Machu Picchu, or Machu Pikchu is a 15th-century Inca site located 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level. It is located in the Cusco Region, Urubamba Province, Machupicchu District in Peru. It is situated on a mountain ridge above the Sacred Valley which is 80 kilometres (50 mi) northwest of Cusco and through which the Urubamba River flows. Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often mistakenly referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas”, it is perhaps the most familiar icon of Inca civilization.
The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of what the structures originally looked like. By 1976, thirty percent of Machu Picchu had been restored. The restoration work continues to this day.
Since the site was not known to the Spanish during their conquest, it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site. Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.
Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Intihuatana (Hitching post of the Sun), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. These are located in what is known by archaeologists as the Sacred District of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is vulnerable to threats. While natural phenomena like earthquakes and weather systems can play havoc with access, the site also suffers from the pressures of too many tourists. In addition, preservation of the area’s cultural and archaeological heritage is an ongoing concern. Most notably, the removal of cultural artifacts by the Bingham expeditions in the early 20th century gave rise to a long-term dispute between the government of Peru and the custodian of the artifacts, Yale University.
Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. The construction of Machu Picchu appears to date from the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest. It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. The latter had notes of a place called Piccho, although there is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city. The types of sacred rocks defaced by the conquistadors in other locations are untouched at Machu Picchu.
Hiram Bingham theorized that the complex was the traditional birthplace of the Incan “Virgins of the Suns”. More recent research by scholars such as John Howland Rowe and Richard Burger, has convinced most archaeologists that Machu Picchu was an estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti. In addition, Johan Reinhard presented evidence that the site was selected because of its position relative to sacred landscape features such as its mountains that are purported to be in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas.
Johan Reinhard believes Machu Picchu to be a sacred religious site. This theory stands mainly because of where Machu Picchu is located. Reinhard calls it “sacred geography” because the site is built on and around mountains that hold high religious importance in the Inca culture and in the previous culture that occupied the land. At the highest point of the mountain which Machu Picchu was named after, there are “artificial platforms and these had a religious function, as is clear from the Inca ritual offerings found buried under them” (Reinhard 2007). These platforms also are found in other Incan religious sites.
The site’s other stone structures have finely worked stones with niches and, from what the “Spaniards wrote about Inca sites, we know that these types of buildings were of ritual significance” (Reinhard 2007). This would be the most convincing evidence that Reinhard points out because this type of stylistic stonework is only found at the religious sites so it would be natural that they would exist at this religious site.
Another theory maintains that Machu Picchu was an Inca llaqta, a settlement built to control the economy of conquered regions. Yet another asserts that it may have been built as a prison for a select few who had committed heinous crimes against Inca society. An alternative theory is that it is an agricultural testing station. Different types of crops could be tested in the many different micro-climates afforded by the location and the terraces; these were not large enough to grow food on a large scale, but may have been used to determine what could grow where.
Although the citadel is located only about 80 kilometers (50 mi) from Cusco, the Inca capital, the Spanish never found it and consequently did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over much of the site, and few outsiders knew of its existence.
On 24 July 1911, Hiram Bingham announced the discovery of Machu Picchu to scholars. As an American historian employed as a lecturer at Yale University, Bingham had been searching for the city of Vilcabamba, the last Inca refuge during the Spanish conquest. Here, he mistakenly claimed that Machu Picchu was the “last and lost city of the Incas.” This theory was later debunked as American explorer Gene Savoy reached Vilcabamba in 1964. Bingham had worked for years in previous trips and explorations around the zone. Pablito Alvarez, a local 11 year-old Quechua boy, led Bingham up to Machu Picchu. Some Quechuas lived in the original structures at Machu Picchu.
Bingham started archaeological studies and completed a survey of the area. Bingham made several more trips and conducted excavations on the site through 1915, collecting various artifacts which he took back to Yale. One of the more prominent artifacts he recovered was a set of ceremonial Incan knives made from bismuth bronze. These knives were molded in the 15th century and are the earliest known artifacts containing bismuth bronze.Bingham wrote a number of books and articles about the discovery of Machu Picchu, the most popular of which today is “Lost City of the Incas”, a retrospective account of his 1911 Yale expedition and his discovery of Machu Picchu, written in 1948 near the end of his life.
