The non-mystery of Puma Punku and Tiwanaku
This time, we will explore the fantastic ruins of Puma Punku (or Pumapunku), a temple complex located within Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco or Tiahuanacu). This site lies in modern Bolivia, and its stunning stone masonry has given rise to speculation about alien visitation. Let's investigate the site, what we know, and what has been done in the past. We will see that the alien theories are rather lazy compared to the site's real history and archaeology.
In Digging up Ancient Aliens, our host Fredrik uses his background in archaeology to discover what is genuine, fake, and somewhere in between in popular media, such as Ancient Aliens, Ancient Apocalypse, and many other places.
In this episode:
The History of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku (2:16)
When was the site built, and what is the area's history?
Construction of Puma Punku (20:23)
How was the site built? We use experimental archaeology to learn how the site could have been constructed.
Fuente Magna Bowl (30:24)
A bowl claimed to have been found around Lake Titicaca is claimed to have a Sumerian script on it. Could this be true? Let's find out together.
Sources, resources and further reading suggestions
Hi, hello, and välkommen to Digging Up Ancient Aliens. This is the podcast where we examine strange claims about alternative history and ancient aliens in popular media. Do their claims hold water to an archeologist, or are there better explanations out there?
We are now on episode 45, and I am Fredrik, your guide into the world of pseudo-archaeology. This time, we're having a special episode dealing with only the site of Puma Punku (or Pumapunku), a complex located in Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco or Tiahuanacu) in modern Bolivia. The site is known for its marvelous stones, some shaped like giant letter H. Of course, the Alien proponents claim aliens built this as a landing zone or something else. We will look into these claims and figure out what's really going on.
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Now that we have finished our preparations, let's dig into the episode.
The History of Tiwanaku and Puma Punku
We are back around Lake Titicaca again. How about we start with the Ancient Alien description of the site?
"These are the mysterious ruins of Puma Punku, nearly 13,000 feet in the altiplano of Bolivia. What you have here are massive blocks of granite scattered like some kid's toy blocks around the site. It's like some giant cataclysm just wiped out this entire area. Archaeologists are baffled by what Puma Punku was, how it looked, and what the purpose of this enormous structure would have been." - David Childress.
Let's start with what Puma Punku is because there seems to be some confusion about this among the Ancient Alien theorists. Puma Punku could maybe be better described as a temple complex. The site is centered around a platform mound with a sunken plaza and monumental buildings on top. Around the mound, we find ramps and plazas that seem to belong to this temple complex. Puma Punku is, however, not the only construction in the area. It would be similar to claiming Notre Dame to be an individual site. There are, of course, infrastructure and other buildings around the complex. Puma Punku is just one location at Tiwanaku, a place or, maybe more accurately, a city that, at its peak around 800 CE, inhabited up to 20,000 people.
During the episode, we will show how unbaffled archaeologists are about the site. The pedant in me also wants to clarify something right now. The stone structures are not built from granite. I don't understand the Ancient Astronauts' fetish around granite. I mean, you do you, we don't kinkshame here, but come on. To give Childress some way out, Jakob Tschudi did write in the 1860s that Tiwanaku got their granite slabs from Cerro Ckapia. As we will learn, the stone used on the site is called andesite.
The always exciting question is, of course, how old is Pumapunku and Tiwanaku? Hugh Newman, author of Earth Grids that, we covered in "Aliens and the Secret Code," claims the age to be as follows.
"Arthur Posnansky was a researcher who was part Bolivian, and he worked at the site for many decades, and he concluded that the site must have been built about 17,000 years ago by studying the archaeoastronomical of that particular site." - Hugh Newman.
Arthur or Arthuro Posnansky is quite an exciting fellow. He is problematic but still an interesting person. The last name Posnansky is not a Bolivian family name, and if you go online, you will note that Arthur is claimed to be of Polish, Austrian, German, and Bolivian descent. So how is it then? If we look at the name, it seems that Arthurs's family, to some extent, stems from a Russian Jewish family relocated to Poland. The name originates in Poznán, a region in central modern Poland. The area was inhabited by many Germans and Russians during the 1860s. Both would spell the name differently compared to the Polish people. In Polish, the proper way to construct the name would be Posnanski. Germans spelled it Posen, and Russians would spell it Posnansky. In 1861, the "Emancipation of the Serfs" took place, letting people move more freely. Many well of people took this opportunity to leave the area. During this period, Austria-Hungary was one of the few places where Jews could get full citizenship, so many moved to Vienna, where Arthur was born in 1877. But we should note that Arthur grew up and lived in Germany, where his family owned several factories, spoke German, and got his education in Germany. He always preferred German and Austrian scholars, ideas, and equipment.
