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Guide to Peru: Machu Picchu

Written by Thomas Power | 14th January 2014 |


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It isn't surprising that so much has been written about Machu Picchu, it is a truly inspiring place. It is also a place about which almost nothing can be known with certainty. For this reason stories and theories abound.  Here we look at some of them and ultimately consider why Machu Picchu was built.

'Discovery' of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is spectacularly perched on a ridge between two mountains 500m above a dramatic curve in the Urubamba River valley.

The myth : the dashing American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, set off into the mountains of Peru to unearth the mythical lost city of the Inca.

The truth : Hiram Bingham was an explorer, neither he, nor any member of his 1911 party were archaeologists. He headed down to Peru as an adventurer, came to Cusco and decided to follow the newly opened road from Cusco to the Amazon.

Along the way a local family told him of a large ruin on a hillside. Melchor Arteaga led him up there and that's how Machu Picchu was 'discovered'.

You have to give the man credit - he could spin a yarn and his panache ensured that he was famous throughout his life, became a professor and even a senator.

Bingham returned to Machu Picchu in 1912 and 1915. Over the course of those three visits, pretty much everything of archaeological interest was stripped from the site and made its way to the museum at Yale.

There are currently moves afoot to have the estimated 40,000 artefacts returned to Peru.

Incredibly, Bingham's stripping of Machu Picchu was so thorough that there have been no major archaeological digs at the site since 1915.

Myths of Machu Picchu

1911 happened to be the year Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World' was published creating an incredible buzz about the extraordinary and exotic continent of South America.

The discovery of a mystical city in the depths of Peru therefore hit the zeitgeist perfectly.

Bearing in mind the epoch and Bingham's fertile imagination, really any old nonsense could be pedalled and absorbed as fact.

Some of the most stubborn myths persist. To this day you can hear guides at Machu Picchu talking about the princess tomb and sacrificial altars.

The human skulls found by Bingham's expedition were measured and it was deemed that all of them were women. This led to the wilder theories about the virgin sacrifice.

Years later someone returned to the skeletons to establish the gender of the bodies by measuring their pelvic bones instead of their skulls - a rather more reliable indicator.

It turned out that there was an even split between male and female, rather putting paid to the virgin temple theories. And yet, they still persist.

The truth is that the ""Tomb of the Princess"" was thus named by Bingham because the stonework is amongst the finest in Machu Picchu and therefore would have been a tomb fit for a princess.

At no point has any evidence been produced to say that anyone's remains were found there, let alone a princess.

In fact there are no indications of any ceremonial burials at Machu Picchu.

How was Machu Picchu built?

With difficulty.

The tools available to the Inca were fairly basic. Hammer stones as well as some small silver and bronze tools are all that have been found.

Bearing in mind that Machu Picchu is made of granite - one of the hardest rocks in nature - the building of Machu Picchu becomes an even more incredible achievement than is at first apparent.

In the quarry section of Machu Picchu you can see how they worked small holes in large rocks into which they poured water, leaving it to freeze overnight.

Over time a crack would appear in the rock and it could be split and worked.

Look at the scale of the building works and imagine the amount of people hours involved in building Machu Picchu.

Now look again because it is reckoned that around 60% of the structure of Machu Picchu is underground.

The terraces which drop off on either side of the central esplanade are in fact performing a vital engineering function.

The stone chippings were used to underpin and drain the central esplanade.

Despite being in an earthquake zone and despite receiving something like 1,900mm of rain a year, Machu Picchu is pretty much as good as new.

In the places where thatched rooves have been put onto the buildings, they appear habitable.

The water channel which was built to bring water from the nearest spring travels over the best part of 1km at a steady 3% gradient. In 1911 Hiram Bingham found only two places the canal had failed.

Whatever else is said about Machu Picchu, it is certainly an enormously impressive feat of engineering.

Why was Machu Picchu built?

This brings us on to the most controversial of all Machu Picchu topics - why?

Holy site theory

The most common theory is that it was a shrine, a holy site of permanent importance to the Inca. Machu Picchu was therefore simply a citadel built to protect the shrine.

The trouble with this theory is that there is only one archaeological strata at Machu Picchu which implies that it was occupied for a very limited period.

