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Living Stone Beings from Tiwanaku, Bolivia, in Europe

Posted by on Thursday, November 16, 2017 in News, Research Scholar Grants.

Written by John Janusek, Associate Professor of Anthropology

The origins and ecologies of cities are central to my anthropological research, and I have conducted research in the South American Andes for more than three decades. Each year, I investigate a different aspect of the ongoing crystallization of cities in this challenging Precolumbian world. The focus of my research has been the early city of Tiwanaku, located in the Lake Titicaca basin of Bolivia. Tiwanaku was among the Andes’ earliest cities, and one of its most influential religious centers. The Inca, who conquered much of the Andes long after Tiwanaku had been depopulated, admired its impeccably crafted temples and claimed that its world originally emerged here. Punctuating the city center were dozens of stone sculptures carved to mimic human and human-animal forms and the Inca considered these remnant genera of giants from a prior world of proto-human giants who had been turned to stone.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The Ponce Monolith of Tiwanaku

With funding received from a Vanderbilt University Research Scholar Grant, I turned my attention to these ‘stone giants.’ Specifically, I focused my research on those sculptures that had been carted – in some cases, confiscated – to European museums from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries. The archaeological site of Tiwanaku is home to dozens of massive humanoid sculptures, all quarried from nearby sacred mountains and carved of sandstone or volcanic stone. The sculptures form a society of personages comprised of specific roles and status. The largest, and those placed most centrally in Tiwanaku’s temples, were what I term presentation monoliths. They are massive, impassive personages that present the same gesture (Figure 1). Each holds in its left hand a goblet for drinking fermented corn beer – or chicha – and in the left hand a tablet for ingesting psychoactive snuff (likely the resins of Anadenanthera colubrina, or vilca). Associated with these central quasi-mythical personages were pairs of Extended Arm monoliths, which likely served as guardian attendants to presentation personages.  Some of the stone guardians present iconography that depicts military weapons.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The Akapana chachapuma, currently housed in the Lithic Museum of Tiwanaku

A third type of lithic personage consists of so-called chachapumas, which in the native Aymara language of Bolivia translates as ‘were-felines’ (Figure 2). These were smaller stone personages that, by all accounts, always consisted in pairs. Unlike presentation and Guardian monoliths, which occupied the central spaces of Tiwanaku temples, chachapumas stood on either side of the portals that provided entrance into to those temples. Each chachapuma holds, in one hand a ritual axe, and in the other, a decapitated human head. While true human sacrifice occurred in Tiwanaku, a far more widespread sacrifice was the more subtle sublimation of a person’s identity to become a loyal Tiwanaku subject. Tiwanaku’s pilgrims and visitors came from across the Andes, and the creation of a common ritual identity was central to its proselytizing mission. It was not terribly different from current projects of nationalism and religious proselytization.

Figure 3

Figure 3: A chachapuma sculpture illustrated (a) and exported to France by naturalist and explorer Alcides D’Orbigny in the mid-1800’s, currently on display at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris (b)

Several chachapumas were shipped to Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but their details have been minimally documented. The Research Scholar Grant funding provided me the opportunity to travel to Germany, France and the Czech Republic to study the stone sculptures that had found their ways into some of its most prominent museums. I documented several chachapumas and numerous other stone sculptures, some preceding Tiwanaku in time, at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Ethnological Museum of Berlin) in Germany. In Paris, I recorded a large chachapuma and several chachapuma figurines at the Musée du quai Branly, a musem that features indigenous arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas (Figure 3). The biggest surprise was my visit to the Náprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Art in Prague. The central European consul to Bolivia Julius Nestler had confiscated thousands of objects to the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1912, and it was unclear where the objects (never well-published) had come to rest, or if they had been looted and lost during World War II. My visit to the Náprstek Museum was a surprising success, as it houses one of Tiwanaku’s most beautiful chachapumas plus a wealth of other sculptures and artifacts (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4: A chachapuma exported to the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1912 (a) and currently held at the Náprstek Museum in Prague (b)

I traveled to European museums to study some of the stone sculptures that had once stood in that Precolumbian center. These sculptures were apprehended as powerful living beings at Tiwanaku’s political apogee, the storied protagonists of the center’s mythical past. Tiwanaku’s stone personages remain vital today. Native community members tell endless stories of having witnessed them walking around at night, sometimes in the distance, sometimes approaching fleshy humans to ask for some help, or to follow them on some dangerous venture. The natives still consider Europe’s chachapuma personages to be alive and part of Tiwanaku’s stone sculptural family, if now abandoned and awaiting their millennial return. The stone sculptures I documented in Europe rounded out a Precolumbian history of living stone sculpture that would have been otherwise impossible.

The results of this project will be collated in a book (co-authored by Anna Guengerich), entitled: ‘Demanding Hosts: Monolithic Sculptures and Scalar Geopolitics in Tiwanaku.’  We are currently negotiating with potential publishers.


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