Reed Boats and Experimental Archaeology on Lake Titicaca

By: Alexei Vranich, Paul Harmon and Chris Knutson

Originally Published in 2005

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As much as archaeologists grumble about the scientific merit of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki journey from Peru to Polynesia, one thing is certain: he started a trend. On the positive side, archaeologists began experimenting with a variety of ancient technologies as a means to understand the past. On the negative side, a generation of adventurers decided that the best way to prove their ideas was to build a raft and set it adrift. Since the famous Kon Tiki, at least 40 similar expeditions have generated adventure by inventing more and more improbable ways to get from one place to another.

Boats made of everything from popsicle sticks to wine corks have been spotted all over the world, including a reed boat seen recently cruising down the Amazon River en route to Africa using powerful outboard motors! As we spent three months assembling nearly two million totora reeds into a giant bundle 13,000 feet above sea level on the edge of Lake Titicaca in South America, we wondered in which group we belonged, the archaeologists or the adventurers?

Tiwanaku and its Monoliths

Around AD 500, one of the small villages along the shores of Lake Titicaca grew into the largest city that had ever existed in the Andes. Huge stones weighing up to 130 tons were brought from distant sources to erect monumental buildings and tow­ering statues spreading over an area of 4-6 km2. A huge pyra­mid of fill and stone, the largest freestanding building ever made in the highlands, rose in the middle of the city. In the mid-16th sentry, when the first Spanish chronicler of the Andes, Cieza de León, passed through the area, these monu­ments were already crumbling. He asked the local Aymara Indians if the Inca had built this place. Laughing, they told him it was much older and had been built by a race of giants. They called it Tapypicala (“stone in the center”), expressing their belief that this sacred place was the center of the world. Archaeologists call it Tiwanaku.

Alexei Vranich remembers well his first visit to the famed Andean highland ruins of Tiwanaku. As he wandered around the huge stones, his initial impressions echoed almost 400 years’ worth of travelers’ writings on the ruins. Why on earth was there a city 13,000 feet above sea level, far from a navigable river, and lacking any obvious resources? Where was the source of stone for this megalithic city? Even standing on the highest pyramid, all one could see was grass and more grass. Petrographic analysis located the quarry for the abundant red sandstone 10 km away—an incredible distance considering that one of the stones alone weighs over 130 tons. The source of the green andesite stones—the material from which the most elaborate carvings and monoliths were made—is on the Copacabana peninsula, 90 km across Lake Titicaca. How could an ancient civilization—without iron tools, the wheel, draft animals, pulleys, or cranes—transport thousands of tons of igneous rock over such long distances? With barely a hand­ful of trees within hundreds of kilometers, bringing rock across open water seemed impossible.

The answer lay in the vibrant local Aymara Indian commu­nities surrounding Lake Titicaca’s shores and that still make small boats not from wood, but from a lakeshore reed known as totora. Typically 2-7 meters long and a third as wide, these small boats would not be able to sustain the weight of even a small monolith at Tiwanaku. However, in the late 19th century Ephraim Squier noted that boats made of totora reeds were large enough to support as many as 60 people. Approximately 4 tons, this is equivalent to the weight of many of Tiwanaku’s smaller monoliths. Several decades later, Hiram Bingham, the discoverer of Machu Picchu, described a reed boat that sup­ported the weight of a plowman and his ox-team, and as recently as the 1970s, reed boats capable of carrying 20 people were still used on Peru’s Ramis River—the largest river enter­ing Lake Titicaca. Could totora reed boats like these have been used to move Tiwanaku’s large stones?

We decided to ask the inheritors of this severe landscape to revive an aspect of their ancient technology and do what seemed impossible—to transport a 9-ton stone (the size of Tiwanaku’s most famous monolith) across Lake Titicaca on a boat made of reeds. Using only traditional techniques and locally available materials, we would test the theory by recreat­ing the Tiwanaku boat-building process with a group of lead­ing Aymara totora reed boat-building experts.

Building a Totora Reed Boat

Reed boat manufacturing involves gathering and joining bun­dles of totora reeds and fastening them with rope (tradition­ally made from dried prairie grass, ichu). To build a boat, the reeds must be harvested by cutting them several feet below the water’s surface with a scythe or a long pole with a knife tied to the end. Reeds are gathered in bundles (amaros) just about big enough for an adult to wrap both arms solidly around them. Once cut, the reeds must be carefully dried in the sun for three to four weeks before they are ready to be used.

Our boat mimicked the small boats in nearly all respects, with the exception of its extraordinary size. The main body, or hull, consists of two large bundles of many long cigar-shaped rolls (chorizos) of totora that measure roughly 15 m long and 1.5 m in circumference. Placed between these large bundles is the heart bundle, consisting of three totora rolls stacked together. To join these bundles, a rope is wrapped around the left bundle and the heart bundle while another rope is alter­nately wrapped around the right bundle and the heart bundle. This alternating wrapping continues for the entire length of the boat, spacing the rope about 30 cm apart with each wrap. Once the bundles are joined, the ropes are repeatedly tightened over sev­eral days. By this point, the heart bundle disap­pears from view as it is squeezed between the two large bundles, creating a single solid hull. The gun‑wales, also long cigar-shaped rolls of totora, are then connected by rope to the top edges of the hull.

