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For a Metal or Forgotten Parents: The Mysterious Origins of Lake Titicaca’s Name

Value, status, memory, family… These are ideals encompassed in names. Across cultures, the naming of persons and places hold varying levels of significance. The Norse named their swords; the Scottish, their castles. Ancient civilizations named the natural forces of the world because names equaled power and even limited forms of control. As the center of the Inca cosmos, one would expect Lake Titicaca’s history to have been documented or mythologized. While archaeologists have made great strides in understanding the famous lake’s pre-Incan history, the origin of its name remains a great mystery.

Many Cultures for One Lake

Because Lake Titicaca was valued by so many different cultures, it likely had more than one name at different times and contemporaneously. Valued most by the ancient Pucará (400BC-100AD) and the Tiwanaku (200BC-1000AD) in particular before the Inca invaders, Lake Titicaca spanned numerous cultures in the region of modern day Bolivia and Peru. The Chiripa culture existed in the area from 1400-850BC, and occupation continued in the region in Chiripan forms until around 100AD. The Aymara people, native to the Andes and Altiplano areas, have thrived along Lake Titicaca since before the Inca and after the Inca conquered the regions in the 15th century.

‘Disembarking on Lake Titicaca’ by Enrique Camino Brent.

‘Disembarking on Lake Titicaca’ by Enrique Camino Brent. ( El arte en la Educación 

Puno, an area located between the lake and the mountains, saw much evolution from the 17th century onward. And, of course, the valued history of the Uru people cannot be forgotten. The Uru have lived on man-made islands on Lake Titicaca longer than can be remembered and are considered the indigenous people of the water basin region. They have withstood time and continue to live atop Titicaca’s waters.

Uros floating islands, Lake Titicaca

Uros floating islands, Lake Titicaca. (Andrew Miller/ CC BY NC 2.0 )

The lengthy history of the cultures sitting on the banks of Lake Titicaca and the sheer number of cultures who valued the lake (those who are known and even those who are not) likely never called the lake by a shared title.

So how did Lake Titicaca get to be known as such in the present?

Lake Titicaca and Gray or White Metal

It has been proposed that the name “Titicaca” is derived from the Spanish conquerors of the early modern period, though the name itself can be broken into fragmented “words” in native languages as well. Standish (2005) discusses that titi and caca have significance in the language of the Aymara people: titi meaning “lead” or “heavy metal” and kaka (spelled the Aymara way) meaning the color white or gray. However, scholars Bauer and Stanish (2001) suggest the term thakhsi cala as an earlier variation of the name from the 15th century, that was later altered (albeit, probably accidentally) and standardized by the Spaniards. (It should be noted that Lake Titicaca is not the only name of the lake, however an examination of its origin is the intent here.)

Stormy Lake Titicaca.

Stormy Lake Titicaca. ( Public Domain )

Father and Mother of Lake Titicaca

Other theories as to the naming of Lake Titicaca circulate, though the evidence is more hypothetical than factual. One such theory states that Japanese settlers from the Jomon period came to the area thousands of years ago by way of the land-bridge linking modern day Alaska and the east. According to Japanese “myth”, a Jomon period lord traveled to South America believing himself prophesized to found an empire across the Pacific Ocean. After arriving in modern day South America and traveling on foot across the vast landscape, the lord and his men discovered a massive lake they called “Chichi-haha” (translated loosely as “father and mother”). This lake was believed by the Japanese leader to be the location of his empire. Over time, the lake’s title “Chichi-haha” transformed into “Titicaca.”

Naming Titicaca “father and mother” is quite fitting due to the numerous civilizations that considered the lake central to their way of life. Further, the Uru people who live atop their floating islands continue to utilize the lake as not only a source of sustenance but of dwelling. As the Jomon title states then, the lake truly is the father and mother of the people of the region, having long protected, preserved, and fed those who have come and gone from its shores.

View on Lake Titicaca.

Lake Titicaca: The Cauldron of Incan Creationism

Lake Titicaca has long been the center of various socio-political cultures in South America. The lake has seen many cultures along its shores, such as the Pucará (400BC-100AD) and the Tiwanaku (200BC-1000AD), and still remains a place of value and livelihood for the Uru peoples of the famed Floating Islands. Yet it is the Incas who encapsulated the essence of the great lake around which they built their own civilization. Lake Titicaca was enveloped into their mythological and religious beliefs as the center of the cosmos.

