The Ruins of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu. Source: (Wikipedia.org)
Named in 2007 as one of the new seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is located in the mountains northwest of Cusco, Peru. While many have made the trek to visit the ruins since its discovery more than a century ago, the original purpose of the abandoned Incan citadel remains a mystery to this day.
Machu Picchu was discovered on July 24, 1911, by a Yale University lecturer and explorer named Hiram Bingham who had traveled to South America to investigate rumors of ancient Inca ruins in Peru. He was hoping to find Vilcabamba, also known as the Lost City of the Inca, which was the last stronghold to be defeated by the Spanish conquistadors. He was directed to the ruins at the top of a nearby mountain by a local farmer, who referred to the mountain as Machu Picchu, which means “old peak.”
Guided to the top of the mountain by an eleven-year-old boy, Bingham discovered a towering citadel of stone five miles wide with more than 3,000 steps connecting its many levels. Made up of palaces and temples as well as houses, it was likely used for religious ceremonies of some sort. One section, which appears separated from the rest by walls and ditches, is thought to have been used for ceremonial isolation. While Bingham is credited with discovering the ruins, there is evidence that the site was visited by missionaries and other explorers during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Bingham was convinced he had discovered Vilcabamba and would continue to argue as much for the next fifty years. However, in 1964, another explorer by the name of Gene Savoy proved that the ruins of Espiritu Pampa, which lay to the west of Machu Picchu, were actually Vilcabamba. Ironically, Bingham had come across these ruins on his way to Machu Picchu but had dismissed them after only managing to uncover a few stone walls.
Having ruled out the possibility of Machu Picchu being the ruins of Vilcabamba, historians were left with the questions of what it was, how it was used, and what happened to it. It is estimated to have been built at the height of the Inca Empire and was abandoned during the 16th century around the time of the Spanish conquest. However, there is no mention of Machu Picchu in the chronicles of the invasion so it is likely that the Spanish invaders were unaware of its existence. Because there is no evidence that the Spanish conquered Machu Picchu, many believe the area was instead abandoned due to an epidemic of smallpox.
Bingham suggested that it might have been something like a convent where women were trained to serve the Inca leader. This was based on his estimation that seventy-five percent of the skeletons recovered were female; however, recent studies lower that percentage to fifty. Modern researchers suggest the area had been a royal retreat or a religious site. There is also evidence indicating that the Inca were not the only residents of Machu Picchu.
While there is no definitive answer as to the original purpose of Machu Picchu, today it is Peru’s most visited tourist attraction. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the ruins each year. In 2011, the UNSAAC-Yale International Museum for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture opened in Cusco. Many of the artifacts removed from the site by Bingham are on display there.