Puma Punku: an impossible structure?

The megalithic structure at Puma Punku is one of those sites that Bad Archaeologists really love. They claim that it can’t be explained by what we know about the technical accomplishments of early Andean civilisations, that it is unimaginably old, that it was built as a port… the list of claims is almost endless. It gets plenty of comments on this site, but one of my favourites is that it is certainly a headache for any mainstream archeologist, or th eone that calls me a disinformation agent. It is not a headache at all: it is actually a well studied and reasonably well understood structure. As for disinformation agent, well, if I am one, then I’ve never had the massive payments I must be due by now.

The site

Jumbled masonry at Puma Punku
Chaotically jumbled masonry at Puma Punku (Source)

Puma Punku (“Puma Gate”) is a megalithic platform that lies around a kilometre to the south-west of the main complex at Tiwanaku; the zone between has been shown by geophysics to contain numerous structures. It was thus clearly part of the complex of monuments that makes up the city and consists of a terraced mound resembling other pyramids in the complex, but with only three steps. It is composed of soil with a facing of dressed megalithic stones composed of andesite and red sandstone. The largest block measures 7.81×5.17×1.07 m and weighs around 131 tonnes. The blocks are held together partly through gravity and partly through I-shaped cramps. The cramps are made from a copper-arsenic-nickel bronze alloy known from artefacts dated 600-900 CE in the area between Tiwanaku and San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile.

Puma Punku: the claims

Bad Archaeologists love to quote Arthur Posnansky (1873-1946), an amateur archaeologist who dated Tiwanaku to c 15,000 BCE. His dating was based on what he considered to be astronomical alignments between the buildings in the city. This was based largely on an assessment that the structure known as the Kalasasaya, for which the alignments did not match those of today. Rather than abandoning his hypothesis that the building incorporated a solar alignment, he sought out a date at which the supposed alignment would make sense. Currently, the obliquity of the cliptic is around 23.4°, while Posnansky’s calculations require it to be 23.15°. Checking the tables available to him, he discovered that the last time the axial tilt corresponded to this angle was around 15,000 BCE.

According to Posnansky, Puma Punku consists of “a true and magnificent pier or wharf… where hundreds of ships could at the same time take on and unload their heavy burdens”. He attributed its ruined condition to cataclysmic flooding from Lake Titicaca, a “catastrophe… caused by seismic movements which resulted in an overflow of the waters of Lake Titicaca and in volcanic eruptions”.

It has become a favourite among those for whom Graham Hancock is an authority on ancient civilisations. Given his acolytes’s fondness for the place, it is surprising just how little space he devotes to a discussion of it, which amounts to under three pages (including an almost half-page illustration).

Hancock dismisses orthodox archaeological opinion, stating that “not a single orthodox historian or archaeologist was prepared to accept such an early origin for Tiahuanaco preferring… to agree on the safe estimate of AD 500”. Hancock is not going to tell his readers that this is not a “safe estimate” at all but a rigorously determined date based on radiocarbon determinations of the stratigraphy of the site. Posnansky’s calculations, on the other hand, depend on establishing alignments between elements of a structure that was ruinous even before he started to survey it. The “high-powered team” of scientists that Hancock claims Posnansky co-opted to check his calculations (Hans Ludendorff (1873-1941), director of the Astronomical Observatory of Potsdam), Friedrich Becker (1900-1981) of the Vatican Observatory, Arnold Kohlschutter (1883-1969) of the University of Bonn and Rolf Müller (1898-1981) of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in München) may indeed have verified the alignments. However, they were all astronomers, who only checked the calculations. They were not archaeologists and were not in a position to evaluate whether or not the supposed alignments were intended by the builders or were just something in Posnansk’s imagination.

Puma Punku nonsense debunked

The level of the lake was not high enough at any time when Tiwanaku was occupied to have reached Puma Punku. The port of Tiwanaku lay 18 km to the west-north-west, at Iwawi (or Iwawe), on the current shoreline of Lake Titicaca, with which it was connected by road. The port was discovered in the 1960s, so there can be no excuse for Bad Archaeologists continuing to claim that Puma Punku, at a higher elevation, was the city’s port. Iwawi was the port by which stones were brought to Tiwanaku for the construction of its monuments.