However, he spent most of his life in Bolivia, where he got citizenship as Arturo Posnansky. So Arthur was not part Bolivian but later adopted the citizenship while not necessarily the Bolivian culture. In fact, he referred to the indigenous people as animalistic half-breeds. Posnansky's racism grew as time passed and culminated in his work "What is Race," where he divided different people into superior and inferior. Germany ranked high with Japan, while Russia and China were bad. Based on his Jewish heritage, it's not strange that Arthur strongly criticized Germany's political appropriation of race and argued that Jews or Aryans were not races. He also defended the Jewish community.
While Posnansky was educated, he had no archaeology, anthropology, or history background. His experience seems to have been that of a naval engineer and businessman. Something that becomes clear in his work. While Posnansky did a lot of important work at Tiwanaku, it was mainly by documenting the structures, art, and gateways. However, his theories around the site are based solely on Arthurs's crankish idea that Tiwanaku was first located by the coast. But later, a tectonic movement pushed the area to become the Altiplano plains.
Posnansky most often claimed that the Tiwanaku site was 12,000 years old, but to Newman's credit, there are some mentions of 17,000 BCE. How was this date determined? Well, since this was way before the invention of C14, Posnansky relied on astronomy. Arthur received funding from Germany to set up an observatory in Bolivia in 1926 and then went out and made up alignments. Archeoastronomy has its place within our field, but Posnansky's method gives room for improvement.
I mentioned that Posnansky was problematic, and I think you start to see this too, but let's dig some more, shall we? We get a connection to Thor Heyerdahl here, the Norwegian explorer most famous, maybe for his voyage with Kon-Tiki. Heyerdahl made the voyage to prove his idea of a white superior race emigrating from South America, possibly Tiwanaku, to Easter Island. They made this journey since, according to Heyerdahl, an inferior race forced them out. I find it likely that parts of this idea stem from Posnansky.
Posnansky described Tiwanaku's history with two separate races, one inferior and one superior. These races were based on craniometry, eugenics, and the physical anthropology ideas of the time. The theory culminated in the 1937 work "Anthropology and Sociology of Inter-Andean and Neighboring Races," where he expanded on the scientific racism that resulted in the book "What is Race," published in 1943. The ideas received criticism already then, maybe most notably by Juan Comas. While Heyerdahl doesn't cite these two later works in his 1952 book "American Indians in the Pacific," it would be strange if these ideas did not influence him. Heyerdahl did rely on much of Posnansky's other work, and their ideas are very similar.
But if Posnansky's date is not accurate now, what is the truth then? It is often more complicated than what shows like this portray it. Let us start at the beginning. When do we begin to see the first settlements around Lake Titicaca? While people have lived in the area for a long time, it's important to note that the shift from mobile groups to sedentary areas was not based on agriculture. This shift seems to have taken place around 2000 BCE, where we also see the introduction of new technologies such as simple architecture, ceramics, and a slow start of the domestication of plants. This period is usually referred to as Late Archaic. As I mentioned, the growth of small villages was not due to the introduction of agriculture; the population predominantly relied on fish and foraging. What is interesting here is that ceramic seems to not have been a transformal event as it was in Europe. It appears to be viewed as another technology to add to the toolbox.
After 2000 BCE, we enter into the Early Formative period. Here, we start to see settlements grow with agriculture and the domestication of animals as a primary fuel. We see gardens and fields being used, and the people around Titicaca herded camelids and guinea pigs. We also start to see trade and social ranks begin in this era.
The evolution of a ranked society continued during the Middle Formative Period, which lasted roughly 1300 to 500 BCE. Again, we see evidence of increased agriculture and probably the area's first use of raised-field agriculture. One of the most known pre-Tiwanaku sites is Chiripa, where we truly see a ranked government take form. The site is dominated by a large mound with a 22-meter-long sunken plaza. In the middle of this court, we find a carved stone. The residential houses contain beautiful decorations such as painted walls, carved niches, and yellow brick floors.
In the later part of this Middle Formative Period, we find the earliest construction of Tiwanaku. Currently, the often-accepted date of the Tiwanaku site is around 800 BCE. However, there is one carbon-14 sample that puts the date much further back in the 1600 BCE. However, from the looks of things, this sample taken in 1970 by Carlos Ponce Sangriens might have been contaminated. Then we have Eric Marsh, who suggests we need to move the start date for Tiwanaku into the first century CE. Much of the analyzed material doesn't predate the Late formative period and, therefore, opens up the question of when Tiwanaku was founded. One example Marsh points out is the lack of Middle Formative Pottery in Tiwanaku. But as we see here, it did not appear out of nothing and has a long line of social and technological evolution behind it.
