In 1911, an amateur archaeologist and explorer named Hiram Bingham embarked upon a Peruvian adventure that would lead him to a place which evokes a mystical awe to this very day. What Bingham saw nestled high in the mist-shrouded Andes were the remains of Machu Picchu, the great sanctuary of the Inca civilization. Bingham’s discovery on that day still inspire us and resonate with mysteries that await solving. Historic Mysteries offers these 11 fascinating Machu Picchu facts as an introduction to the greater wonder of this magical place.
One can only imagine what Bingham must have felt on that July morning as he stood in the very shadows of time. Did his arms prickle with the residual energy which many claim infuses these ruins? Could he hear within his subconscious the chants and cries of a forgotten people. Did he envision their heads and voices raised in honor of a forgotten god? Was Bingham aware that the soles of his feet were standing on what the rulers of the Inca considered holy ground?
Here are 11 Machu Picchu Facts:
Purpose: Safe Retreat
Ancient civilizations like the one fostered by the Incas depended upon practicality for their survival. Thus, the Incas chose to construct their sanctuary at an elevation of 7,972 feet at the end of the famous Inca trail. Such height provided a defensible fortress in addition to views of the Urubamba River valley below.
Some have proposed a theory that the sprawling complex which covers more than five miles in total area was the last Inca city. However, this speculation has largely been disproved by subsequent archaeological discoveries. History does reveal, though, that the Inca were facing an ever-present threat from Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Therefore, it is logical that they would have chosen to use the location in the interest of protecting their royalty. In fact, most scholars today agree that the site was a royal retreat.
Meaning of the Sanctuary’s Name
The name Machu Picchu comes from the local Quechua language and can be translated as “Old Mountain.” The name is fitting because it conveys the reverence for nature that the Inca embraced. It is likely that the original inhabitants of this Andean citadel viewed the mountain as an elder of sorts: one that had stood in silent observance of the passing of the ages.
The Construction of Machu Picchu
There are more than 150 separate buildings within the area of the citadel. These include what archaeologists believe are a combination of sanctuaries, temples, and even bath houses. The large number of buildings and the manner in which they are laid out is indicative of planning and purpose. It is clear that the Inca devoted much time to Machu Picchu’s design. This would have been a planning process that may have taken years in its own right.
The ruins also contain some 3,000 stairs. Many of these permit access to large terraces on the mountainside which researchers believe were used for planting. It was crucial that the sanctuary be completely self-sufficient. The complex was meant to be inhabited 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The Inca were not inclined to make departures from the mountain once they were settled.
Elixir of Life
A complex system of springs, canals, and fountains existed at the ruins. To this day, archaeologists are at great pains to explain precisely how the Inca managed to build such an intricate water delivery system. According to engineer and researcher Kenneth R. Wright, the Incas used an advanced knowledge of hydraulics to route water throughout the entire site. The system revolved around the use of 16 fountains arranged in a series of vertical drops.
It has been suggested that the irrigation system of the ruins served a purpose beyond providing the Inca with life-sustaining water. Wright also suggests that the arrangement of the canals used to convey water would have created an ever-present soothing sound which may have served the religious purposes of the site.
A Work in Progress
Researchers believe that the Inca never completed the complex, which fuels questions about why they chose to leave it. The total area of the site is an amazing 32,592 hectares. Archaeologists are still discovering new sections of the city today, with new terrace structures that opened to the public in 2016. The most significant conclusion that can be made from this is that the Inca may have intended for this citadel to be the capital of their civilization.
A Temple to Man’s Oldest God
Out of all our Machu Picchu facts on this list, this one may be the most mysterious. Experts speculate that like most early civilizations, the Inca were sun worshipers. The vast array of temples and observatories located at the site are indicative of the Inca devotion to the sun god, Inti. According to mythology, Inti was the primary ancestor of the Incas. Archaeologists have determined that the temple structures and monuments also served the practical purpose of marking the solstices and equinoxes. Their alignment is far too intricate to have happened by chance.
Early man’s worship of the sun, moon, and stars surfaced largely due to the impact these heavenly bodies had on his survival. The Inca benefited from their astrological observances in terms of how the various times of the year affected planting and hunting.
The Peruvian region which houses the ruins is an unstable one that has experienced many earthquakes. This was apparently as much of a problem in the 14th century as it is today. Archaeologists have determined that the Inca designed a manner of placing stones in their sanctuary that reduced the chance of its structures toppling due to a tremor. The stones in the buildings bounce or “dance” during an earthquake in a way that causes them to fall back into place when the seismic event is over. A curious question that may never have a definitive answer is, how did the Inca fit the occurrence of an earthquake into their religious mythology? One must also ask if these quakes played a role in the Inca’s eventual departure from the citadel.
The Inca Used No Common Tools
The Inca were a people who did not use wheels, iron tools, or draft animals. Thus, the construction of Machu Picchu a mystery that no researchers have yet been able to conclusively solve. How did the Inca people manage to move stones and blocks into place? This one fact has largely boosted the Ancient Astronaut Theory which contends that the Inca had help from beyond the stars. Experts know that the ruins contain a comprehensive system of astronomical observation. Some believe that the Inca built these markers as much for navigational purposes as they were for determining the solstices.
Was Hiram Bingham a Thief?
After his initial discovery of the ruins, Bingham returned twice for the purpose of excavations that the Peruvian government authorized. In the process, Bingham left the country with countless Inca artifacts that technically belonged to Peru. He gave these to Yale university where they remained in a museum collection until 2010 when the University agreed to return the items after a lengthy legal battle.
One cannot say that Bingham stole the artifacts he provided to Yale. However, many have theorized that some precious items from Machu Picchu may have made their way into Bingham’s private collection. Often referred to as a real-life Indiana Jones, Bingham lived in an era when very few restrictions were placed on amateur archaeological endeavors.
Why Did the Incas Leave?
No list of Machu Picchu facts would be complete without asking this question. Even today, no one knows for certain. Scholars have advanced many theories throughout the years. However, one of the most interesting of these may offer an explanation that is more mundane than mystical. Some researchers believe that it was an outbreak of smallpox which decimated the Inca tribe at the ruins in the early 1500’s. Thus weakened, experts believe the Incas moved on in the face of a threat from Spanish conquistadors.
Invisibility Saved the Citadel
As the Spanish conquistadors vanquished the Inca, they destroyed many sites. Yet, somehow, this one remained mostly intact. The reason for this is that the geographical location of the city rendered it largely invisible to those passing in the river valley below. When Bingham made his discovery with the aid of locals, vegetation had rendered the sanctuary even harder to find. To this day, there are many inaccessible areas in the region which scholars believe contain more structures.
This list of Machu Picchu facts is only a small sampling of the many incredible details of this Inca citadel. As we continue to learn more about the mysteries of the Incas, this amazing place will sit majestically atop its perch, reminding us what it means to be awed by history.