A reconstruction of Puma Punku
A reconstruction of Puma Punku, based on excavations by the University of Wisconsin in 2002 (Source)
In spite of the speculations of Bad Archaeologists about the site’s construction in remote antiquity, Puma Punku is well dated by radiocarbon. A high precision date has been obtained from the soil fill of the lowest terrace of the structure: 1500 ± 25 bp, which calibrates to 569 ± 21 CE (527-611 CE at 2σ, meaning that there is a 98% chance that the sample falls in that date range). This gives us a terminus post quem for the construction of the lowest and earliest part of the structure. The terminus post quem is an important archaeological principle by which a deposit cannot be older than the date of the youngest object in it: in other words, there is a 98% probability that Puma Punku dates from after 527 CE. Other evidence—such as the radiocarbon chronology of Iwawi—shows that the level of Lake Titicaca at this time was much the same as it is today. Its massive building blocks, weighing up to 131 tonnes, came from a quarry close to the current shore of Lake Titicaca, 10 km away, yet more evidence that the water level was close to that of today. So Puma Punku is not a port structure.
The ruined state of the monument can be attributed to two causes, neither of them related to Posnansk’s unattested floods. Firstly, the site is unfinished: we do not know why the site was abandoned, but it was left in an apparently unfinished state. Secondly, Tiwanaku in general has suffered a great deal from later quarrying, particularly after the Spanish conquest of the Inka Empire, when we know that the site was raided for building stone. Other elements were broken up for hardcore during the construction of the local railway in the nineteenth century.
E Fred Legner has suggested that the Tiwanaku culture had a three-tiered cosmology, with the Templete representing the underworld of fertility gods and the ancestors (Ucu Pacha), while the Akapana and Puma Punku represent the Hanan Pacha (upper world) where the celestial gods reside; humans occupy the central world (Cay Pacha). This is the sort of hypothesis that is impossible to refute: it’s an interesting idea, but nothing more.

Conclusion

Puma Punku is part of a fascinating pre-Columbian city in the Andes. Its age is tolerably well established and it fits a pattern of construction seen throughout the region controlled by Tiwanaku. Claims that it is a harbour construction from remote antiquity do not stand up to scrutiny. Because the place is remote and the product of a civilisation that is not regularly covered in school curricula outside Bolívia, it can appear mysterious. Like so many such places, though, putting it into a cultural context helps to remove much of the mystery: mystery-mongers such as Graham Hancock never do this and pretend to their readers that archaeologists’ accounts of it are nothing more than guesswork. They are wrong and, perhaps, deliberately mislead their readers.

10 Replies to “Puma Punku: an impossible structure?”

  1. My husband has been watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel and I was looking for some additional info. on Puma Punku. He wants to visit the site and that is not just a passing fancy with him. We are well-educated with graduate degrees and we do travel frequently–to England and Stonehenge and Alaska in the past year. I am a skeptic and I wonder if this trip is worth the time and money? We have already done the 50 states.

  2. I’ll agree with some of that, however it does not address the key question of how the individual stones were made with apparent technology greatly exceeding known and proven capabilities. Of note, as this is an inorganic structure it would be difficult to accept with finality Carbon-14 findings (circa 1960’s?) without a comprehensive forensic process being applied to the samples taken. I find David Pratt’s analysis of the construction much more compelling than your own however do understand this is a short treatise.

    While anyone who is not headless would scoff at the “port,” theory, you rely on that as a debunking mechanism. While we are all pretty weary of reading of yet another “temple,” being discovered, the implication being that people of previous civilizations apparently nothing better to do all day than kneel and moan, you offer no alternative theory.

    Given the fact that the x-ray analysis that was to have been done a couple of years ago was abruptly discontinued without cause, those hard-line truths may have to wait.

    Summary – To be debunked, you have to go after the core evidence not the crackpot musings.

    1. “it does not address the key question of how the individual stones were made with apparent technology greatly exceeding known and proven capabilities.”

      That isn’t a key question, it is a question that is only arrived at by falsely concluding that these stones couldn’t possibly be shaped without “technology greatly exceeding known.” Of course, there is no reason whatsoever that craftsman could not produce such work with simple tools. In fact, we know this to be the case, as there are examples of finely-fitted polygonal stone masonry all over the world. High technology was not required to produce one single stone of any of those constructions.

