In the 15th or 16th century, members of the Inca civilization fashioned a stone box filled with sacred offerings and dropped it deep into Lake Titicaca. It remained there, undisturbed, for some 500 years.
The box was remarkably well preserved upon its rediscovery several years ago, acting as a time capsule for the team that found it on the Bolivian side of the South American lake. Now, a new study published in the journal Antiquity argues that through such offerings, the Inca sought to symbolically and politically reclaim sacred spaces.
Researchers found the stone box, made of a local volcanic stone called andesite, on a reef about 18 feet below the surface, reports A.R. Williams for National Geographic. Its concave offering cavity was sealed with a round stone plug and coated in sediment, suggesting the container hadn’t been disturbed since it was lowered into the lake centuries ago.
Inside, the team found a small, coral-colored figurine of a llama made from the shell of a rare spiny oyster. Also present was a rolled, paper clip-sized cylinder of gold sheeting that may be a miniature replica of a chipana, or bracelet worn by Inca noblemen.
According to local legend, the sun god sent the Inca dynasty’s founders to Earth, where they settled on Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) in the eastern part of Lake Titicaca. The island served as an important ritual and political center: Per a statement, the Inca built temples, shrines and roads on its grounds, in addition to regularly making pilgrimages there.
“The Incas claimed Lake Titicaca as their place of origin both symbolically and physically, within a logic of legitimation focused on strengthening the empire’s new and expanding power,” the authors write.
At Isla del Sol, the Inca commonly made ceremonial underwater offerings. Some rituals included the sacrifice of humans, especially children, whose blood was poured into the offering box. When lowered into the lake, the blood billowed into the water, creating murky red clouds. Researchers say the newly discovered box may have held blood, but further residue analysis is needed to know for sure.
Prior excavations in the area have unearthed human and llama figurines made of silver, gold and Spondylus oyster shells—but few are as well preserved as the latest find. According to National Geographic, these offerings had multiple meanings, from political statements to agricultural requests.
Inca mythology posits that llamas and alpacas originated in lakes. Researchers say the figurine at the center of the study may represent a request for herds’ fertility or an abundant harvest. The Spondylus shell from which it was made is associated with Mama Cocha—the Mother of Water goddess—and is used in rituals asking for rain.
Given the location of the offering, the study’s authors say that the gold band may have been a commemoration of the Incas’ successful expansion into nearby gold-rich mountains during the 15th century.
“The Inca believed in religious traditions that were never separate from political and economic ones,” Johan Reinhard, an archaeologist specializing in pre-Hispanic sacred landscapes who was not involved in the research, tells National Geographic. “They were all inextricably linked.”
Attempts to uncover the treasures in the depths of Lake Titicaca date as far back as the expeditions of the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in the area in the 16th century. In modern times, divers like Jacques Cousteau have also explored the lake. More than two dozen stone boxes have been discovered in a nearby reef since 1977, reports Bruce Bower for Science News. But only four of these offerings contained partially preserved or intact artifacts.
“It is sometimes believed today that the entire planet has been explored, but 70 percent is covered by water,” Christopher Delaere, scientific director of the Universite libre de Bruxelles’ underwater archaeology projects at Lake Titicaca and co-author of the study, tells National Geographic. “The underwater world has been very little explored and offers infinite possibilities for research and discovery.”