On the southeastern shore of Bolivia's Lake Titicaca stand the ancient ruins of the city of Tiwanaku. Here, the remains of monolithic rock sculptures and buildings over 1,500 years old can be seen. What makes this site so incredible is not merely the size and weight of the stone used by these pre-Inca builders, but the fact that much of that stone originated far from the ruins – around 55 miles (90 kilometers) across the wide blue lake!
How these huge rocks, some of them weighing 40 tons, were transported across the famous lake – home to many indigenous tribes who live on its shores and in its floating villages of Lake Titicaca – has long been a mystery. Some, including photographer Chris Knutson, who took these photographs, speculate that the heavy boulders were ferried across the lake in reed boats. In fact, Knutson wrote an undergraduate thesis on the subject while he was at the University of Pennsylvania.
Some years later, Dr. Alexei Vranich, the director of archaeological investigations at Tiwanaku, contacted Knutson. Vranich offered him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly down to Bolivia and join him and a group of volunteers and researchers, including project director Paul Harmon, to test out this theory in real life. Naturally, Knutson accepted, and in 2002, he became part of the Qala Yampu expedition (as the project was called) to see if a reed boat really could transport a boulder weighing several tons across Lake Titicaca.
In order to construct a boat that was as historically accurate as possible, the expedition hired traditional reed boat-building family the Estebans. And this wasn’t the Estebans’ (who belong to the Bolivian Aymara ethnic group) first foray into this type of historical recreation. One member of the family, Paulino, worked on similar projects, including the Ra II expedition and the Tigris expedition, which were both headed by legendary Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl.
In this photograph, we see Paulino’s son Benjamín inspecting the dry totora reeds employed to build the boats. These plants have been used to make boats in South America for thousands of years.
To assemble the boat, the reeds were tied into two large bundles around 6ft 6in (2 meters) in diameter and two smaller bundles (seen here on top of the boat sides). Next, the bigger reed bundles were tied onto a wooden framework, which created the shape of the boat. And finally, the smaller rolls were placed between these two bundles.
Reed watercrafts are among the oldest known boats in the world and, if built correctly, are remarkably stable and watertight. Indeed, Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that they could be sailed over long voyages by sailing the world's seas in them. However, for this expedition, the point was not distance so much as weight-bearing capability.
Here we see the smaller and larger bundles of reeds being tied together. On each side, a single rope was used to secure the bundles. On top of the boat, on the left hand side, you can see aforementioned family patriarch Paulino Esteban. The man next to him in the white shirt is Knutson’s friend Kenji Spielman, who filmed the process.
When completed, the Qala Yampu (as the boat was called) was roughly 47 feet (14 meters) long, 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, and six feet (1.8 m) high. And it took 3,000 bundles of totora reeds to build it!
“I was originally there as a technical consultant, but in the course of the project I became the main photographer and had the privilege of documenting the steps of the experiment from start to finish,” says Knutson.
In this photograph, you can see that rope has been wound around the bundles from one end of the boat to the other. Benjamín Esteban did the winding while two other relatives waited to pull on the rope, squeezing the reed bundles together until only the large ones could be seen. This not only created the boat’s distinctive shape, but also ensured that it was rigid enough to carry the boulder.
“The project and the boat were called Qala Yampu in honor of the experiment’s two central components,” explains Knutson. “Qala means ‘stone’ and yampu means ‘boat’ in the local Aymara language.”
Once the boat had been tightly bound together, it was ready to hit the water. Apart from the main reed bundles, additional bundles were attached to the side as gunwales. In the center of the boat, you can see the colorful flag of the Aymara people – the second-largest Native American group in Bolivia. In this photograph, the boat had actually just escaped the volunteers, who were maneuvering it using wooden rollers. The boat went on to smash through a wall, though fortunately, no harm was done to the people and the boat survived as well.
While the boat was being constructed in Huatajata, workmen near the town of Copacabana (after which the beach in Rio is named) prepared a ramp and jetty to move the chosen boulder onto the vessel. The selected andesite boulder was located on a steep slope near the shore. Other rocks, such as this one, had to be cleared from its path. And since the boulder to be transported weighed between nine and 10 tons, getting it onto the boat was quite a challenge.
To ensure that the project used the same methods that were available to the Tiwanaku, the boulders had to be moved using ropes, poles, a traditional adze (similar to a hoe) called an ‘ushu’, and lots of manpower – in this case provided by workers hired from the Island of the Sun, the largest island in Lake Titicaca. Here we see how the workmen used their feet to move a massive rock, under the direction of Cesar Kalisaya from the Department of Archaeology.
This image shows how the workers used long poles to lever a boulder. Andesite, the rock used in many of the buildings and sculptures of Tiwanaku, as well as in this experiment, is a volcanic stone. Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, Copacabana was a sacred site where the patron saint of Bolivia, the Virgin of Copacabana, was worshipped.
