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Andes Empires
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Empires across the Andes

By Virginia MorellPhotographs by Kenneth Garrett

Building grand cities, temples, and roads, two powerful pre-Inca empires ruled the region.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The looters had broken into the royal tomb in the ancient Andean capital of Wari, Peru, with picks and shovels, then dropped a rope into the stone-lined shaft. They had made off with whatever treasure the Wari people had left behind to honor their dead. Now, flashlight in hand, I squeeze into the tomb’s ragged entry hole to get a close look at the artful stonework of these forgotten Andean empire builders.

Long before the Inca established their Andes-spanning empire, the Wari (Huari) created one nearly as large—and far more enduring. While the Inca state lasted barely a hundred years, the Wari carried on for well over four hundred, from about A.D. 600 to 1000, as did a neighboring kingdom in Bolivia, Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco). Together these two civilizations set the stage for later empires in the Andes.

I follow William Isbell, an archaeologist at the State University of New York in Binghamton, down a crude rope ladder into the darkness of the four-by-four-foot shaft. Since its makeshift loops are set far apart, I slide more than climb down it. Fifteen feet (five meters) from the top the shaft ends in a rubble-covered floor. I switch on my flashlight and peer at the rock wall around me. Every stone is smoothed of rough surfaces and perfectly ?tted to its neighbor. Below me Isbell calls out directions.

“You’ll see a small opening behind you. Crawl down that. Just watch your head.”

Poking my light into the dark hole, I creep down the tumbled rocks into another smaller chamber five feet beneath the first landing. Huge rock slabs form the ceiling here, and the floor is buried under dusty piles of loose rock. It is impossible to stand up straight, so like Isbell I stay in a crouched position.

“The Wari dug this tomb in the shape of a llama, then lined it with stones,” he explains. “You and I are in the llama’s head,” he adds, shining his light over the edges of the rock walls. “If you look behind me, you’ll see another room that forms its ears.”

Leaning around Isbell, I look into the chamber whose long, narrow walls are set back from this one, trying to visualize the llama-shaped tomb.

“And ahead of us,” he says, shining his light in the opposite direction, “are the stomach and legs.”

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Chicha, the ancient Peruvian drink of ritual sacrifice and celebration, was also the brew of choice as far north as Mexico when the conquistadores arrived. There it has largely been replaced by European-style beer, but visitors to highland Peru will find that chicha is still a favorite in towns and villages across the Andes. Passersby should look for a bit of red cloth or plastic marking the door to a chicheria, or chicha bar, indicating that the lady of the house has made a fresh batch of corn chicha. This ancient beer is best when fresh or laced with strawberries for a frothy frutillada. The alcohol content is determined by the length of fermentation—up to about three days—and often spices are added to the milky concoction for flavor.

Chicha isn’t always made of corn. Quinoa is frequently mixed with ground peanuts in Bolivia. The Indian women of the Amazon Basin grind up manioc tubers for their version and sometimes add sweet potatoes.

Looking for a recipe? Check the web links that follow.

Jeanne E. Peters

Did You Know?

Related Links
Corn Chicha
Find a number of different recipes for making the traditional beer of Peru.

Peanut Chicha
Try a highland Bolivia recipe for chicha using fermented quinoa and peanuts.

Ayacucho, Peru
Discover the gateway city to Conchapata, capital of Wari pottery makers.

Conchopata, Peru
Learn more details of Anita Cook’s work on the Wari’s D-shaped temples and the exceptional anthropomorphic pottery jars of Conchopata.

Tiwanaku, Bolivia
Explore in words and pictures the ruins of this grand city of the ancient highlanders.

Andean Genesis Myths
Read several versions of the creator myths of Lake Titicaca, legendary birthplace of the Inca.

Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA
Follow in the footsteps of Charles Stanish, University of California, Los Angeles, as he investigates Tiwanaku’s heritage on several islands in Lake Titicaca.


Kolata, Alan. The Tiwanaku: Portrait of an Andean Civilization. Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

Kolata, Alan. Tiwanaku and Its Hinterland. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Morris, Craig, and Adriana von Hagen. The Inka Empire and Its Andean Origins. American Museum of Natural History, 1993.

Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and Their Ancestors. Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Richardson, James B. III. People of the Andes. St. Remy Press and Smithsonian Books, 1994.

Von Hagen, Adriana, and Craig Morris. Cities of the Ancient Andes. Thames and Hudson, 1998.


NGS Resources
“The Inca: An Empire and Its Ancestors,” supplement map, National Geographic (May 2002).

Vega, Pablo Corral. “In the Shadow of the Andes: A Personal Journey,National Geographic (February 2001), 2-29.

Roberts, David. “Iron Man of the Andes,” Adventure (Jan./Feb. 2000), 72-81, 121-123.

McCarry, John. “Peru Begins Again,” National Geographic (May 1996), 2-35.

Cardich, Augusto. “Native Agriculture in the Highlands of the Peruvian Andes,” National Geographic Research (Winter 1987), 22-39.

Reinhard, Johan. “Chavín and Tiahuanaco: A New Look at Two Andean Ceremonial Centers,” National Geographic Research (Summer 1985), 395-422.

“Archaeology of South America,” supplement map, National Geographic (March 1982).

“Indians of South America,” supplement map, National Geographic (March 1982).

McMillin, Stewart E. “The Heart of Aymará Land: A Visit to Tiahuanacu, Perhaps the Oldest City of the New World, Lost Beneath the Drifting Sand of Centuries in the Bolivian Highlands,” National Geographic (February 1927), 213-256.


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