How a Reed Boat Sailed a Boulder Across Lake Titicaca

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Image: Chris Knutson

On the southeastern shore of Bolivia’s Lake Titicaca stand the ancient ruins of the city of Tiwanaku. Here, the remains of monolithic rock sculptures and buildings over 1,500 years old can be seen. What makes this site so incredible is not merely the size and weight of the stone used by these pre-Inca builders, but the fact that much of that stone originated far from the ruins – around 55 miles (90 kilometers) across the wide blue lake!

How these huge rocks, some of them weighing 40 tons, were transported across the famous lake – home to many indigenous tribes who live on its shores and in its floating villages of Lake Titicaca – has long been a mystery. Some, including photographer Chris Knutson, who took these photographs, speculate that the heavy boulders were ferried across the lake in reed boats. In fact, Knutson wrote an undergraduate thesis on the subject while he was at the University of Pennsylvania.

Some years later, Dr. Alexei Vranich, the director of archaeological investigations at Tiwanaku, contacted Knutson. Vranich offered him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fly down to Bolivia and join him and a group of volunteers and researchers, including project director Paul Harmon, to test out this theory in real life. Naturally, Knutson accepted, and in 2002, he became part of the Qala Yampu expedition (as the project was called) to see if a reed boat really could transport a boulder weighing several tons across Lake Titicaca.


Image: Chris Knutson

In order to construct a boat that was as historically accurate as possible, the expedition hired traditional reed boat-building family the Estebans. And this wasn’t the Estebans’ (who belong to the Bolivian Aymara ethnic group) first foray into this type of historical recreation. One member of the family, Paulino, worked on similar projects, including the Ra II expedition and the Tigris expedition, which were both headed by legendary Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl.

In this photograph, we see Paulino’s son Benjamín inspecting the dry totora reeds employed to build the boats. These plants have been used to make boats in South America for thousands of years.

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Image: Chris Knutson

To assemble the boat, the reeds were tied into two large bundles around 6ft 6in (2 meters) in diameter and two smaller bundles (seen here on top of the boat sides). Next, the bigger reed bundles were tied onto a wooden framework, which created the shape of the boat. And finally, the smaller rolls were placed between these two bundles.

Reed watercrafts are among the oldest known boats in the world and, if built correctly, are remarkably stable and watertight. Indeed, Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that they could be sailed over long voyages by sailing the world’s seas in them. However, for this expedition, the point was not distance so much as weight-bearing capability.

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