Inca Pillars of Society

At banquets and ceremonies today, the guests of honor often sit at a head table raised up for all to see. Now, new archaeological finds are suggesting that ancient Incas had a similarly exalting arrangement for sun-worshipping rituals. The elite occupied an upper platform, while the lower classes watched the sun set behind them. The setup may have been designed to reinforce the myth that the Inca rulers were "children of the sun," according to a report in the latest issue of Latin American Antiquities.

In the 15th century, Spaniards described pillars surrounding the Inca capital of Cusco (in what is now Peru) that helped Incan astronomers determine planting and harvesting times and major festival days. But many of those pillars were destroyed and their sites have been overrun by urban sprawl. Archaeologist Brian Bauer of the University of Illinois at Chicago, astronomer David Dearborn of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and graduate student Matthew Seddon of the University of Chicago wondered if the Incas built similar pillars at the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, a major pilgrimage site and center of worship at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Indeed, the researchers found the remains of what seem to be two pillars, 32 meters apart. When viewed from the plaza where the elite most likely held their ceremonies, the pillars frame the setting sun for a few days surrounding the June solstice--the time of known festivals. Historical accounts say that most pilgrims were not allowed to approach the sacred plaza, but the lower classes may still have been able to participate, Bauer says. The team found the remains of a platform outside of the wall that separated the elite from the lower class pilgrims. From this lower vantage point, too, the sun sets directly between the pillars--and behind the elites on the plaza.

Most pillars had been thought to mark specific days, but only one person standing at a specific spot could use such markers, Bauer says. The pair of pillars would allow many people to participate in the ceremony, he says. Archaeologist Persis Clarkson of the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, says the researchers present a "reasonable case" that the markers were for group observations rather than for precise astronomical measurements.