The Inca Mystery of Machu Picchu
Everything about Machu Picchu is surrounded by mystery. We don’t know for sure why it was built nor why it was abandoned, and we don’t even know its original Inca name. Machu Picchu is Quechua for Old Peak, the name of the mountain across whose shoulder the last part of the Trail ruins.
The site consists of over 200 buildings, including residences, temples and utility buildings. These are connected by 109 staircases and flanked by many terraces which were mainly agricultural. Its population was probably around 1000-1200 people, and it may have been both a royal estate and a religious retreat, started in the mid-15th century under the Inca Pachacuti.
The buildings we see today are only part of the story: over 60% of the stones are underground, forming strong, earthquake-proof foundations. Machu Picchu is thus even bigger than it seems. Yet it is incomplete: there is evidence of work in progress, notably in the quarry and in the "Temple of Three Windows" where a huge stone is poised as if still in transit. The site seems to have been abandoned unfinished after some 90 years, but there are no signs of violence, fire, epidemic or drought to explain why. Many theories have been published but none has been supported by convincing evidence.
Books often refer to the dramatic discovery of the "lost city" on 24 July 1911 by Hiram Bingham. This is misleading: local farmers knew about the ruins all along. Indeed, two of them were peacefully farming terraces which they had cleared at the time of the "discovery". Bingham was an explorer whose expedition with friends from Yale University was mounted mainly to climb Mount Coropuna in the mistaken belief that it was the highest point in South America. He was also searching for Vilcabamba, the last refuge of the Incas founded by the Inca Manco who led the resistance to the Spanish after 1536. Bingham was not an archaeologist, and he describes in his memoirs how he had to consult the Royal Geographical Society’s "Hints for Travellers" for advice on what to do after discovering ruins.
On the historic day when he climbed up from his camp by the Urubamba, first with a soldier and then with an Andean boy as his guide, Bingham did not recognise the importance of his find. He spent only a few hours there, said little to his companions when he returned to their riverside camp, and did not even return next day. The scale of his discovery, which later made him very famous,did not emerge until his major expedition of 1912. His memoirs, written 35 years later, dramatise and compress these events; they also show that he still thought he had found Vilcabamba. The true Vilcabamba is at Espíritu Pampa, much deeper in the jungle, which Bingham also discovered.
Inevitably Bingham made mistakes in his interpretations, and nowadays many Peruvians are severely critical of him. Bingham’s export licence for the antiquities he took back to Yale specified their return within nine months, but deplorably they remain in the US to this day. Bingham’s book is full of admiration for Inca civilisation, and he devoted his life to studying and publicising Inca skills and techniques. Local guides might not have their Jobs today had Bingham’s team not persevered in their search and excavations. After all, Machu Picchu was so well hidden that the Spanish never found it.
The antecedents of Culture of the Inca Empire is full of mysteries to solve, is to admire the constructive work of the Incas.