Machu Picchu’s Mysterious History

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Explore Mysterious Machu Picchu

Located four hours by train from Cuzco and one heck of a harrowing mountain bus ride, Machu Picchu is one of the most impressive archaeological ruins on any continent. It is also one of the most mysterious. With no written language, the Incas left us very few clues to understand their history and why they built Machu Picchu. In this void, a few quack theories have snuck in (i.e. it was built by aliens, it was El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold, it was home to mysterious Virgins of the Sun, etc.) to capture popular imagination. More recent scholarship has tossed all theories aside to reveal—wait for it—the whole site might have just been the emperor’s summer house! No matter what you believe, there are plenty of unanswered questions about Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu: The Unanswered Questions

Perched precariously on a narrow ridge some 8,000 feet above sea level with no defensive walls, Machu Picchu’s existence raises countless questions to be answered. Why did the Incas choose this incredibly difficult to place to build in the first place? With no wheels, no iron tools  nor written language, how were these temples, homes and royal buildings constructed? It’s all the more impressive when you consider that some of the granite buildings’ stones weigh 50 tons, and the rock is one of the most difficult to cut and work with.

What We Know About the Incas

The Incan empire, beginning around 1438, was only a flash in the proverbial historical pan, lasting for just over 100 years. The reasons of downfall were numerous: The Spanish conquests (beginning in 1532), a raging Inca civil war and a smallpox epidemic hurried the end of the great empire. By 1572, the Inca empire was completely gone. Fast-forward more than 300 years to 1911, when American explorer Hiram Bingham found the lost site of Machu Picchu, incorrectly thinking he had found Vilcabamba, the last holdout of Incas, which was destroyed by the Spanish in 1572. Sensationally, Bingham also claimed to find remains of “Virgins of the Sun” (special Incan women that served religious purposes and occasionally as concubines to high-placed Incas). Bingham’s findings launched Machu Picchu as one of the most popular, and most mysterious, locations in the world.

The Incas were great builders, building 10,000 miles of road and making land able to be cultivated by terracing steep, unforgiving hillsides. Between their roads and terracing, they possessed excellent engineering skills. Machu Picchu gets 76 inches of rain per year, nearly twice as much as Chicago, and the city was elaborately planned to be able to handle all of this water. A great deal of construction effort was made below ground to build drainage systems and foundations that would allow the city to survive forever. The terraces were built not only to provide a small amount of cultivable farmland, but to properly drain water off the mountain to prevent erosion from destroying the site.

Archaeological evidence is the primary source of information about Machu Picchu. It seems likely that it was of supreme religious importance – tying Inca political power to important religious symbols like the sun, mountains and rivers. Child sacrifices most certainly happened on the site, similarly to other mountaintop Inca sites from the area. Sacrificed to the mountains and other gods, these children served an important purpose in Incan culture to help appease the gods. In the end, the Incas believed that these children would possess a better world.

Was it really just the Emperor’s summer house?

More recent scholarship might conclude that Machu Picchu was more of a royal retreat; a place where the Inca king—a god to the Incan people—would go to symbolically exert his religious and political power. When the Incan empire collapsed, the emperor stopped coming and the site fell into disuse and was forgotten.

Seeing is believing, and this is certainly a place that needs to be seen to be believed. As the site is researched and more findings made public, we can all await the day when we know even more about Machu Picchu. Some of the mystery may fade away, but the beauty and the awe-inspiring achievements of the Inca certainly will last forever.

How to Get to Machu Picchu:

EF College Break designs trips for anyone 18 to 28 years old, including a 10-day Peru & Machu Picchu Adventure that includes a visit to several sites of great importance to Incan civilization.