Inca holy sites (most obviously the temple of Koriakancha in Cusco) are never abandoned. There is layer upon layer of history with evidence of visitors and habitation throughout their history.

If Machu Picchu was an Inca shrine or specifically holy site then one would expect to see greater evidence of consistent activity. It is also unlikely that the whole site would have been allowed to become quite so overgrown.

Machu Picchu was already abandonded before the Spanish arrived, for this reason it was never discovered by them.

Finally, the 170 or so bodies found at Machu Picchu were buried in shallow, unmarked, unadorned graves so no people of importance either died or were buried here implying that it held no specific ceremonial importance.

The defensive theory

Machu Picchu was an outpost to guard against the Amazonian tribes, part of the defensive limits of the Inca empire.

However, Machu Picchu actually isn't very well defended. It can be secured at the front very easily but coming in from behind (via the Sun Gate) would be apparently relatively easy.

Generally, the architecture of the place does not denote a primarily defensive or military function. Bear in mind that Ollantaytambo was built also during the reign of Pachacuti. This stands as testament to the fact that when the Inca wanted to build an impregnable fortress, they did so.

At Machu Picchu the water comes in from a spring several kilometres up the hill. If you are looking for a strong defensive position then you need a safe water supply.

The Agricultural theory

Machu Picchu is significantly lower than Cusco and therefore has a different climate in which one can grow different crops.

The terraces at Machu Picchu are actually quite small and the evidence found does point towards speciality crops such as herbs, flowers and maize having been grown.

However, the ecosystem at Machu Picchu is no different to that at nearby Winaywayna, a far larger and more accessible set of terraces.

There is no reason for the Inca to have constructed something as complex as Machu Picchu at the same time as constructing Winaywayna.

The Summer Palace theory

The most plausible of all theories is that it was simply a summer palace, a hunting lodge, a place of retreat and pleasure for the emporer Pachacuti and his entourage.

The scale of the terracing at Machu Picchu would feed a population of only around 50 people. If you add in the terraces in the river valley below then a permanent population of 300 becomes sustainable.

This would seem like a realistic permanent caretaker community and would be consistent with the number of bodies buried on the site and the fact that burials were non-ceremonial.

When the full royal entourage was in residence, foods would presumably have been brought in from nearby Winaywanyna, up from the Amazon and also from Llactapaca (lower terraces near the start of the Inca Trail hike).

What is known about the Inca is that the mountains were sacred. Therefore the setting of Machu Picchu mattered not necessarily for some strategic reason but quite simply because it was prettier.

In practical terms, Machu Picchu would have been easier to build and more secure with more extensive terracing if it had been built up the hill a ways. It just wouldn't have looked as good.

Maybe the answer to Machu Picchu, the reason that it is so breathtaking is that the Inca placed it as beautifully as they knew how. Aesthetics taken to a higher, almost formally religious level.

Look closer and you really do begin to notice that Machu Picchu doesn't so much sit on the mountain as grow out of it. There are places where it is hard to see where the natural rocks end and the stonework begins.

Look again and you will see the surrounding mountains quite deliberately reflected in the structures and the shapes of the stonework and buildings.

It is as if Machu Picchu is a reflection of the surrounding mountains, a homage to nature.

When an Inca emporer died, his legacy died with him and was preserved in his memory. That is to say that his palace in Cusco was placed under the supervision of caretakers but his successor had to build himself a new palace.

In some cases, an incoming emporer would also have to construct new roads. A perfectly good road leading from A to B already existed, having been built by their predecessor. However, on their death, the existing road became part of their heavenly estate and therefore a new road would have to be built - albeit right next to the old.

Machu Picchu was built in the reign of Pachacuti. Nearby you have the ruins of Choquequirao, very similar in style and conception to Machu Picchu. Choquequirao is attributed to Pachacuti's son, Topa Inca.

When Pachacuti died then, Machu Picchu was effectively mothballed, a small caretaker population would have been sent to tend the place in his memory.

By the time the Spaniards arrived, that population would have dwindled and died out, leaving the cloudforest to gradually encroach on the once magnificent site.

It's just one theory amongst many, but it certainly seems to have fewer inconsistencies than any of the others.


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