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The Enigmatic Mountain of Machu Picchu - Peru




Machu Picchu is an architectural jewel. The beauty and mystery of its walled ruins, once palaces of the finest Inca stonework, are augmented even more by the lush, almost virginal landscape of the surroundings. Green jungle flora suffuses the abrupt topography. Orquids add a strange brilliance.

The ruins blend harmoniously the narrow and uneven topography. One thousand, three hundred feet below, snakes the Urubamba Canyon and its roaring river.

Machu Picchu sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, on top of a ridge between two peaks of different size. The smaller peak, called the “Huayna Picchu”, is the one most often seen in photographs of the ruins.

With the passing of the centuries, the ruins’ original name has been forgotten. The name “Machu Picchu”, comes simply from its geography. It literally means “old peak”, just as “Huayna Picchu” is “young peak”. The more accurate translation relates, however, to the concept of size, with Machu Picchu as the “bigger peak” and Huayna Picchu, the “smaller peak”.

With its discovery in 1911, Machu Picchu made its debut as an authentic archeological enigma. Its purpose continues to intrige, with mysteries that perhap will never fully be unrevealed.

The Discovery

It was Hiram Bingham who, in charge of the Yale University expedition, discovered Machu Picchu. The date was July 24, 1911. Bingham’s goal had been something else: to locate the legendary Vilcabamba. This was the capital of the governing Incas’ descendants. They resisted the Spanish invaders and held Vilcabamba as a bulwark between 1536 and 1572.

But on penetrating the Urubamba Canyon, in the desolate site of Mandrobamba, Bingham’s expedition learnd from a peasant name Melchor Arteaga that the hill Machu Picchu, at the top, held important ruins. To reach them meant ascending a steep slope covered with dense vegetation. Even though skeptical -the expedition was familiar with the many myths about “lost cities”- Bindham insisted on being guided to the spot. Once there, a child from one of the two families that lived there, led him to imposing archeological structures covered by tropical vegetation and abandoned centuries ago.

As an astonished Bingham noted in his diary: “Would anyone beleive what I have found….”.

It is true that the learned traveler Charles Wiener had already received news in 1875 of the Machu Picchu ruins and even went fruitessly in search of them. It’s also true that in Cusco rumors spread about a “los city” a top of a hill in Machu Picchu, and that a neighboring peasant farmer, named Agustin Lizarraga, with others, ended up crossing over it at the beginning of the century.

It is also an indisputable fact, however, that Bingham was the first person to visit Machu Picchu prompted by scientific interest. And no one can argue the fact that, in the end, it was Bingham who made Peru’s most precious archeological monument world famous.

After his important scientific find , Bingham returned to the spot in 1912, 1914 and 1915, accompanied by various scientists, in order to draw up maps and explore in detail the site and its surroundings.

His rather unorthodox excavations of various spots in Machu Picchu allow him to gather 555 vessels, nearly 200 objects of bronze, copper and silver, as well as objects of stone and other materials. The group of ceramics show graceful forms of the Inca art. The same must be said of the metal objects found: the bracelets, decorative pins, earrings, knives and axes. Even though he turned up no gold pieces, his findings were sufficient to prove that Machu Picchu dated back to the times of Inca grandeur, a fact of the architetural style had already indicated.

Of the 135 skeletons remains found, 109 were those of femals and only 22 were of males, including four children. The large number of females remains led to the conjecture that the last inhabitants of Machu Picchu were “Aclla” women, selected to carry out rituals.

Yale University’s museum holds the archeological material excavated in Machu Picchu but not that obtained in 1914-15, which was delivered to the Peruvian goverment and is under the control of the National Museum in Lima.

Bingham also recognized other important arqueological groups in surrounding areas. These sites include Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, the fortress of Vicos and the sections of the Inca trails.

Hiram Bingham (1875-1956).- Explorer, was born in Honolulu and educated at Yale, California and Harvard. After teaching briefly at Harward and Princeton, he returned to Yale, where most of his academic years were spent as Professor of Latin American History and as Director of Yale’s Peruvian expeditions. His absorption in expleoration was matched by a lifelong interest in Republican politics. He was successively lieutenant governor and governor of Connecticut and U.S. senator. His books include Across South America, Along the Uncharted Pampaconas, Elihu Yale and Inca Land.


Machu Picchu is composed of two large zones that, in view of their functions, pffer distint architectural styles. One is the Agrarian Sector and the other, the Urban Sector.

Terraces for cultivations characterize the agrarian architecture. These terraces form steps, some deep and others shallow, cut into the hill’s slopes. In addition, there are very small terraces that may have had no agricultural function and others that are simply platforms on which constructions are built.

The large agricultural terraces jut out as far as 13 feet. Inlaid stones form the stairs that lead from one level to another.

Central Machu Picchu extends in lenght for 2,600 feet, as the crow flies. The Agricultural Sector takes up half that area.

