¿Cuál era Machu Picchu de Todos modos?

In my last post I promised to ponder the mysteries of Machu Picchu.  Why build it?  Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472).

Our guide at Machu Picchu, Victor the Peruvian Archaeologist, disagreed with this theory.   When some of the guards at the site heard Victor tell us his theory about Machu Picchu they got a bit miffed.  In fact, they spent the rest of the afternoon following us around the site, stopping him and giving him a hard time – asking for his credentials many times throughout the day and taking pictures of him.  Clearly they did not like what he had to say.  It led me to do a little digging about just what Machu Picchu was.  So here is what I have found – there are 5 predominant theories about Machu Picchu.

The 5 theories:

Machu Picchu was the First/Last Inca City

Hiram Bingham, a history professor from Yale University, discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 while exploring the Peruvian Andes.  Bingham had 2 theories about the site.  First, that it was the first Inca city, the birthplace of Inca civilization.   He later modified that theory and thought that the site was the lost city of Vilcabamba la Vieja, where the last independent Inca rules stood against the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.   

Archaeological research has now shown that Vilcabamba la Vieja was located in Espíritu Pampa, a jungle site located 130 km (80 mi) west of Cusco.

Machu Picchu Was a Holy Nunnery

Bingham also suggested that Machu Picchu could have been a temple of the Incan sun god, Inti, where Virgins of the Sun lived.  Virgins of the Sun were a holy order of chosen women who dedicated themselves to Inti.  Bingham had based this theory on skeletal remains found at the site.  Early 20th century osteologist, George Eaton, identified almost all of the remains as females. 

This theory was refuted in 2000, when anthropologist John Verano examined the bones and identified half of them as male.  The new interpretation was based on skeletal markers between genders that were not known during Eaton’s time.  Veran also suggested that the smaller stature of Andean people may have contributed to the inaccurate gender coding. 

Currently, archaeologists interpret the remains to represent domestic workers who were brought to the site – the people who cooked, cleaned, grew the crops, etc.

Machu Picchu Was a Royal Retreat

This theory is the most popular of the five proposed.  It is the theory most archaeologists adhere to.  This is also the interpretation of the site given by the tour guides when tourists visit Machu Picchu.  This theory argues that was the royal retreat of the 15th-century Inca Emperor Pachacuti.  The site would have been a place for the ruler to hold court, relax, and entertain guests.   The “royal estate” theory, first proposed in the 1980s, is largely based on a 16th-century Spanish document that referred to a royal estate called Picchu, which was built in the same general area as Machu Picchu. 

As I stated at the beginning of this post, our guide Victor, disagreed.  Victor believes that MP is even older.  His argument:

  • Machu Picchu has architectural styles that represent several of the prehistoric cultures from the region.
  • The Spanish were not told about it by the Inca who gave them information on every other area held by the empire, to its very edges.
  • Finally, he believes that the Inca had lost knowledge of the site and that is why the Spanish never found it.

Machu Picchu Was a Re-creation of the Inca Creation Myth

Some scholars have speculated that the Inca built Machu Picchu for spiritual reasons.  An Italian astrophysicist, Giulio Magli, argued that the site was a” scaled-down version of a mythic landscape from the Inca religion,” in other words, a pilgrimage site.  He argued that worshipers symbolically recreated the origin myth where their ancestors traveled from Lake Titicaca to the Cusco region.

Machu Picchu Was Built to Honor a Sacred Landscape

Archeologists Johan Reinhard argued that Machu Picchu occupied a special place in the “sacred landscape” of the Inca.  Machu Picchu is built atop a mountain that is almost completely encircled by the Urubamba River, which the Inca named the Vilcamayo, or Sacred River.  The rising and setting of the sun, when viewed from specific locations within Machu Picchu, aligns neatly with religiously significant mountains during the solstices and equinoxes.

The Inca worshiped the Sun in the form of Inti and believed that the sun was their divine ancestor.  The Inca, like many cultures throughout the Latin American region in Prehistory, sacralized the landscape.  Remember the 3 levels of the universe, the heavens, earth, and the underworld.  Machu Picchu was, and still is, a place where the Earth literally touches the sky. 

Which is the Truth?

The truth is we will never know for sure.  Many of these theories are not mutually exclusive.  Many cultures, both modern and in prehistory, do not distinguish between church and state the way we do.  In Pre-Hispanic American cultures the ruler was sacred.  Rulers were conduits to the gods, the intermediary between the people and the heavens, and often rulers were viewed as gods.  Rulers lived in central places that functioned as both sacred ceremonial centers and administrative centers for the everyday business of running the empire.   We can clearly see evidence of  recreation of the landscape in areas of the site and evidence of ceremonial usage based on astronomical observances. 

Did Pachacuti live there?  Probably.  Was he the only one?  Probably not.  Victor’s argument made sense to me.  I did see the differences in architectural styles intermingling at the site.  And it sure would have been a lot of work to construct for just a summer palace of one ruler. And why didn’t the Spanish conquistadors find it?  What is Machu Picchu? A real life archaeological mystery, lost in time….


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Chair of Social Science, Humanities,
& Foreign Languages

Liberal Arts & University Transfer
Craven Community College

800 College Court
New Bern, NC 28562
Email: bellaceroc@cravencc.edu
Phone: 252.638.7328
Fax: 252.638.3231

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