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The ups and downs of Lake Titicaca

Fisherperson in a traditional Bolivian boat on Lake Titicaca

Stéphane Guédron / IRD

Situated at an altitude of 3,800 meters (m) in the Andes Mountains on the border of Bolivia and Peru, Lake Titicaca has had a turbulent history. An analysis of sediments collected from 13 locations on the lake between 2014 and 2017 indicated that the water was well below its current level from 4000 to 2400 BC, before rising rapidly by about 15 m in 1800 BC and then a little more—roughly 3 to 6 m—to its current level between 1450 and 1750 AD. Researchers in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Bolivia, and the USA involved in the study also concluded that the lake’s rising water levels flooded its banks and forced Indigenous peoples living nearby to migrate to higher ground, contributing to the emergence of the Tiauanaco culture, which disappeared around the year 1000 AD, probably due to a shortage of food. Today, this culture is represented by one of the largest archaeological sites in South America, at approximately 4 square kilometers, occupied by monumental rock structures (PNAS, January 3).