      1. Thanks blkcandywarez, I am aware of the global distribution of finely fitted polygonal blocks but have not seen a credible explanation of the method of shaping and installing with such exquisite accuracy. Can you suggest some credible reports that would assist.

  3. as a person that wants to know the real history and real facts of this and other sites around the world I find it very hard to listen or read about silly
    conjecture and wild speculation when the known facts are more than enough. Thank you for this information it will encourage me to try and
    find out more on this site . I had not known anything about Puma Punku prior to these particular articles . I will get with it and see if more information
    is available .

  4. Since it stands to reason that the tool you are using MUST be harder than the material you are cutting into. Could you please tell us what tools they had available in that time period that were hard enough to make such precision cuts in that hard of stone!! Especially some of the very small right angle groves that are visible that appear to have zero evidence of tool marks!! As though they were cut with a laser!! Also I’ve heard from experts that have looked at some of the precision relief cuts in the blocks and they have stated that they would have a very hard time replicating those cuts even with the technology that we have today!! How would you explain them making such high level of precision cuts with such primitive tools and technology that was available to them in that time period???

  5. I would agree with D Peterson, “it does not address the key question of how the individual stones were made with apparent technology greatly exceeding known and proven capabilities.” some of the stones look as if they were made with a high degree of precision, however I understand that the stones with multiple rectangular cavities are not cut at 90 degrees but slightly offset.

    I think the tv programs which give ordinary people the information about these things are lacking in the quality of information, those who have a belief in alien technology seem to have taken over and I can’t remember seeing any professional archaeologist having devoted a program to the subject. What really is annoying is that the alien technology promoters jump to conclusions without the slightest regard for common intelligence… why can’t we have someone from the archaeological community have a stand up confrontation with them.

    The other fact which came across in one of the ty programs was that the pattern of the cavities differs on each stone, and I know myself from my engineering background that it is easy enough to produce one item to a certain level of precision but the real test of precision is to be able to
    make another exactly the same.

    Some of the stones have small holes drilled through, I hazard a guess here..that they are about a foot deep, this is a difficult task to accomplish without the use of some sort of drill, but if the archaeologists are correct about the date then there seems no reason to doubt that a simple hand drill could be made in that era and indeed tube drills have been known to be used in Egypt previously.

    It seems to me that since the stones show no real purpose of what they were to be used for then I would guess they were purely decorative and to a high level of craftmanship, that being the case it is no wonder that the temple complex was not completed, they were taking too much time in its making.

    The site according to the alien believers was destroyed in a battle, but the archaeologists have told us that the place was used for providing building materials in olden and modern times.

    I have to say that the alien promoters have one thing that distinguishes them from people who would like to find the truth behind some of these interesting artifacts and that is that they are making a lot of money from the gullible.

  6. “That isn’t a key question, it is a question that is only arrived at by falsely concluding that these stones couldn’t possibly be shaped without “technology greatly exceeding known.” Of course, there is no reason whatsoever that craftsman could not produce such work with simple tools. In fact, we know this to be the case, as there are examples of finely-fitted polygonal stone masonry all over the world. High technology was not required to produce one single stone of any of those constructions.”
    Okay. Where is the proof that a craftsman could produce such work with simple tools? On scale? It would be great to have a bibliographical reference for this statement. The fact that there are “examples of finely-fitted polygonal stone masonry all over the world” is simply a fact, nothing more. Deducing anything else from this alone is simply a circular argument.

  7. The blocks at the site have “recently” been proven to be man made using a form of geopolymer concrete and not carved as previously believed. Given the organic material within the block can be carbon dated, we will finally find out what the true age of this site is soon. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it is infact 12000+ years old. I guess we will have to see…

  8. Archaeology has to solve some serious questions before dismissing alternative claims. The excavation depth of one of them (soil in that region builds up at a rate of around 0.8m per 100kyr), and the other are the high tech cut marks made in granite (how was this done?) You will earn my deep respect if you can provide analytical explanations for this, not just quoting unscientific sources.

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