From start to finish, it took the extended family of master boat-builder Paulino Esteban 2.5 months to build the boat. On the day of the launch, the boat was 15 m long, 5 m wide, and 2 m high, and it used 3,000 amoras of totora—approxi­mately 1.8 million reeds! The boat weighed about 12 tons, and it took about 70 people 4 hours to drag it to the shore. Once in the water, it needed only 38 cm of water to float! This draft, and the weight of the boat, would gradually increase as it absorbed more water, making us wonder if it would sink before it became saturated.

Getting Under Way

When the wind was right and the sails filled, the boat glided across the deep blue waters of the lake to the amazement of local fishermen and gawking tourists. At times when there was no wind, we used oars to propel the boat—a slow and arduous process. Other times, around the shallow shores of the Isla de la Luna—the birthplace of the moon according to Inca and local legend—we pushed with poles while one per­son pulled with a rope from the shore. Like canal barges, this poling and pulling method easily moved the 12-ton boat with as few as two people.

We sailed toward the town of Copacabana, an important pilgrimage site both today and during the pre-Columbian period. Previous geological analyses had indicated that the green andesite stones of Tiwanaku came from this volcanic peninsula that nearly divides Titicaca into two lakes. Around this peninsula one can also find piedras cansadas (“tired stones”) that had been abandoned in the past after having been roughly shaped and dragged to the shore. While our boat was under construction, we located an ideal stone on the out­skirts of Copacabana, weighing more than 9 tons and measur­ing roughly 3 m by 1.3 m by 1 m—about the size of the cele­brated Ponce monolith at Tiwanaku. This stone was perched on a steep incline about 20 m above a rocky shoreline. Over several days, 20 Aymara from the Isla del Sol filled the cre­vasses and troughs of the boulder field below the stone, creat­ing a ramp leading to open water.

Using eucalyptus poles as levers to push and pry the stone and one very thick rope wrapped around it, a group ranging from 25 to 40 people moved the stone to the edge of the water in three days. We now moved the boat into place and anx­iously wondered if, with one more push, our experiment would end ingloriously. Would the 9-ton stone tip our boat over, sink it, or even break through the boat? With the help of Bolivia’s navy, we rolled the stone off the ramp and into the boat. Everyone stood quietly for a moment, and then broke into a cheer when the boat held.

The Return Journey

We set out on the return trip after a few minor repairs and adjustments.With the most difficulty part of the trip behind us, we had a moment to relax and contemplate the striking land­scape of the Andes. As we glided across the lake, we became obsessed with two things. The first was the draft of the boat, which we checked every few hours. We knew that totora would absorb water up to a certain saturation point and then stabi­lize, as had been the case with Heyerdahl and others’ ocean voyages. But this was little comfort while we watched the “ground” beneath our feet sink slowly into freezing waters.

Our other obsession was the wind. We talked constantly about it: when would it change, how long would it last, what would it do tomorrow, and so on. Even when the wind was in our favor, we stared at the sails as if our glare could fill them and push us forward. Such an obsession with the wind was called amenomania (literally “wind-madness”) by the Antarctic Shackleton expedition. After abandoning their ship, they had been completely dependent on the wind to move their ice floe toward the open ocean and rescue. As we continuously talked about the wind and its direction and feared we would go insane listening to oth­ers talk about it, we came to appreciate their experience.

Our destination was the hamlet of Santa Rosa on the Taraco peninsula, the shore closest to Tiwanaku where archaeological evidence indicates the stones were offloads. A 13 m wide canal dating from the Colonial period (if not earlier) allowed us to sail directly into the shelter of its banks. Soon after we arrived, the town’s leaders came to greet us. They were enthusiastic and hospitable. They placed a bridge of eucalyptus between the boat and the bank of the canal, drew ropes around the stone, positioned levers, and lubricated the bridge with water. With about 50 people—men, women, and children—they rolled the stone off the boat and moved it 60 m up the bank in less than an hour with no organization from our team.

Taking Stock

We sat on the edge of our boat, which looked quite spacious without the stone, sails, tent, and other equipment. We were thoroughly exhausted from the overnight trip and three months of hard work and stress. Spending our last few moments with the boat, we began to consider exactly what, if anything, we had learned. Was this simply a very challenging and amusing sailing trip, or did we actually do science and enlighten what we know about the past?

The most surprising aspect about this project was how feasible it had been. The raw material, the totora, grows in huge and sustainable quantities along the lake’s edge. There were stretches of hard work, but it was accomplished for the most part in a rather tranquil manner by a single Aymara extended gamily. Large groups of people were needed only for short and rather festive efforts. During the voyage, we were frustrated at times by the currents and winds, and sometimes even afraid. But now that we had the method down and understood more about the lake, we could probably transport hundreds of tons of stone in a season before the boat gave out. All that would be required is the ability to organize and motivate different groups of people. That aspect, organizing diverse communities across 90 km of shoreline and open water, was our biggest challenge. We initially found this to be very frustrating and an obstacle to our pursuit of science and truth, but this is where the greatest insight from this project lays.