As Bingham’s excavations took place on Machu Picchu, local intellectuals began to oppose the operation of Bingham and his team of explorers. Though local institutions were initially enthused at the idea of the operation supplementing Peruvian knowledge about their ancestry, the team began to encounter accusations of legal and cultural malpractice. Local landowners began to demand payments of rent from the excavation team, and rumors arose about Bingham and his team stealing artifacts and smuggling them out of Peru through the bordering country of Bolivia. These accusations worsened when the local press caught wind of the rumors and helped to discredit the legitimacy of the excavation, branding the practice as harmful to the site and claiming that local archaeologists were being deprived of their rightful knowledge about their own history because of the intrusive excavations of the American archaeologists. By the time Bingham and his team left Machu Picchu locals began forming coalitions in order to defend their deserved ownership of Machu Picchu and its cultural remains, while Bingham claimed the artifacts ought to be studied by experts in American institutions, an argument that still exists today.
The site received significant publicity after the National Geographic Society devoted their entire April 1913 issue to Machu Picchu.
In 1981 Peru declared an area of 325.92 square kilometres (125.84 sq mi) surrounding Machu Picchu as a “Historical Sanctuary”. In addition to the ruins, the sanctuary includes a large portion of the adjoining region, rich with the flora and fauna of the Peruvian Yungas and Central Andean wet puna ecoregions.
In 1983 UNESCO designated Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site, describing it as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”.
The World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world because of environmental degradation. This has resulted from the impact of tourism, uncontrolled development in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, which included a poorly sited tram to ease visitor access, and the construction of a bridge across the Vilcanota River, which is likely to bring even more tourists to the site, in defiance of a court order and government protests against it.
Theories on the use of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu was the Last Incan City
Bingham theorized that site was both the last city of the Inca, and also the legendary “lost city” of Vilcabamba la Vieja, which the last of the independent Inca rulers waged a lengthy battle against Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. He was wrong on this account, as archaeologists later discovered the actual last city was Espíritu Pampa, a jungle site about 80 miles west of the Inca capital city of Cusco. Bingham did visit Espíritu Pampa in 1911. However, he decided the site wasn’t grand enough to be the legendary city. Excavations in the 1960s and extensive mapping in the by Vincent Lee, an architect and Andean explorer, exposed the site to be far bigger than Bingham thought.” there were 400 to 500 buildings at the site … but Bingham had only seen about 20,” Lee said. Which is more representative for the indigenous name of the site being Vilcabamba Grande.
Machu Picchu was for the Virgins of the Sun
Bingham suggested that Machu Picchu might have been a temple devoted to the Virgins of the Sun. These women dedicated their lives to the Inca Sun god. This theory was largely based on dozens of skeletons Bingham’s team found buried at the site. U.S. osteologist George Eaton said in the early 20th century that the remains were nearly all females. This theory was also debunked in 2000, when Verano, then at Yale, examined the remains and found that the skeletons were about half males and half females. Verano’s analysis was based on skeletal differences between the genders that were not known during Eaton’s time. Verano believes Eaton may have been misled by the relatively diminutive size of the Andean people, who are typically shorter and less robust than the European and African skeletons with which Eaton would have been more familiar.”He probably saw the small bones and assumed they must be female,” he said. Archaeologists now generally agree that the skeletons at Machu Picchu were not those of Inca priestesses, but rather helpers who were brought in from all over the Inca Empire to serve at the site.”If you thought of Machu Picchu as a royal hotel or a time-share condo for the Inca emperor and his guests, then these were the staff who cooked the food, grew the crops, and cleaned the place,” Verano said.
