Religious sites in Bolivia

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Archaeological surveys in the Carangas region of highland Bolivia have identified a previously unrecognised concentration of religious sites built by the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the area, including one site with characteristics currently unique in the Andes.

The newly identified site of Waskiri is defined by a perimeter ring of 39 enjoining enclosures surrounding a large central plaza; it is the only site of this design known in the pre-Hispanic Andes.
Image: P Cruz; from Google Earth images

The survey identified 135 circular sites located on hilltops, each defined by concentric walls built on terraces around the hill, ranging in number between two and nine per site. All of the sites investigated so far have produced large quantities of ceramics, mostly in the styles of the Late Intermediate and Late Periods (AD 1250-1600), and many corresponding to types of object typically used in ritual activities. Together, these sites make up a dense ritual landscape, connected to the ancient Andean cult of wak’a (or huaca), a belief system centred around sacred places and objects, both manmade (in the form of shrines, monuments, and even pottery) and natural (such as mountains, boulders, and other features in the landscape). The newly identified sites in Bolivia are believed to have been appropriated by the Inca when they settled in the region.

In addition to these hilltop sites, the researchers identified one site with a very different design. Waskiri is a circular site, 140m in diameter, located on a small hill near the Lauca River and the Bolivian–Chilean border. The site is defined by a perimeter ring made up of 39 enjoining enclosures, each c.106-144m² in area. This outer ring surrounds a central plaza of around 1ha. At present, researchers have conducted aerial drone surveys of the site, as well as architectural surveys, material sampling, and exploratory investigations, but they plan to return to Waskiri later this year to carry out excavations. The ceramics found so far are similar to those from the other hilltop sites, dating to the Late Intermediate/Late Periods, but the design of the site itself is currently unprecedented in the pre-Hispanic Andes.

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The survey identified many other circular sites surrounded by concentric walls built on terraces around the hilltops, believed to be locations connected to the ancient Andean belief system of wak’a. Image: P Cruz; from Google Earth images

It is believed that Waskiri may be the site mentioned in the chronicle of Spanish priest Bartolomé Álvarez, who travelled through the region in the 1580s; his records mention a ‘large circular building’ with 39 perimeter enclosures surrounding a large central plaza, where the main authorities of the surrounding area met to perform ceremonies for Inti Raymi (the annual sun ceremony in June) and other religious events. The site’s location in a desert area, removed from any known pre-Hispanic settlements or agricultural sectors, supports its interpretation as a regional ceremonial centre where different communities came together for important events. Waskiri also occupied a central location in the wider religious landscape, being both visually and spatially connected to other significant features such as sacred mountains, funerary towers, and other concentric sites. The dividing walls of the 39 enclosures align with many of these features, forming sacred paths that radiate out from the site. This design mirrors the ceque system observed in the Incan capital of Cuzco, and may be evidence that the Incas replicated the same system in other regions they controlled.

The results of the survey, published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.44), represent an important step in exploring understudied pre-Hispanic religious sites in this part of the Andes, and it is hoped that further research will shed more light on the subject.