Jason Yaeger

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Tiwanaku and the Construction of Inka Imperial Ideology

Centuries after the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Tiwanaku abandoned this Andean city in contemporary Bolivia, the Inka Empire used the city’s impressive pyramids to express core elements of their own creation narratives in the mid-1400s.

“The Inka were incredible social engineers,” observes Jason Yaeger, whose research examines the layers of meanings sedimented in Tiwanaku’s history. They reconfigured the existing structures to accommodate the ritual activities required in their own cosmology, Yaeger says. Transforming these spaces into “memory theaters,” the Inka celebrated and materialized Tiwanaku as the place where Viracocha created the first couples of all ethnic groups and thus established the ethnic differences that formed one of the bases of Inka governance.

The Inka Settlement Program that Yaeger directed between 1999 and 2002 was the first study of Tiwanaku’s Inka occupation, despite two centuries of archaeological fieldwork in the area. He has focused his investigation on the Pumapunku pyramid and the activities that took place there. Although not the most imposing structure at the site, this pyramid was particularly attractive to the Inka and became the heart of their settlement. By the alignment of its axis, the Pumapunku unites the sacred mountain Illimani and Lake Titicaca, landmarks that even today anchor a series of dual oppositions in the cosmology of Tiwanaku’s current inhabitants, the Aymara people. Visitors to Pumapunku passed through a series of portals and gateways that framed the Illimani. “Given the Inka penchant for landscape mimesis, this alignment would not have been lost on them,” Yaeger comments.

Further, unlike other public spaces at Tiwanaku, the Pumapunku complex provided both a large plaza that would accommodate Inka ceremonial gatherings as well as a sunken court that formed a natural water reservoir for the canals and baths integral to Inka rituals. Finally, the Inka believed that fallen stone portraits of the city’s former rulers near Pumapunku were models of the first humans.

“My primary point of departure is that landscapes and monumental buildings form enduring structures that shape human experience, perception, and interaction in ways that are not entirely arbitrary. Prominent places are magnets for meanings, becoming symbols that accumulate meanings over time,” Yaeger says of his approach.

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, Madison

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