Machu Picchu Was a Royal Retreat
Most historians agree with Verano’s interpretation of the Machu Picchu skeletons as a group of individuals who worked on a royal retreat under the 15th Century Inca Emperor Pachacuti. According to this idea, Machu Picchu was a place for Pachacuti and his royal court, or panaca, to relax, hunt, and entertain guests. The royal estate theory was first proposed in the 1980s, and is largely based on a 16th-century Spanish document that referred to a royal estate called Picchu, which was built in the same general area as Machu Picchu.
Although Bingham was the first person to bring word of the ruins to the outside world, previous outsiders were said to have seen them. Simone Waisbard, a long-time researcher of Cusco, claims that Enrique Palma, Gabino Sánchez, and Agustín Lizárraga left their names engraved on one of the rocks at Machu Picchu on 14 July 1901. In 1904, an engineer named Franklin supposedly spotted the ruins from a distant mountain. He told Thomas Payne, an English Christian missionary living in the region, about the site, Payne’s family members claim. They also report that in 1906, Payne and fellow missionary Stuart E. McNairn (1867–1956) climbed up to the ruins.
The site may have been discovered and plundered in 1867 by a German businessman, Augusto Berns. There is some evidence that a German engineer, J. M. von Hassel, arrived earlier. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874.
Machu Picchu lies in the southern hemisphere, 13.164 degrees south of the equator. It is 80 kilometres (50 miles) northwest of Cusco, on the crest of the mountain Machu Picchu, located about 2,430 metres (7,970 feet) above mean sea level, over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) lower than Cusco, which has an altitude of 3,600 metres (11,800 ft). As such, it had a milder climate than the Inca capital. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Latin America and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru.
The year at Machu Picchu is divided between wet and dry seasons, with the majority of annual rain falling from October through to April. It can rain at any time of the year.
Machu Picchu is situated above a loop of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, with cliffs dropping vertically for 450 metres (1,480 ft) to the river at their base. The area is subject to morning mists rising from the river. The location of the city was a military secret, and its deep precipices and steep mountains provided excellent natural defenses. The Inca Bridge, an Inca rope bridge, across the Urubamba River in the Pongo de Mainique, provided a secret entrance for the Inca army. Another Inca bridge was built to the west of Machu Picchu, the tree-trunk bridge, at a location where a gap occurs in the cliff that measures 6 metres (20 ft). It could be bridged by two tree trunks, but with the trees removed, there was a 570 metres (1,870 ft) fall to the base of the cliffs.
The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides. Two high-altitude routes from Machu Picchu go across the mountains back to Cusco, one through the sun gate, and the other across the Inca bridge. Both could be blocked easily, should invaders approach along them. Regardless of its original purpose, it is strategically located and readily defended.
The site is roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector, as well as the upper town and the lower town. The temples are part of the upper town, the warehouses the lower.
The architecture is adapted to the natural form of the mountains. Approximately 200 buildings are arranged on wide parallel terraces around a vast central square that is oriented east-west. The various kanchas or compounds are long and narrow in order to exploit the terrain. Extensive terraces were used for agriculture and sophisticated channeling systems provided irrigation for the fields. Numerous stone stairways set in the walls allowed access to the different levels across the site. The eastern section of the city was probably residential. The western, separated by the square, was for religious and ceremonial purposes. This section contains the Torreón, the massive tower which may have been used as an observatory.
Located in the first zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, their sun god and greatest deity.
The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower-class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simple houses.
The royalty area, a sector for the nobility, is a group of houses located in rows over a slope; the residence of the Amautas (wise persons) was characterized by its reddish walls, and the zone of the Ñustas (princesses) had trapezoid-shaped rooms. The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.
The Guardhouse is a three-sided building, with one of its long sides opening onto the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock. The three-sided style of Inca architecture is known as the wayrona style.