Each community had its own strong identity, personal interests, and deep-seated rivalries. Archaeological and histor­ical evidence suggests that conflict and competition in this region stretch far back into the pre-Columbian period. Fortresses known as pucaras dot the hills and mountains of the Titicaca basin and attest to a history of endemic conflict. Historical documents indicate that the Inca were initially defeated when they entered the basin and had to shift to a strategy of gifts and alliances to extend their control. The local inhabitants also lessened the impact of Spanish colonization by shifting the more onerous aspects of taxation onto other groups, and over time grinding the Spanish administration down by constant litigation and legislative appeals. One historical document indicates that the community of Jesus de Machaca, one valley over from Tiwanaku, actually wrote to the Protestant King of England to offer an alliance against the Catholic Spanish. This document dates to 1571, demonstrating a well-developed sense of geo­politics and European rivalries less than 40 years after the Spanish inva­sion. Since the agrarian reforms of 1952, the Bolivian republic has gone through many changes of government, in part due to the Aymara getting angry from time to time. Whoever could harness their energy could build an empire, but this energy could turn to violence, or apathy, just as quickly and leave even imperial plans frustrated and half-complete.

Our boat was much more than a purely technological experiment that measured labor expenditure and the buoyancy of totora. We recreated a prehistoric object and inserted it into the cul­tural and social dynamic that most resembled prehistoric con­ditions. For example, consider Tiwanaku’s temples, where closer inspection reveals that their awe-inspiring stonework is often unfinished and made from reused stone taken from ear­lier buildings. Rather than view the monuments of Tiwanaku as a testament of the power of a mighty few, each stone now speaks to us of the series of decisions, alliances, and rivalries that were negotiated into a single sustained effort.

The stone was now sitting halfway between the dock and the village of Santa Rosa, surrounded by over a hundred vil­lagers. The mayor of Tiwanaku had come to take the stone to the ruins, as we had originally planned. By the time the mayor arrived, however, the communities of Santa Rosa had organ­ized enough people to petition him to keep the stone here. A long discussion ensued, and in typical Aymara style, every per­son got to speak his or her mind.

In the end, the villagers of Santa Rosa kept the stone and the boat. In the complex social and political dynamics of the Titicaca basin, the encounter was a success, as the mayor returned to Tiwanaku without the stone, but confident that the favor would be returned by the Santa Rosa community sometime in the future.

We were so engrossed in the negotiations that we com­pletely forgot about one of our crew, Kenji, who did not speak Spanish or Aymara and understood nothing that was said over the last few hours. Looking at the case of beer that had been placed in front of us as a gift from the Santa Rosa community, he said, “So let me get this straight. We just traded our $6,000, 12-ton boat for a case a beer?”

Alexei was about to give him a summary of the negotiations of the last hour and launch into a lecture on the concept of Andean reciprocity when he realized how tired he was,“Yes, we traded the boat for beer. Would you like one?”

ALEXEI VRANICH received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 and has been working in Bolivia since 1995. He is currently a Research Associate at the Museum.

PAUL HARMON skippered the totora reed boat across Lake Titicaca. He received his business degree from the Diversity of North Carolina at Charlotte and a master’s certificate in project management from The George Washington Diversity.

CHRIS KNUTSON received his B.A. in Anthropology from Penn, where his senior thesis focused on the possibility of using reed boats to transport mono­liths to Tiwanaku. He has a master’s degree from Cambridge Diversity and plans to combine Ph.D. research with law school and specialize in cultural heritage law.


We would like to acknowledge Engel Brothers, Inc., who provided the financial backing for the construction and filming of the entire project. The Department of Archaeology of Bolivia facilitated all permits and paperwork. The Bolivian Navy pro­vided a shelter for the boat and much-needed manpower for moving the stone. We would like to thank Rolando and Sandy for another year of hospitality at their hotel and for making the contacts with the Aymara boat-builders.

For Further Reading

For more details and information about this experimental project, visit their website at

Brindley, H. H. “The Sailing Balsa of Lake Titicaca and other Reed-Bundle Craft.” The Mariner’s Mirror 17-1 (1931):7-19.

Capelotti, A. J. Sea Drifts: Rafting Adventures in the Wake of Kon-Tiki. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally, 1947.

Ponce Sanginés, C., and G. Mogrovejo Terrazas. Acerca de la Procedencia del Material Lítico de los Monumentos de Tiwanaku, Publicación No. 21. La Paz, Bolivia: Academia Nacional de Ciecias de Bolivia, 1970.

Stanish, C. “Negotiating Rank in an Imperial State: Lake Titicaca Basin Elite under Inca and Spanish Control.” In Hierarchies in Action: Cui Bono?, edited by Michael W. Diehl, pp. 317-39. Carbondale, IL: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University, 2000.

Cite This Article

Vranich, Alexei, Harmon, Paul and Knutson, Chris. "Reed Boats and Experimental Archaeology on Lake Titicaca." Expedition Magazine 47, no. 2 (July, 2005): -. Accessed April 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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