The Incan Creation Story

According to Inca tradition, their creator god (called either Viracocha or Wiraqocha) created the world as it is now through trial and error, creation and destruction. As seen in other creation myths, such as those of the Norse and the Greeks, the first beings were created both by and from the creator himself, later meeting an unfortunate end at the hands of a great flood sent by the creator.

In the Incan worldview, Viracocha’s first attempt at creating life came in the form of stone giants. Due to the giants’ size and physical makeup, it is not surprising that they were so difficult to control that Viracocha traded them in for the smaller, more “pliable” race of humans (forged from clay or stone) which he supposedly crafted in Tiahuanaco. For a time, Viracocha let humanity thrive until their greed and pride—two factors that have been humanity’s downfall across cultures—led to Viracocha’s decision to start again. Thus he sent the Incan version of the Great Flood.

The deluge eventually subsided into Lake Titicaca, leaving three humans alive (or two, depending on which narrative one reads), just as Lif and Lifsandir were the only survivors of the Norse Ragnarök, and Deucalion and his wife were among the few to survive the second ancient Greek flood. These humans would go on to create the humans from which all current people are descended. It is also said that either from Lake Titicaca or before the creation of the lake, Viracocha forged the sun, the moon and the stars. Lake Titicaca, therefore, is quite literally the cauldron from which life as the Incas knew it sprung.

La balsa de totora, Viracocha I, y su arribo a la Isla de Pascua

La balsa de totora, Viracocha I, y su arribo a la Isla de Pascua ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Verbal Legend

Among the most valued sources discussing Incan religion and Viracocha’s creation myth comes from a Spaniard named Juan Diez de Betanzos. De Betanzos ‘ source is unique in its respect as a “firsthand account” by scholars because de Betanzos’ book, Narrative of the Incas , is based solely on statements of his Incan wife, Dona Angelina. Angelina was originally named Cuxirimay Ocllo Yupanqui, and was a young wife of Incan ruler Atahualpa (one of many wives of the leader). Atahualpa was in power when the Spanish came to the Empire, and was deposed and executed by conquistador Francisco Pizarro. Cuxirimay Ocllo Yupanqui was taken prisoner, renamed Dona Angelina and eventually married to Juan de Betanzos, with whom she shared the Incan worldview. Thus the account by de Betanzos has been considered the closest thing to an indigenous written record.

Amantaní (in the distance) viewed from Taquile (in the foreground) on Lake Titicaca, Peru.

Amantaní (in the distance) viewed from Taquile (in the foreground) on Lake Titicaca, Peru. ( Public Domain )

However, as with most interpretations of ancient traditions through Christian eyes, de Betanzos’ own religious upbringing cannot be overlooked as a possible influence in the writing of his narrative. The Inca creation myth survives in great detail because of Dona Angelina, yet the monotheistic worldview of the Spanish may have subtlety influenced the stories. For instance, the Spanish appear to have attempted to transform Viracocha—as the god of creation and the highest of the Incan pantheon—into an Incan name for the Christian god, with an emphasis of Viracocha’s creation placed on rigid perceptions of light and dark (i.e., good and evil) rather than the Incan values of duality and reincarnation. (This theory is grounded in the codification of other polytheistic religions by Christians—such as the Norse sagas—and has not been proven by this author.) On the other hand, it can also be argued that naming Viracocha as the “primary god” was not an intention, but a mere misinterpretation by the Christian writers.

A New Ancient Source

When discussing Lake Titicaca, the traditions and faith of the Incas survive history best for a variety of reasons. Contrarily, its position as the focal point of life and religion stems back long before the Incas conquered the previous civilizations. How much these previous cultures influenced the Incan beliefs is uncertain, but researchers have not ceased attempting to uncover Incan records. Scholar Gary Urton believes that the Inca might have recorded their own stories in “knotted string records”, a unique way of storytelling that drew on their textile art forms. Urton’s work regarding the understanding of these knotted khipus is ongoing, however it will be interesting to see if they might be comparable to the various Spanish narratives. It is possible that if Urton’s theory is proven accurate, the world might one day know the extent to which these cultures impacted the Incans and the extent to which the Spanish dictated their mythology accurately.







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