The Urban Sector forms an elongated plaza and two great units.The architectural units flanks out to the east and west, with their streets; stairways that total 3,000 steps; a sophisticated system of canals providing water; entrance ways; and large and small structures.

The buildings are basicly rectangular rooms of one story. Elevated enclosures with just three walls are common. This architectural design was named Huayrana or Masma. The Portals and windows are trapezoids’ in the typical Inca style. Built in the same style are niches in which idols or other objects were deposited. Roofs were one or two-side and made of straw-covered trunks. Strategically placed stones spikes fastened the roof to the structure.

The ancient builders ussed abrasion techniques, probably with sand, to polish the stone blocks. Most of the stone was granite, extracted from local quarries using techniques common to the Inca architecs. The level of expertise acheived was uneven. Not only does the quality of one building differ from another, even the same wall reveals differences in both techniques and aesthetics. Evidence also exists that workers plastered coats of mud on the walls. The skill in cutting, polishing and placement of the stones blocks gives beauty to the buildings. The best example of this achievement shows up in the central wall of the Principal Temple. Here, one can appreciate how the blocks also fit together so well sideways, adapting themselves in concave and convex planes like a complex puzzle.

The quality of Machu Picchu’s walls and fortress ramparts surpasses the imagination, prompting some people to invent mythical explanation for such achievements.

For example, it is said that the secrets of Machu Picchu’s artifices remain veiled because the bird Kak’aqllu learned of them, but his tongue was extracted so he couldn´t divulge them afterwards. Some also assert that the degree of perfection could be attained only with the use of a magic plant whose leaves supposedly had the ability to dissove rock, permitting the Incas to mold the blocks as they wished. The scultured forms were carved with a preference for rocky crags and caverns. The shapes are formed in geometric designs and are perfectly cut and polished. In some cases, the sculpture become architectural works, as in the case of the Royal Tomb. Generally thought of as a city, Machu Picchu is surrounded by precipices and ramparts that make access difficult and convert the area into a “fortified city”. Different experts explain the planning in various manners. Manuel Chávez Ballón, considers this design similar to that of Cusco. To Fernando Cabiesses, Machu Picchu represents the Inca conception of upper and lower “barrios” or districts and of altars specifically dedicated to the three worlds: Hanan (upper), Hurin (lower) and Cay (here). For this part, Victor Angeles notes that Machu Picchu’s overall designs seems to evoke , of a bird with extended wings. Federico Kaufmann Doig says that if this image exists and was intentionally created, that would make Machu Picchu a sample of “zoomorphic architecture”, which he believes emerged in the Andes before the Chavin epoch.

What was Machu Picchu

Mystery surrounds Machu Picchu’s precise function because the Incas didn’t reveal its existence during the Spanish conquest. Various hypotheses, however, many stemming from Bingham himself- attempt to explain these mysteries.

Bingham judged as important the presence of a magnificent building with three broad windows. He believed that these alluded to Tamputoco, the mythic cradle or birthplace of the elite Inca. Also, believed that Machu Picchu was the Inca refuge called Vilcabamba “the old” or Vilcabamba “the great”. There , the defeated chief Manco Inca and his court fled after the seige of Cusco in 1536, the failed Indian revolt against their Spanish conquerors.

Luis E. Valcarcel developed anotherv theory. He believes Machu Picchu could be Vitcos, the legendary fortress occupied by the Incas during the resistence against the Spanish crown. Valcarcel based this theory on tye similiarity between the words “Picchu” and “Vitcos”.

The strategic position of Machu Picchu has generated another, specially popular, hypothesis. This theory says the “fortress” served as an outpost, serving the Inca’s pretentions to dominate the region of the Amazonia, near Cusco. Concerning this theory, it helps to be aware of the scenes that show confrontations between Inca soldiers and simple combatants called “chunchos”, the jungle natives. These scenes are depicted on lacquered wooden cups made by the Incas.

Bingham also based his theories on the many remains of women discovered. He believed that the last occupants were “Acllas”, or Women of the Sun, the keepers of the temple rituals and those who fled from Cusco upon the arrival of the Spaniards. For the evidence to be convincing, it would still be necessary to find a greater number of remains.

One thing is certain, however. The architectural style, pottery and metal objects prove that the ruins flourished during the classical Inca period (1438 to 1532) which ended the tradition of Andean cultures stretching over 3,000 years.

One can also conclude that Machu Picchu was an important center of worship and ceremonies. The evidence for this includes the mountain city’s enigmatic altars, its magical fountains and, certainly, its hidden and almost inaccesible character.

Its very nature as a highly sacred spot probably dictated the secrecy which surrounded its existence.

The Spanish conquest also appears to have had a role in preserving the mystery. The political and religious changes the invaders introduce most likely resulted in the extinction of the ancient Inca state and the desertion of Machu Picchu.

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