The Intihuatana stone is one of many ritual stones in South America. These stones are arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. The name of the stone (coined perhaps by Bingham) is derived from the Quechua language: inti means “sun”, and wata- is the verb root “to tie, hitch (up)” (huata- is simply a Spanish spelling). The Quechua -na suffix derives nouns for tools or places. Hence inti watana is literally an instrument or place to “tie up the sun”, often expressed in English as “The Hitching Post of the Sun”. The Inca believed the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky. The stone is situated at 13°9’48” S. At midday on 11 November and 30 January the sun stands almost above the pillar, casting no shadow at all. On 21 June the stone is casting the longest shadow on its southern side and on 21 December a much shorter one on its northern side. Researchers believe that it was built as an astronomic clock or calendar.
Intimachay and the Royal Feast of the Sun
Intimachay is a special cave designed to celebrate and observe the Royal Feast of the Sun. This festival was only to be celebrated by nobility in the Incan month of Capac Raymi and was associated with the December solstice. The festival would begin earlier in the month and would conclude on the solstice. On this day, boys of nobility would be initiated into manhood by conducting an ear-piercing ritual as they watched the sun rise from within the cave.
Architecturally, Intimachay is the most significant structure located at Machu Picchu. Its entrances, walls, steps and windows are all comprised with some of the finest masonry found in Incan Empire. The cave also includes a unique tunnel-like window which cannot be found in any other Incan structure. This window was strategically constructed to only allow sunlight into the cave for a span of several days around the time of the December solstice. For this reason, the cave was inaccessible for much of the year. Intimachay is located on the eastern side of Machu Picchu, just north of the “Condor Stone.” Many of the caves surrounding this area were prehistorically used as tombs, yet there is no evidence to suggest that it too was a burial ground.
The central buildings of Machu Picchu use the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were masters of this technique, called ashlar, in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many junctions in the central city are so perfect that it is said not even a blade of grass fits between the stones.
The section of the mountain which Machu Picchu was built on provided several beneficial and detrimental factors. The most apparent detriment was that Machu Picchu was built between two fault lines. This location also frequently received heavy rainfall; this meant that land and mud slides in the area were also common. The Inca needed a solution to these detriments, and Machu Picchu would offer everything they needed.
The seismic activity which is caused by being between two fault lines led the use of mortar and other such building materials to be nearly useless. However, the Inca developed a successful method which allowed the construction of Machu Picchu to be possible. The site offered a natural quarry which was used to construct the over 200 buildings which would sit on the mountaintop. The stones harvested from this quarry were lined up, and shaped to perfectly fit together in a manner which would supply a more sturdy method than mortar would have. However, the Inca would also use the chips which they carved off of the stones in their construction and as a method to avoid mud and landslides, as well as flooding.
These stone chips were used in the terraces and in the large courtyard in the center of Machu Picchu. The terraces were used chiefly to drain and syphon the water from rain, as well as to hold the mountain in place. Each terrace was multi layered: first top soil, then dirt, sand and finally stone chips. This meant that water which sat on the terraces would sift downward into the mountain, as opposed to overflowing and running down the mountain.
The large center area of Machu Picchu also had a system similar to this in place which, again, assisted the main inhabited portion of Machu Picchu from flooding.
Inca walls had numerous design details that helped protect them against collapsing in an earthquake. Doors and windows are trapezoidal and tilt inward from bottom to top; corners usually are rounded; inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms; and “L”-shaped blocks often were used to tie outside corners of the structure together. These walls do not rise straight from bottom to top, but are offset slightly from row to row.
The Incas never used the wheel in any practical manner. Its use in toys demonstrates that the principle was well-known to them, although it was not applied in their engineering. The lack of strong draft animals, as well as steep terrain and dense vegetation issues, may have rendered the wheel impractical. How they moved and placed the enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes. A few of the stones still have knobs on them that could have been used to lever them into position; it is believed that after the stones were placed, the Incas would have sanded the knobs away, but a few were overlooked.
Roads and Transportation
As part of their road system, the Incas built a road to the Machu Picchu region. Today, thousands of tourists walk the Inca Trail to visit Machu Picchu each year. They congregate at Cusco before starting on the two-, four- or five-day journey on foot from Kilometer 82 or Kilometer 104 (two-day trip) near the town of Ollantaytambo in the Urubamba valley, walking up through the Andes mountain range to the isolated city.
