Top 5 Ancient Wonders of Central and South America

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Scattered throughout Central and South America are ancient remnants of a once thriving civilization. Although the residents lived simple lives, their communities always produced some type of large-scale symbol that honored either their rulers or the gods in the sky. Using the simplest of tools, the creations ranged from straight lines more than nine miles in length to gigantic stone blocks miraculously transported from quarries nowhere near their final destinations. Some of these creations defy logic and any type of scientific explanation. Here are the top 5 ancient wonders of Central and South America.

5. Stone Spheres in Costa Rica

Mysterious stone spheres are spread across a large portion of Costa Rica.

Photo credit: Connor Lee

During the 1930s, workmen from the thriving United Fruit Co. were clearing the jungle for future banana plantations on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The strange stone spheres they discovered were part of a larger collection of stone spheres scattered throughout the southern Diquis Delta region and as far north as the Papagayo Peninsula 180 miles away. Similar spheres were even found 12 miles off the Pacific coast on the Isla del Caño. Dating to A.D. 600, the spheres were constructed of granite, gabbro (a coarse basalt), and shell-rich limestone, and ranged in size from a few inches to 8 feet in diameter with a weight of up to 16 tons. Unfortunately, the workmen believed that they had found hidden treasures and blew open the majority of the stones with dynamite only to find nothing. Approximately 300 spheres remain today and only a handful of spheres are located in their original locations. Scientists believe the stones were chiseled into near-perfect shape with small hammers and persistence by a culture of the people who became extinct shortly after the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Yet no stone-carving tools have been found. The stones have inspired several myths, from being part of the lost city of Atlantis to having an astronomical association with Stonehenge and Easter Island. The best way to view the spheres in person is by visiting the courtyard of the National Museum of Costa Rica in San José, which includes the largest collection in any single location.


4. Tikal in Guatemala

Tikal was once home to some 60,000 residents.

Photo credit:  Bjorn Christian Torrissen

Located approximately one hour northeast of Flores in northern Guatemala, the former civilization of Tikal is one of the most powerful cities in Mayan history. Although only a fraction of the city is visible today, Tikal once encompassed a total area of at least 47 square miles. The more than 4,000 incredible structures include some of the highest Mayan pyramids ever built, a variety of mysterious buildings, ball courts, burial grounds, and a wide array of decorative stone carvings that all provide visitors with a glimpse into this once-thriving society. Based on archaeological estimates, its earliest stone structures date back to 600 B.C., but most of the construction occurred during its peak between A.D. 600 and 900. Under the leadership of at least 13 rulers who dominated by intimidation both within the city and on the battlefield, Tikal’s population grew to at least 60,000. But mysteriously, all activity ceased and the city was completely abandoned in A.D. 900, only to be re-discovered in 1948. According to University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Robert Sharer, Tikal was “one of the most profound cultural failures in human history” and most researchers speculate that a severe drought devastated the city, which was probably already suffering from famine due to overpopulation. The entire location is now the centerpiece of the Tikal National Park and it is open to visitors. One of its highlights is the 212-foot Temple IV, where visitors can make the steep climb to the top for a spectacular view of the entire site. The view even enthralled George Lucas, who used it in a scene in Star Wars: A New Hope as the location of the rebel base on the jungle moon Yavin 4.


3. Nazca Lines in Peru

A spider is one of many figures carved into the plains of Nazca.

A spider is one of many figures carved into the plains of Nazca.