So, the site of Tiwanaku could have been founded at the earliest around 800 BCE, but how is it with the date for Puma Punku? A cabron 14 date from the site's earliest stage gave a calibrated date of 536-600 CE. So well after the date Ancient Aliens suggest. This date is quite reasonable concerning the other monumental sites at Tiwanaku. While Pumapunku is the most known location, we have at least three more places. The Kherikala, also known as the subterranean temple, the Kalasasaya, and what's often referred to as the twin of Pumapunku, the Akapana. The Kherikala and the Kalasasaya are among the Ancient Alien proponents described as part of Puma Punku. But to reuse our Paris example from before, it would be as saying the Arc de Triomphe and the Eifel Tower are part of Notre Dame.
Unfortunately, The Akapana is in worse shape than the Puma Punku and is not getting the same attention as its companion. If it had not been for excavations taking place in recent years, most visitors would not be able to distinguish it from a natural hillside. While the layout of Puma Punku and the Akapana are slightly different, they have the same design. Both are platform structures that lead the ritual attendees up through stairs and even with their massive size, they create intimate spaces where the rituals can take form. We also see that while Akapana, in its prime, probably had more visual dominance due to its height and size, Pumapunku seemed to have focused more on ritual dominance with its massive stone gates and blind portals. I also think it's important to stress that the monuments were clearly part of a larger plan.
Something often left out among the pseudo archeologists is that Puma Punku was never completed. Tiwanaku went into decline and was abandoned before this massive complex was entirely constructed.
Construction of Puma Punku
So now we know more about the site, its history, and some of the previous work done here. All great stuff, but the Alien theorists have
"One of the amazing things here at Puma Punku is the precision of the blocks. You can see with this block of granite that it's really been cut at very accurate right angles. Not only do these granite blocks have precision corners, but they also have these difficult drill holes that are going right through the rock." - David Childress.
In this clip, we see Childress walking around with a set square and accidentally showing that the blocks aren't at the right angles. They did not have to put this in the episode. They could have filmed it from a different angle. But they didn't, and I'm thankful for this. Again, this is not granite; it's andesite and red sandstone. But they ask a valid question: how were the stones cut and dressed?
Giorgio Tsoukalos and Christoffer Dunn offer a logical fallacy and a horrific experiment.
Christopher Dunn: "You've got vitrification on the laser-cut side, and then, of course, you've got circular tool marks on the side cut with the diamond saw. And then, whatever tool they used to cut the ancient surface must have been a different method."
Giorgio Tsoukalos: "Now, do you think it's possible that some type of a diamond precision tool was used on the old surface, but because it was such a long time ago, that over time, the surface became a bit more rough, and we're talking ten or even 15,000 years ago?"
Christopher Dunn: "That is a reasonable speculation. I think we have to start examining a little more sophisticated tools that no longer exist."
So these two got ahold of a stone from Pumapunku and then proceeded to saw and laser-cut it. Where and how they obtained this artifact and the ethical discussion before destroying it is unknown. But note that they somehow ruled out any other method than the diamond-tipped tool even when it did not match. They didn't test anything else, giving us a bit of a false dilemma. I also want to state that looking at the cuts, it's clear that the diamond saw is exceptionally different from the original side. As we learned previously, the site is only 1500 years old, not nearly enough time to get the weathering Tsoukalos suggests.
So, let's leave the diamond-tipped precision tools. Could there have been something else used? Are there any tools found? Unfortunately, we have not found any artifacts classified as chisels. The people of Twianaku did have metalwork to some extent. We have found these I-shaped cramps to hold the stones together. At Puma Punku, they seem to have cast the cramps in place. But over at Akapana, they used copper-nickel-arsenic alloys that were cold hammered into shape. So, they clearly had and used metals. So why don't we find metal chisels at Tiwanaku?
One answer could be that they didn't use chisels of metal. We have previously talked about experimental archaeologist Denys Stocks. While mainly dealing with Egyptian archaeology, Stock's ideas can, of course, be implemented here. Stocks did experiments to determine how the Egyptians got those excellent cuts. On granite, diorite, and even hard limestone, copper, and bronze tools are quickly damaged. Even modern steel required frequent and severe sharpening. Stocks then started experimenting with flint chisels, and with these tools, he got results much closer to the Egyptian work.
