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In the Andean highlands, there were as many different origin myths as there were native peoples. Each ethnic group sought to establish its importance through such stories, by claiming to be the first people to appear in the world. Many accounts told of primordial ancestors emerging from local points in the landscape, such as caves and springs. Yet Lake Titicaca and the area around Tiwanaku acquired an exceptional prestige for people not only in the Collao region but more broadly in the southern Andes.1 Given the power and civilizational achievement of Tiwanaku society, many peoples considered the lake to be the “navel of the world” and a site of tremendous spiritual and political power.

The Inka themselves sought to lay claim to the symbolic prestige of the lake region. As they grew from being simply one more local ethnic federation into an expansive imperial force in the southern Andes, they likewise revised their myth of origin: a modest tale of having emerged from a cave in the Cuzco area became one in which their ancestors first appeared through divine intervention on an island on Lake Titicaca and thereafter migrated to Cuzco.

Bernabé Cobo (1582–1657) was a Jesuit chronicler and natural historian who drew on earlier Spanish accounts and his own research to write a monumental treatment of the New World. He first served at a mission in the lakeside town of Juli and traveled throughout the Charcas district, then later held university positions in Peru and Mexico. While his rendering of Andean society and religion prior to the conquest was not sympathetic, he assumed that the similarities between Andean beliefs and his own—such as those concerning the Creator God, the flood, and the original human couple—showed that Indians had a crude intuition of what he took to be Christian truth.

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