Protecting Underwater Cultural Heritage in Lake Titicaca
The famed Lake Titicaca, located at 3,810 m altitude in the Andes Altiplano between Peru and Bolivia, is the highest navigable lake in the world. It is a place of exceptional beauty and rich cultural traditions surrounding indigenous sites. The waters of Lake Titicaca are said to be the cradle of Andean civilizations, including the Inca and Tiwanaku. The fact that its waters have risen over time, burying many ancient lakeside dwellings under the waves, has driven interest in discovering the lake archaeologically.
Following expeditions undertaken by Jacques-Yves Cousteau in 1968 and Johan Reinhard 1989 and 1992, Bolivia initiated in 2012 archaeological operations in and around the lake with the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). 220 days of investigation with more than 1,350 dives brought to light some twenty submerged sites and more than 20,000 objects dating from the Tiwanaku period (300-1150 AD) to the Inca period (1400-1532 AD). Among the submerged sites found were indigenous offering places, prehistoric ports, and ancient submerged villages.
In 2017, Bolivia joined UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001), which provides State Parties with a mechanism to protect their submerged heritage, including technical and scientific guidance and good practices. In 2018, a UNESCO workshop brought regional experts to Titicaca Lake to discuss scientific research and the protection of the underwater cultural heritage, its role in sustainable development, and a project for the creation of an underwater museum.
With UNESCO and the Ministry of Culture of Bolivia helping to facilitate, new explorations of Lake Titicaca are now underway by a team of archaeological divers led by Dr. Christophe Delaere from ULB. The team consists of 27 archaeologists, anthropologists, curators, engineers and technicians from Belgium, Bolivia and France. They are cooperating with the local population and are ensuring that all found objects remain in the community.
In parallel, UNESCO, the Bolivian Ministry of Culture, Belgian experts and representatives from local indigenous communities are jointly planning a floating, semi-submerged museum in Lake Titicaca. Among the aims of the museum are the preservation of both the submerged archaeological structures and those on the lakeshore. The future museum shall allow visitors to see the legacy hidden under the waters through glass walls, as well as exhibitions of objects salvaged from the lake, while providing the historical and anthropological contexts to these remarkable finds. The project will bring new visitor streams to the Bolivian lakeside, employment to the local population, and a new educational component about the incredible history of Titicaca Lake. These initiatives to explore, access and protect the underwater cultural heritage of Lake Titicaca further contribute to the preservation of tangible and living heritage of local communities, as these submerged and excavated traces of the past are closely linked to their cultural practices.