So, hammerstones seem to have been used for the stone-cutting process. This is based on the pit scars and patterns of throughs, cups, and pans that we find on stones still raw at the quarry and on stones dragged to the site ready to be quartered in smaller blocks. Jean-Pierre Protzen, who has done tremendous work on Andean stone work, described this back in 1993. One hammerstone of hematite with scars of use has been found out of context, unfortunately, but it still gives us an idea of what they could have used. There are also scattered across Tiwanaku quartzite cobbles that could make great hammer stones.
Stella Nair and Protzen tried to find out what method could have been used for the H-blocks and the other intricate carvings. Armed with previous research and Stock experiments, they tried to find suitable material. The Tiwanaco used the finest Andesite stone for their most exquisite work; Andesite usually is around 5.5 to 6 on the Moh scale. This measures the hardness of a rock. The team says that ideally, they would have used Tiwanaco stones, but for apparent reasons, they selected a suitable substitute, a rhyolite stone. As for chisels, there were a couple of options, so they added, according to Nair, "flint, agate, and jasper, obsidian, greywacke, quartzite, and hematite."
To get a smooth surface, Protzen used a quote, "repeated and systematic use of the straight edge, such that he repeatedly moved the straight edge in concentric circles around several fixed points, he could obtain a flat, planar surface while hammering." While it's possible that the Tiwanku builders used a straight edge, they could have used another tool too. In Egypt, for example, they used a tool called Boning Rod, three rods on a string to get a surface flat. The Greeks, in turn, used something called "surface plates" to get that extremely close fit on the column drums.
Nair realized during the experimentation that depending on whether the form cut was exterior or interior, two-plane or three-plane different stones were more suitable. But with, quote: "jasper, and then finer flint and obsidian blades Nair was able to work within half a millimeter of the final line." The nice incisions in the internal edges were done with microblades of obsidian and flint. To get the delicate, smooth look of Tiwanaco masonry, some polishing and cleanup were needed. After the work, tool marks were visible; these were removed by polishing the stone with obsidian.
So, the question had more options than we were first presented with. While the tools used have not been found, this experiment gives us a remarkable insight into how the builders could have done it. It also proves that humans can be creative when thinking outside the box. I believe this also shows the Ancient Alien proponent's lack of imagination. Since we use power tools today, they must have used them in the past.
But could there be something else? Something proving that the Tiwanaco had contact with aliens or at least with Sumer?
Fuente Magna Bowl
So, could there be evidence of contact between Sumer and Tiwanaco? I doubt it, but let's look at the Ancient Alien claim.
"This is perhaps one of the most important archaeological artifacts ever discovered in Tiahuanaco or Puma Punku. This is the famous Fuente Magna Bowl discovered near Tiahuanaco. It's a ceramic bowl, and it has written on it Sumerian cuneiform, plus Proto-Sumerian hieroglyphic script. This script is coming from circa 3,000 BC. It draws a direct connection between the ancient Sumerians and Tiahuanaco and Puma Punku." - David Childress.
So the first issue here is that, as Childress states, Sumer was a thing around 3000 BCE. We know that Tiwanaco did not exist until the earliest 800 BCE. And as we discovered just a few moments ago, the date is more likely around 100 CE. So there's a bit of a distance between these two cultures.
The second issue is that the artifact was not found by an archaeologist, and, to be honest, we don't really know where or when it was found. In most cases, it's often reported that it was discovered in 1950. But you will also encounter dates such as 1958, 1960, and others. The discoverer is supposed to be a local farmer at the capitalized CHUA hacienda. As this would be some sort of acronym, it's not, and this farm is thought to have been owned by a Manjon family. There is a Chuá Hacienda, however, north of Lake Titicaca. Kieth Fitz-Patrick points out that two psuedoscience believers set out to find either the Manjon family or the owner. By showing pictures of the bowl, they encountered a man who recognized it. Only known as Maximillian, he called the bowl "el plato del chancho" since he had used it as a feeding tray for pigs before giving it to the museum.
We know that the bowl ended up in a publication in 1975 in Hoy, Suplemento, L.P. 6 - VII, written by Max Portugal Zamora (La Fuente Magna). The idea that this has Sumerian writing on it didn't arise until Mario Montaño Aragón published an article in 1979 (Raíces semíticas en la religiosidad aymará y kichua).
So, the origin of the bowl is quite murky. We don't know where or when the bowl was really found. We don't know what it looked like either; some sites claim the bowl was restored at one point, while some don't. We know who maybe found it if it's indeed the same bowl, but the interview was some 40 years after the fact. So there's a forest of red flags going up here.
