A submerged Inca offering hints at Lake Titicaca’s sacred role

Similar stone boxes have also been found at human sacrifice sites in the Andes

Inca ritual offering llama figurine

An Inca ritual offering found submerged in Lake Titicaca included a llama or alpaca figurine carved out of a spiny oyster shell and a rolled gold sheet.

T. Seguin/Univ. libre de Bruxelles

A stone box fished out of Lake Titicaca contains tiny items that add an intriguing twist to what’s known about the Inca empire’s religious practices and supernatural beliefs about the massive lake.

Divers exploring an underwater portion of the lake’s K’akaya reef found a ritual offering deposited by the Inca, say archaeologists Christophe Delaere of the University of Oxford and José Capriles of Penn State. The carved stone container holds a miniature llama or alpaca carved from a spiny oyster shell and a gold sheet rolled into a cylinder about the length of a paperclip, the scientists report in the August Antiquity. The meaning of these objects to the Inca are unclear.

Inca offering box
Researchers suspect the Inca placed these two items in this stone box and then used ropes to lower it into the water during a religious ceremony of some kind.T. Seguin/Univ. libre de Bruxelles

The location of the K’akaya offering indicates that Inca people regarded all of Lake Titicaca, which straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru, as sacred, not just its fabled Island of the Sun, the researchers say.

Spanish documents described the Inca, who had no writing system (SN: 6/11/19), as believing that their ancestors had originated on the Island of the Sun, about 30 kilometers south of K’akaya Island. Inca rulers, whose empire lasted from 1400 to 1532, built a ceremonial center there. And until now, it’s the only place on Lake Titicaca where similar submerged stone boxes bearing figurines and gold sheets have been found. Of at least 28 stone boxes found there since 1977, many had been looted; only four had partially preserved or intact contents.

Stone boxes containing figurines and gold items have also been uncovered at sites of Inca child sacrifices in the Andes. A connection may have existed between human sacrificial ceremonies that were intended to appease Inca deities and events held at Lake Titicaca, including the submerging of ritual offerings, the researchers suggest.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Archaeology