In the late 1920s, airplanes began flying over a 37-mile-long desolate plain of the Peruvian desert approximately 200 miles south of Lima. Passengers noticed “primitive landing strips” consisting of straight lines that ran parallel to one another and intersected to form huge symbols more than 1,000 feet in size. Subsequently, the lines were investigated by archaeologists Paul Kosok and Toribio Mejía Xesspe, who discovered more than 70 bio-morphs of animal figures (spiders, monkeys and birds) and 900 geoglyphs, which included everything from straight lines and triangles to spirals and trapezoids. The longest straight line has been measured at nine miles in length with the oldest ones dating to A.D. 450. Kosak, after his first visit to Nazca, suggested that the lines were basically “the largest astronomy book in the world,” although Gerald Hawkins discredited this theory in a computer-based study in 1968. Since then, a variety of ideas for the purpose of the lines have been raised, including everything from serving as landing strips for extraterrestrials to large-scale shrines to be seen only by the gods in the sky. There is general agreement that the straight lines were constructed with simple tools and wooden stakes. But this does not explain the reason for the large design known as “The Astronaut” that depicts a helmeted human figure. Although there is an observation tower near the town of Nazca that provides a limited perspective of three of the figures, the best way to view the entire area is by booking a charter flight that departs from Nazca or Lima.


2. Sacsayhuamán in Peru

Peru's Sacsayhuaman site has mystified researchers.

Photo credit: Lars Falkdalen Lindahl

Located at an altitude of 12,000 feet is a triple-walled complex that overlooks the city of Cuzco in southeastern Peru. As the former capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco was designed in the form of a puma (the Inca dynasty symbol), with its main plaza representing the body, the Tullumayo River its spine, and Sacsayhuamán its head. Built around 1508 by approximately 20,000 workers, the stones were placed unevenly on top of one another to create the representation of a puma’s jagged teeth. The longest wall is more than 1,300 feet in length with an average height of 20 feet and the largest boulders are measured at 28 feet in height with a weight of almost 200 tons. All of the stones were quarried and transported from sites between two and 22 miles away and the walls (without any mortar) fit so perfectly together that light cannot penetrate through the seams.

Some researchers speculate that the process of building the walls was much like creating a gigantic jigsaw puzzle where the initial stone was carved into a desired shape as the next carved stone was placed perfectly on top of the first stone. But it is easier said than done because each of the stones weighs a minimum of several tons. To this day, there is no definitive explanation about how and why it was actually built. Unfortunately, after the Spaniards took over Cuzco in 1536, most of the complex was disassembled and repurposed into new governmental and religious buildings. Only the largest stones remained since they were simply too heavy to disassemble and transport. The site is open to the public and can be reached by a one-hour hike or a 15-minute taxi ride from the center of Cuzco.


1. Puma Punku in Bolivia

The Puma Punku site in Bolivia mystifies scientists. © Janikorpi

The Puma Punku site in Bolivia mystifies scientists. © Janikorpi

Approximately 44 miles west of La Paz near the southeastern shore of Lake Titicaca are the remains of Tiwanaku, an important city-state and precursor to the Inca Empire. Situated within this ancient complex is a terraced, earthen mound known as Puma Punku. At first glance, the site appears to be just another large collection of toppled stones with some that weigh between 100 and 450 tons. But upon closer inspection, the stones were carved with such precision that they still baffle researchers to this day. The lines are perfectly straight with grooves that are just a few millimeters in size. There are also a number of equidistant drilled holes that show evidence of machinery. Even more baffling is the fact that the site dates to A.D. 500 and the stones are made from diorite. Diorite is so hard that only carving tools tipped with diamonds can penetrate its surface. To put it into perspective, ancient civilizations once used diorite balls to carve granite stones. In addition, rectangular blocks at the site were cut with such perfect uniformity that they form interchangeable load-bearing joints that each maintains a completely level surface. The designs within these blocks are so intricate that even the best technology available today cannot duplicate them. All of these factors have caused some theorists to claim that there was help from another world. But only questions remain since the civilization declined around A.D. 1000, leaving no records of how the site was built. Today, visitors can explore both the Tiwanaku and Puma Punku sites by booking a day tour from any tourist-oriented hotel in La Paz.

Written by

James Nalley is a full-time freelance writer specializing in a wide array of historical, travel and cultural topics. He is a leading contributor to the Discover Maine history magazine and the Feature Latin-America and Caribbean Travel Writer to Suite101, an online magazine based in Vancouver. He also writes commercially for Demand Media Studios and also serves as an editor for the Enago Corp. in Japan. His work has been published in over 100 magazines and websites.