The bottom of Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake in South America, turns into a real museum of ancient talents. Sacred to the Incas, the reservoir is located between Bolivia and Peru and is dotted with sacrifices sunken many centuries ago. After years of searching, archaeologists have found the first underwater treasure that has not yet been damaged and plundered: a box of volcanic rock that was submerged about 500 years ago.
Upon opening this tightly sealed offering in front of local indigenous leaders, the research team discovered an ancient llama carved from a spiny clam shell and a rolled gold leaf that is part of the bracelet. According to the historical evidence of the Spaniards, such boxes once contained the blood of children or animals, although no human remains have been found in the lake to date.
“The inland underwater world remains largely unexplored and offers great opportunities for understanding prehistoric societies,” says marine archaeologist Christophe Delard of the University of Brussels in Belgium.
The waters of Lake Titicaca hold many more surprises
For years, scientists have painstakingly cataloged the list of sunken offerings from Lake Titicaca, and in some areas they have found animal bones, gold medallions, incense burners, jewelry, and other stone offering boxes. But this new find was in a completely different part of the lake, which was not previously considered sacred to the Incas. It is believed that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as the Inca Empire expanded out of the Andes, Lake Titicaca became an important center culturally and religiously.
In fact, its main island is said to be the birthplace of the first two Incas, as well as the sun god. In recent years, at least 28 stone boxes have been discovered on a nearby underwater reef in various conditions, and only a few of them still contain miniature figurines made of gold, silver or shells.
Judging by the markings on their sides, scientists believe that these boxes were lowered into the water by the Incas as a kind of sacrifice to the gods. A recently found stone box has similar markings, but it was not found near the Isle of the Sun, or Hoa Reef. The box was found on another reef known as Kakaya, directly north of the others.
“One of the goals of our underwater archaeological study was to reveal the existence of such sites, and to our surprise, we found at least one site,” says Dehler.
«Not only does it represent one of the rare intact discoveries of Inca underwater offerings, but it is important for understanding the relationship between the expanding Inca empire and the local communities that lived on Lake Titicaca prior to contact with Europe.»
Macroscopic analysis shows that the Kaka box has the same fine cut and polish as the other sacrificial containers. And while the team is still awaiting the results of their geochemical analysis, the volcanic rock from which the boxes are made appears to be identical.
The only difference is that Koa boxes are usually cube-shaped with a lid, while Koa boxes are rectangular with a cap. This is not enough to keep water tight, so even if there was once blood inside, this liquid has long been replaced by water from one of the largest lakes in the world.
In the 17th century, an Augustine priest reported extensive Inca rituals at Lake Titicaca, where, he said, the blood of children and animals was placed in stone boxes and lowered by ropes into the lake from a raft, where it dyed the water red. “The location and orientation of the Kaka offering seem deliberate,” the authors suggest. «Kaya Reef lies almost directly north of Khoa, indicating a strong spatial relationship between the two sites.»
The reef also faces the two highest peaks in the region, which were also revered by the Incas. It is possible that the box was sunk near this lake peak as a sacrifice to the mountain gods. We may never know, but the search continues among the reefs of Lake Titicaca…