In this photograph, the Aymara workmen can be seen using their poles on a smaller stone. “The workmen were accustomed to working with Western pickaxes and shovels, and were at first skeptical about our instructions to build the ramp and jetty without standard tools,” Knutson recalls. “Soon, however, their skepticism was replaced by creativity and ingenuity, and they clearly had fun with the challenge.”
This overhead view shows the ramp and jetty coming together in readiness for the arrival of the reed boat. And while those clear blue waters might look inviting, diving in is definitely not a good idea. At an altitude of around 12,500 feet (3,800 m), the lake is icy cold and guaranteed to take your breath away. It’s fine to do the laundry in, though, as the material laid out on the rocks to dry shows.
The way has now been cleared and the team is ready to start moving the massive stone down to the jetty. International volunteers and the workmen from the Island of the Sun used wooden skids to slide the boulder downwards, while it was both pushed from behind and pulled from the front using ropes. This is one rock you certainly wouldn’t want to accidentally roll over your foot.
The Qala Yampu project was definitely a collaborative effort. Even members of the Bolivian Navy got involved. The sailors, dressed in dark green, were on loan from the naval base near Copacabana. And since Bolivia has no coastline and is not currently at war with any of its neighbors, this may have been the most action these navy men had seen in quite some time.
Everyone really got their backs into dragging and pushing this huge boulder onto the boat. No doubt there were a few aching muscles the next day. We can just imagine similar scenes being played out centuries ago, with the original Tiwanaku builders as the protagonists.
The Bolivian sailors, smartly dressed in their formal uniforms for this historic occasion, used ropes to pull the stone the final few feet onto the boat. “In preparation for moving the stone onto the reed boat, wooden poles and planks have been placed to bridge the short gap between the boat and the jetty,” explains Knutson. “We weren’t sure at the time if they would be strong enough to support the weight of the 10-ton monolith.” Fortunately they were – or there would have been a very big splash! Not to mention the wasted effort of 40 men working for three days to get the stone there.
At last! The boulder is flipped aboard the reed boat in what Knutson calls the “make-or-break” moment of the entire project. “I had climbed to the top of the mast to photograph this consequential moment,” he tells us; “not knowing for sure whether the boat would capsize under the weight of the 10-ton stone and if I would be flung far out into the lake as if from a slingshot.”
Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead the boat remained completely, and comfortingly, stable. The weather was not so cooperative, however, and Knutson says the loaded boat was delayed for a week due to fierce storms. Most of the Aymara people left the project abruptly at this stage. One of them claimed that the lake was obviously unhappy with what they were doing and thus didn’t want them to succeed.
Eventually, however, the storms subsided and the experiment continued. With its heavy cargo on board, the Qala Yampu sailed over 55 miles (90 km) from Copacabana to Santa Rosa on the Taraco Peninsula. And as expected, the totora reeds absorbed water and acted as stabilizing ballast.
The boat carried the boulder with ease, which led the team to conclude that a similar-sized boat may have been able to carry more than twice the weight, and that larger boats definitely wouldn’t have had a problem transporting the giant rocks found at Tiwanaku.
When the wind died down, the crew was forced to row the heavily laden Qala Yampu. Then, upon its arrival at Santa Rosa, the boat was met by the pleasant sound of singing schoolchildren.
The canal at Santa Rosa only dates to the last century, but archaeologists have found evidence that the stones were unloaded at a site 12 miles (19 km) from Tiwanaku, where they were dragged over land to the city. This particular stone, however, remained in Santa Rosa, where the locals revered it because it came from the sacred land of Copacabana.
Here, blue skirts swirl as Aymara women dance and shake rattles in Huatajata. Knutson explains that this festival actually took place three months before the boat arrived at its destination in Santa Rosa, but he felt that the celebratory mood of the photograph better suited the completion of the project.
According to Knutson, the distinctive clothing (including the characteristic bowler hats) of the Aymara date back to Spanish colonial policies, when the rulers of the region dictated that different ethnic groups had to dress in easily recognizable costumes.
In this photograph, it’s the Aymara men, in their sober suits and fedoras, who shake and rattle their way down the street. In spite of the bright blue skies seen in these photos, Knutson says the most challenging aspect of this project was the weather. In addition to being held up in Copacabana by storms, the boat building was also halted in Huatajata, where rain delayed the drying out of the totora reeds. The rough weather even made the first few days of sailing difficult.
Still, despite enduring what Knutson calls “one of the stormiest winters in recent memory in the Lake Titicaca region,” the project was a great success. And we thank him for sharing his photographs and memories of the project with us. It’s certainly been a fascinating look at how ancient boat builders and laborers may have accomplished a quite remarkable feat.