Island of the

The Inca empire dominated a huge swath of the Andean region running down the west coast of South America for almost a century before the arrival of the Europeans in 1532. At its height, it stretched for no less than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from north to south, an area that extends from the northern border of Ecuador down to Santiago, Chile. The Inca rulers rose to dominance remarkably quickly and ruled their vast and diverse state using bureaucratic and rigidly hierarchical procedures to organize labor and redistribute food and other raw materials. One mechanism of conquest was subsuming the religions and ideologies of captured peoples within a state-controlled cult. It was dedicated to three principal deities, among whom Inti, the Sun god, was prominent. The ruling Inca elite claimed to be descended from Inti himself, and in this way the dominant ideology they had imposed served also as a mechanism of political control, putting their own right to rule beyond question.

In one myth recounted by the chronicler Bernabé Cobo, the "true dwelling place of the sun" was said to be a large crag on the island in the huge inland lake of Titicaca, on the border between modern Peru and Bolivia. According to the legend, the ancient peoples had been without light for many days. "Finally, the people of the Island of Titicaca saw the Sun come up one morning out of that crag with extraordinary radiance. For this reason they believed that the true dwelling place of the Sun was that crag, or at least that crag was the most delightful thing in the world for the Sun" (Hamilton 1990, pp. 91-92). This myth evidently had pre-Inca origins, but under Inca control the island became a destination for pilgrimages to the sun's place of origin. A sanctuary was built around the sacred crag and access was tightly controlled. Common pilgrims were only permitted if they

Compound containing the Intihuatana, or "sun stone," occupying a dominant position at the sacred heart of the Inca city of Machu Picchu. (Courtesy of Clive Ruggles)

followed various strict protocols and donated appropriate offerings. Even then, they were not allowed near the sacred crag, but had to watch the sunrise ceremony from a distance. By combining elements of Cobo's and other accounts with archaeological examinations of the remains of the sanctuary and archaeoastronomical measurements to determine the rising direction of the sun at different times, archaeologist Brian Bauer and archaeoastronomer David Dearborn have deduced that the sunrise-watching ceremony almost certainly took place in June or July, perhaps at the June solstice itself.

The fact that the sunrise ceremony at the sanctuary on the Island of the Sun is historically attested allows us to answer questions that we would not be able to answer if we had to rely upon archaeological evidence alone. Compare, for example, later British prehistoric sites such as Brainport Bay, a solstitially aligned set of platforms and structures, where we would dearly like to know who made sunrise observations and for what purpose; Stone-henge, where—although it is evident that only a select few could observe solstitial sunrise or sunset from within the huge stones of the sarsen circle—we can only speculate about the observers' social status and purpose, and whether larger crowds were allowed to spectate from a distance; and the Thornborough henges, which appear from the archaeological evidence to have been a pilgrimage destination, and we are keen to ask when in the year people came here and what the place signified to them.

See also:

Cobo, Bernabé (1582-1657); Pilgrimage.

Brainport Bay; Ceque System; Cusco Sun Pillars; Stonehenge; Thornborough.


References and further reading

D'Altroy, Terence. The Incas, 141-176. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Dearborn, David, M. T. Seddon, and Brian Bauer. "The Sanctuary of Titicaca, Where the Sun Returns to Earth." Latin American Antiquity 9 (1998), 240-258.

Hamilton, Roland, ed. and trans. Inca Religion and Customs [a translation of books 13 and 14 of Cobo's Historia del Nuevo Mundo, 1653]. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 200-201, 206-211. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

Urton, Gary. Inca Myths, 34-37, 54. Austin: University of Texas Press, and London: British Museum Press, 1999.

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