ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno
The "Lost City of the Incas" is how Machu Picchu, an archaeological treasure located in the Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru, has been known for decades. The region high in the Peruvian Andes where the ancient Inca citadel is situated is home to more than 60 archaeological monuments connected by a complex network of Inca roads stretching some 300 kilometres. We analyse the construction of one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
A royal estate, a prison or a women's sanctuary?
Machu Picchu has baths, houses, temples, shrines and more than 3,000 stone steps. The leading hypotheses today are that it was a royal estate for Inca emperors and nobles, or a sacred religious site. But some historians have also suggested other possible uses: from a prison to a trading hub, a station for testing new crops or a city dedicated to the coronation of kings. In 1912, several dozen skeletons were unearthed and, as most were initially identified as women, it was suggested that Machu Picchu was a sanctuary for the Virgins of the Sun—an elite group of Inca women who lived in temple convents under a vow of chastity.
Construction of Machu Picchu occurred around 1450 AD. As Boise State University explains, hundreds of men pushed the heavy granite boulders up the steep mountain side. The technique used to erect the structures is called ashlar (or dry stone masonry) and involves cutting the stones to fit together without mortar, which protects the structures from earthquakes.
The Universities Space Research Association (USRA) explains that "even a credit card can't be inserted into these mortar-free cracks." "The stone walls move (dance) during an earthquake, resettling as they were before the event," it says. Machu Picchu's walls are built on terraces that also help dissipate the energy of earthquakes, as well as prevent erosion and landslides.
The Incas built the structures with stones that snugly fit together without mortar. Credit: National Geographic
The real name of Machu Picchu
The Inca civilisation was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century, according to the History Channel. For centuries, only peasants living in the region knew of Machu Picchu's existence. That is, until American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the wonder in 1911. A local farmer told him about ruins on a nearby mountaintop, which he called Machu Picchu. After visiting the site, Bingham wrote about his discovery in a book called Lost City of the Incas.
While these ruins have been called Machu Picchu (or "Old Mountain" in Quechua) for decades, the original name was Huayna Picchu (or "New Mountain"). This is the conclusion of research published in 2021 in Ñawpa Pacha, Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies after examining documents dating back to the 16th century. "The results uniformly suggest that the Inca city was originally called Picchu, or more likely Huayna Picchu," say the authors.
Natalia Sobrevilla Perea, a professor of Latin American History at the University of Kent, explains that the name Machu Picchu is so ingrained with the public, and such an important part of Peru's identity, that it is unlikely to be replaced. She believes that "in a sense, it doesn't make that much difference." "They’re both Indigenous names. It's not like there was a change to a Spanish name from an indigenous name," she tells The New York Times.
The citadel sits atop a mountain. Credit: Government of Peru
"The Inca civilisation's most important legacy to humanity."
Covering 37,302 hectares and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is currently one of the most biodiverse areas in Peru. According to the Peruvian government: "It harbours 24 Andean and Amazonian ecosystems, from the humid montane forests at 1,900 metres above sea level to the peaks of more than 6,000 metres." This "highly rugged" geography is home to 75 species of mammals, 444 of birds, 14 of amphibians, 24 of reptiles and 377 of butterflies, as well as 423 species of orchids and 332 types of trees.
But if there is one thing that stands out about this archaeological treasure, hidden in the jungle for centuries, it is the fact that it is so well preserved and is a symbol of Inca culture and Peru's cultural heritage. In fact, it is the most visited attraction in the country. Millions of tourists come every year to catch a glimpse of what the Peruvian government calls "the most important legacy of the Inca civilisation to humanity."
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