have been painted in bright colours, and the people wore very bright coloured clothes which would add to the hallucinogenic experience. They also probably involved sacrifice – modern Bolivians will still sometimes sacrifice llamas at their festivals. There also appears to be evidence that at least on some occasions there was human sacrifice. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced by that segment of the programme – what they told us about was based on one single skeleton discovered buried at the Tiwanaku site of an individual who’d been hit over the back of the head. Perhaps this was a sacrifice, but without any other evidence how do you know it’s not just a murder? Presumably there was other evidence we just weren’t shown.

The beer cups are a distinctive shape with distinctive patterns, and as the Tiwanaku culture spread and met other cultures you can see those cultures adopt the beer cups & other trappings of the Tiwanaku lifestyle. Including head deformation! The Tiwanaku people wrapped the heads of babies to elongate the skull, or sometimes added boards to the wrappings to flatten the skull. The expansion of the Tiwanaku was presented as peaceful & involving bonding with people over a beer – but again I wasn’t entirely convinced by the evidence we were shown (not saying it doesn’t exist, just the way it was covered in the programme wasn’t convincing).

The Tiwanaku as a large “state” with a common culture appears to have collapsed around 1100AD, not through conquest but through a change in the climate locally that reduced the amount of meltwater for the irrigation of their fields leading to poor harvests. Eventually the Tiwanaku temple complex was abandoned. It was later discovered by the Spanish, and stones from it were used to build churches nearby (bizarrely including re-purposing statues as “St. Peter” and “St. Paul”). More recently Bolivian people have been reclaiming their past to some degree – including performing rituals at the Tiwanaku site. (But not deforming their babies’ skulls into elongated shapes …)

Somehow I got to the end of this particular episode & felt a bit like we were being given the “best side” of the Tiwanaku – even if it did touch on human sacrifice etc. It felt a lot like they were being set up as these chilled out stoned beer drinkers who just want to be friends, maaan. And I just don’t quite believe in 600 years of hippy peace & love with no conflict even as they spread to take-over a large territory. Maybe that just says more about me than about them, tho 😉

We’d started watching quite late in the evening, so didn’t have time for another hour long programme – instead we watched another episode of In Search of Medieval Britain where Alixe Bovey goes round the country looking at places on the 14th Century map called the Gough Map. This episode was about Scotland. It was quite funny looking at the shape it was given on the map – as Bovey said clearly the map maker didn’t actually know anything first hand or accurate about Scotland. None of the geography was right, but she still managed to go & visit a few relevant places. Particularly entertaining was the segment on wolves – apparently the best way to escape a wolf, according to a medieval Bestiary, is to take all your clothes off (to reveal your sinfulness) and stand on top of the discarded clothing banging two rocks together (to summon the apostles). This will so scare the incarnation of the devil (which is, after all, what a wolf is) that it will turn tail & run away. I hope no-one actually tried that 😉

She also visited the oldest cathedral in Scotland (in Glasgow), a herb garden (complete with herbalist), Stirling, the Isle of May (controlled access to the fishing ports at the south-east of Scotland, a very important part of the Scottish economy of the time), and a safe house in the border region where the border people would protect themselves from raiders. Or base themselves once they’d become raiders …

I do wish we’d managed to record more than two of these 🙁