The origin might be shady, but does it have Sumerian or Sumerian proto-writing on it then? Much of the translation and interest in the bowl seems to originate from Hugh Bernard Fox and Clyde Ahmad Winters. While Fox claims it to be Phonecian, Winters, an Afrocentric scholar claiming the Olmec from Africa, declares it to be Sumerian or Proto-Sumerian. We often encounter Winters's supposed translation online, but Fox's and Winter's supposed translations are, at best, wrong.
Carl Faegan has done a great job comparing Clyde Winters's suggested translation to the Sumerian signs. He noted that almost all suggested transliteration doesn't match the known Sumerian alphabet. Some characters don't even exist, and in those cases, Clyde Winter has just declared them Proto-Sumerian and translated them. Faegan points out that wedges are pointing in the wrong direction. The sign rotates randomly, and it seems to have been written by someone who saw Sumerian once, but when created, this did not have it in front of them any longer.
Clyde Winters suggested transliteration is:
Ti Kur kur kur kur (determinative for divine names) Nia (lit. ni-ash)
Pa en ash sa tur
Zi esh, Esh esh, esh esh.
Pap pa ge Lu ta mi du lu ta
Bar nu ash
Ash ti en
Winters suggested translation is:
"Approach in the future (one) endowed with great protection the great Nia."
[The Divine One Nia(sh) to] Establish Purity, Establish Gladness, Establish Character"
"[Use this talisman (the Fuente bowl)] To sprout [oh] diviner the unique advise [at] the temple."
"The righteous shrine, anoint (this) shrine, anoint (this) shrine; The leader takes an oath [to] Establish purity, a favorable oracle (and to) Establish character. [Oh leader of the cult] Open up a unique light [for all], [who] wish for a noble life".
Neither the transliteration nor the translation make much sense. Tiwanaku art is on the bowl, but the so-called Sumerian script is non-sensical. So what we have is a fake and not a very good one either.
On that, we will leave you for this time. But I hope to see you next time. Please say hi if you visit QED from the 22nd to the 24th of September 2023.
Until then, please spread the word by leaving a positive review on platforms like iTunes, Spotify, or even among your fellow trench dwellers. For more information about me and my podcast, check out diggingupancientaliens.com.
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Sandra Marteleur created the intro music, and our outro is by the band called Trallskruv, who sings their song "tin foil hat." Links to both these artists will be found in the show notes.
Until next time, keep shoveling that science!
Sources, resources, and further reading suggestions
Card, J.J. (2018). Spooky Archaeology : Myth and the Science of the past. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Feagans, C. (2017). The Fuente Magna Bowl: Not Cuneiform and Not Sumerian - Archaeology Review. [online] Archaeology Review. Available at: https://ahotcupofjoe.net/2017/11/fuente-magna-bowl-not-cuneiform-not-sumerian.
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, K. (2015). 10 Amazing Discoveries That Will Won’t Make You Question Everything. [online] Bad Archaeology. Available at: https://badarchaeology.wordpress.com/2015/04/12/10-amazing-discoveries-that-will-wont-make-you-question-everything/.
Isbell, W.H. (2004). Palaces and Politics in the Andean Middle Horizon. In: S.T. Evans and J. Pillsbury, eds., Palaces of the Ancient New World. Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
John Wayne Janusek (2004). Identity and Power in the Ancient Andes. Routledge.
Korpisaari, A. and PärssinenM. eds., (2011). Pariti : the Ceremonial Tiwanaku Pottery of an Island in Lake Titicaca. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica.
Marsh, E. (2012a). The Founding of Tiwanaku. Ñawpa Pacha, 32(2), pp.69–187. doi:https://doi.org/10.1179/naw.2012.32.2.69.
Marsh, E.J. (2012b). A Bayesian Re-Assessment of the Earliest Radiocarbon Dates from Tiwanaku, Bolivia. Radiocarbon, 54(2), pp.203–218. doi:https://doi.org/10.2458/azu_js_rc.v54i2.15826.
Marsh, E.J. (2019). Arthur Posnansky, the Czar of Tiwanaku Archaeology. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 29(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.5334/bha-605.
Ponce Sanginés, C. (1971). Tiwanaku: espacio, Tiempo Y Cultura. La Paz: Academia Nacional De Ciencias De Bolivia.
Protzen, J.-P. and Nair, S. (2013). The Stones of Tiahuanaco a Study of Architecture and Construction. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press.
Stanish, C. (2003). Ancient Titicaca : the Evolution of Complex Society in Southern Peru and Northern Bolivia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Vranich, A. (2018). Reconstructing ancient architecture at Tiwanaku, Bolivia: the potential and promise of 3D printing. Heritage Science, 6(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s40494-018-0231-0.
“Folie hatt” by Trallskruv
Lily of the woods by Sandra Marteleur