The people of Machu Picchu were connected to long-distance trade, as shown by non-local artifacts found at the site. As an example, Bingham found unmodified obsidian nodules at the entrance gateway. In the 1970s, Burger and Asaro determined that these obsidian samples were from the Titicaca or Chivay obsidian source, and that the samples from Machu Picchu showed long-distance transport of this obsidian type in pre-Hispanic Peru.
3D laser scanning of site
In 2005 and 2009, the University of Arkansas made detailed laser scans of the entire Machu Picchu site and of the ruins at the top of the adjacent Huayna Picchu mountain. The university has made the scan data available online for research purposes.
The ‘Santa Teresa II’ hydropower project proposes diverting 105 cubic metres (3,700 cubic feet) of water from the Vilcanota river through a 14 km (9 mi) tunnel that will run underneath organic coffee and fruit plantations. This process will drain the plantations above the tunnel and disrupt the warm water flows to the famous thermal baths in Cocalmayo as the tunnel runs through the two folds that feeds the waters to the thermal baths.
Concerns over tourism
Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since its discovery in 1911, a growing number of tourists visit Machu Picchu, reaching 400,000 in 2000. As Peru’s most visited tourist attraction and major revenue generator, it is continually threatened by economic and commercial forces. In the late 1990s, the Peruvian government granted concessions to allow the construction of a cable car and development of a luxury hotel, including a tourist complex with boutiques and restaurants. Many people protested against the plans, including members of the Peruvian public, international scientists, and academics, as they were worried that the greater numbers of visitors would pose a tremendous physical burden on the ruins. Many protested a plan to build a bridge to the site as well. A no-fly zone exists above the area. UNESCO is considering putting Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
During the 1980s a large rock from Machu Picchu’s central plaza was moved out of its alignment to a different location to create a helicopter landing zone. Since the 1990s, the government has forbidden helicopter landings there. In 2006 a Cusco-based company, Helicusco, sought to have tourist flights over Machu Picchu and initially received a license to do so, but the government quickly overturned the decision.
In recent years, Machu Picchu has experienced a multitude of issues with tourist safety. There have been several accounts of tourist deaths linked to altitude sickness, floods and hiking accidents. It has also been noted that UNESCO has received harsh criticism for allowing tourists to go to the location even though there are high risks of landslides, earthquakes and injury due to decaying structures.
US Embassy Issued Warning
In 2013, the US Embassy in Peru issued a warning to American tourists regarding potential kidnapping threats in the Cuzco region. This warning was widely objected by Peruvian officials as many claimed to have no information of such a threat. Luis Florez, the mayor of Cuzco, demanded the warning be retracted as he told reporters, “Tourism is an incredibly sensitive topic and they [US Embassy] would be damaging a big source of earnings at the national level.” US Ambassador Rose M. Likins refused to comply as she stated that the threat was relayed to the US government by a “reliable source.” US law enforcement and the Pentagon have since aided Peru in the pursuit of the terrorist organization responsible for the warning.
January 2010 Evacuation
In January 2010, heavy rain caused flooding which buried or washed away roads and railways leading to Machu Picchu, trapping more than 2,000 local people and more than 2,000 tourists, who were taken out by airlift. Machu Picchu was closed temporarily, but it reopened on 1 April 2010.
In July 2011, the Dirección Regional de Cultura Cusco (DRC) introduced new entrance rules to the citadel of Machu Picchu. The tougher entrance rules were a measure to reduce the impact of tourism on the site. Entrance was limited to 2,500 visitors per day, and entrance to Huayna Picchu (within the citadel) was further restricted to 400 visitors per day, in two allocated time slots at 7am and 10am.
In May 2012 a team of UNESCO conservation experts called on Peruvian authorities to take “emergency measures” to further stabilize the site’s buffer zone and protect it from damage due to tourism-related development, particularly in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, which has grown rapidly.