Rare Underwater Inca Offering Pulled From Lake Titicaca

The stone container with llama figurine and gold bracelet inside.  (Image: C. Delaere and J. Capriles, 2020/Antiquity)
The stone container with llama figurine and gold bracelet inside. (Image: C. Delaere and J. Capriles, 2020/Antiquity)

Archaeologists in Bolivia have recovered a fully intact underwater Inca offering containing a miniature llama figurine and a gold bracelet. The offering, dropped into Lake Titicaca some 500 years ago, provides key insights into Inca rituals and spiritual beliefs.

That Lake Titicaca was of vital importance to the Inca people is hardly a secret. The region, in addition to being rich in natural resources, provided a strategic location between two mountain chains. Lake Titicaca also held tremendous political, religious, and metaphysical significance. The Inca believed it was the lake from which their people originated, having sprung from a rock on the Island of the Sun in the southeast corner of the lake.

New research published this week in Antiquity furthers our understanding of Lake Titicaca and its role in the spiritual lives of the Inca people.

Map of Lake Titicaca, including the K'hoa and the K'akaya reefs. (Image: C. Delaere)

An archaeological expedition led by the Free University of Brussels (ULB) discovered a fully intact underwater offering on a submerged reef near the northeastern coast of Lake Titicaca. The 500-year-old offering, found inside a stone container, consisted of a miniature llama figurine made from a spondylus shell and a gold bracelet. Taken together, this context highlights the spiritual importance of the lake, which the Inca used as a platform for their offerings and to possibly perform human sacrifices, according to the new research.

The Inca formed the largest empire in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans. By the 15th century, they held dominance over a large territory that stretched along western South America.

Close-up view of the Inca relics. (Image: C. Delaere and J. Capriles, 2020/Antiquity)

Spanish historical accounts from the 16th century made mention of underwater offerings, in which various sacrificial offerings, such as the blood of children and animals, were placed inside stone boxes and lowered into the lake. Physical evidence of this ritual practice finally emerged in the late 1970s, when amateur archaeologists uncovered underwater offerings on a reef near the Island of the Sun. Unfortunately, however, these and other finds were incomplete, having been damaged or looted.

Since 2012, the ULB-led expedition has been exploring a larger area around the lake. This resulted in the discovery of the newly described offering, which was found on a reef surrounding K’ayaka Island. The stone box was found caked in sediment, and in a fully intact, unperturbed state, making it the first discovery of its kind in Lake Titicaca. The new paper describing this discovery was co-authored by archaeologists Christophe Delaere from ULB and José Capriles from Pennsylvania State University.

(A) View of the K'akaya reef and position of the offering, (B) location with respect to K'akaya Island, (C-D) theoffering as it was found on the lake bottom. (Image: C. Delaere)

After documenting the location and position of the stone box, the archaeologists carefully lifted the old relic up to the surface. The team, while in the company of local Indigenous representatives and regional municipal officials, opened up the box, revealing the two offerings. Analysis of the box itself suggests it was lowered into the water by a rope.

The gold bracelet resembled a miniature version of a chipana, which was worn by Inca nobles on their right forearms. Similar gold bracelets have been found elsewhere in similar contexts, including in the Cuzco Valley. Paired with the llama figurine, this spiritual offering was likely made in gratitude for a successful llama breeding season, or in commemoration of a llama caravan in which gold or other goods were successfully transported, according to study.

The stone container as it was being raised to the surface. (Image: C. Delaere)

This pairing, in which a miniature figure and gold were intertwined, has been documented at mountain sanctuaries in the Andes as well. In these cases, the offerings were associated with human sacrifices done to placate deities. The researchers speculate that Lake Titicaca may have been a venue for similar human sacrifices, though no archaeological evidence exists to support this possibility.

At any rate, the new find suggests the Inca practiced a form of pantheism, in which the entire lake was perceived as a sacred huaca or deity, or more simply as the birthplace of the Inca people. What’s more, the “ceremonial offerings made to the lake were both symbolic and political acts intended to legitimise by way of ritual the power of the Inca occupation on this sacred space,” wrote the authors in the study. And by reclaiming these “ritually charged places through ceremonies,” the authors wrote, the “Inca increased their prestige and legitimacy as divine sovereigns, while maintaining control over the cosmic order of the world.”

Heavy, heavy stuff for a tiny llama and bracelet, but rituals, regardless of scope, can be very powerful things, indeed.

Excitingly, the stone box was found at a different location from other finds in the region, in a possible clue that other discoveries await. As for the fate of the miniature llama and gold bracelet, they were returned to the municipality in which the relics were found.