Pre-conquest history

The barren, windswept Altiplano, the highest plateau in Latin America, has been home to various indigenous cultures from the earliest times. Artefacts found on the Altiplano date the first human occupation at around 7000-8000 BC, but a much older fossilized human footprint discovered in the department of La Paz in 2007 has challenged prevailing theories. Early man followed a seasonal cycle of hunting and gathering around the shores of Lake Titicaca, travelling as far as the eastern valleys and the desert coast of southern Peru and northern Chile.

One of the most important developments of life on the Altiplano was the domestication of the llama and alpaca, which centred around Lake Titicaca and developed in conjunction with farming. The llama was of crucial importance to the Altiplano people. It provided protein to supplement their basic diet as well as wool for weaving and was also a beast of burden. The combination of the domestication of camelids and the development of agriculture helped give rise to the great Andean civilizations.


The greatest of the pre-Inca civilizations is at Tiahuanaco, or Tiwanaku . Most visitors are aware of this mysterious site just south of Lake Titicaca but few people understand the extent of this culture's influence throughout the South Central Andes and the reason for its sudden demise. The remains of Tiahuanaco culture show that the inhabitants reached a high degree of development and organization. Remains of a huge ceremonial and urban centre with palaces, temples and pyramids, elaborate textiles and beautiful pottery suggest a sophisticated culture.

Sustained by innovative forms of intensive farming, the Tiahuanaco region became one of the most densely populated areas of the Altiplano. The influence of the culture gradually spread to other areas, through military conquest or trade. After around AD 500 its influence was felt in almost all parts of Bolivia, southern Peru, northern Chile and northwest Argentina. Civilization reached its high point here around AD 1000, after which a period of decline set in, leading to its complete collapse around AD 1100-1200. The cause of its sudden demise remains a mystery.

Aymara kingdoms

After the fall of Tiahuanaco a proliferation of distinct political groups evolved to control the vast territory formerly under the influence of the great empire. These independent Aymara Kingdoms, which shared a common language and many cultural patterns, played a leading role on the Altiplano for 300 years until the arrival of the Spaniards. Each kingdom boasted a powerful organization based on a collective and military model.

At the centre of Aymara society were the
, groups based on kinship which owned and worked the land collectively. The Aymaras cultivated potatoes and cereal crops and
kept llamas and alpacas for meat, milk and wool and used them as pack-animals. Indeed, the kingdoms' wealth was measured in the number of alpacas and llamas. Like the
Tiahuanaco Empire before them, the Aymara maintained important connections with communities in the eastern valleys and on the Pacific coast. They exchanged potatoes, meat and wool from the cold, barren plateau for fruit, vegetables, maize and coca from the subtropical valleys.

The most powerful kingdoms were the Lupaca, based at Chuquito, southwest of Lake Titicaca, and the Colla, with their capital at Huatuncolla, near present-day Puno. These two
kingdoms were in constant warfare until around 1430, when the Lupaca conquered the Colla.

The Incas

While the Aymara were fighting among themselves to establish territorial rights to lands around the Titicaca basin, the Quechua-speaking Incas from Cuzco were preparing to invade the kingdoms and incorporate them into their expanding empire. Despite the fact that they were divided, the Aymara resisted obstinately and were not finally conquered until the latter part of the 15th century in the reign of Inca Túpac Yupanqui (1471-1493).

The origins of the Inca Dynasty are shrouded in mythology. The best-known story reported by the Spanish chroniclers talks about Manco Capac and his sister, Mama Ocllo, rising out of Lake Titicaca, created by the Sun as divine founders of a chosen race. A more down-to-earth version suggests that the inhabitants of the valleys around Cuzco began their rise to prominence around AD 1200. Over the next 300 years they grew to supremacy as leaders of Tawantinsuyo, the largest empire ever known in the Americas.

At its peak, just before the Spanish Conquest, the Inca Empire stretched from the Río Maule in central Chile, north to the present Ecuador-Colombia border, containing most of Ecuador, Peru, western Bolivia, northern Chile and northwest Argentina. Typical of the Inca method of conquest was to assimilate the skills of their defeated enemies into their own political and administrative system.

Though the Incas respected the languages and cultures of the subjugated peoples and only insisted on imposing their religion, a certain amount of Quechuanization did occur. Around Lake Titicaca, Aymara language and culture remained practically intact but the cultural and linguistic traditions of other peoples of the Altiplano were almost completely displaced, especially as groups of Quechua-speaking Incas were brought from Peru to live and work in Collasuyo. But Inca culture was tied to the highlands and they never succeeded in annexing all of the peoples of Bolivia. Their powerful armies could not defeat the semi-nomadic peoples in the lower-lying valleys and the eastern plains, such as the Guaraníes.

Although the Incas left a great impression on the country in the shape of an extensive road system, architecture, ceramics and metal artefacts and established their own language in many parts, the duration of their stay in Bolivia may have been no more than 80 years.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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