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Machu Picchu Guide - History



In the relatively short space of a hundred years, the Incas went from a little-known highland tribe to the greatest empire ever seen in the Americas. They came to prominence late, in the 15th century, but through diplomacy and warfare succeeded in dominating a territory of some 10 million Quechua speakers, rivalling the Romans in terms of scale and organisation. Known as the Land of the Four Quarters, or Tahuantinsuyu, the Inca empire extended more than 3000 miles from north to south, from Ecuador down to modern-day Bolivia and Chile. At its heart sat Cusco, el ombligo del mundo - the navel of the world.
The formidable Inca ruler Pachacuteq, the “Alexander the Great” of the Andes, was a major driving force behind the expansion which began in around 1438 after his victory against the invading Chanca tribe. For strategic reasons, the region around Cusco was the first to be inhabited and it’s possible that Machu Picchu was conceived as a ceremonial and administrative centre.
Built and populated by Pachacuteq’s royal lineage, or panaca, it’s also possible that the complex was designed to be a winter palace, a retreat from the harsh Cusco winters. The architecture dates from the late imperial Inca period and there are no traces of either pre-Inca settlements or post-Conquest occupation. Much of Machu Picchu’s history remains a riddle but it’s highly likely that the whole site was built and then abandoned in less than 100 years.
It’s estimated that there would have been a permanent population of around a thousand people living among 200 dwellings. Terraces were cultivated to grow maize, probably to brew chicha to use for ceremonial purposes, as well as other crops which have since died out. For many archaeologists, Machu Picchu was the headquarters of a region whose chief function was to provide a supply of coca leaves for priests and the royal family to chew to counteract altitude, sickness and hunger. For others, it was an impregnable watchtower that guarded a number of Inca roads in the area. One thing seems certain however: that the exceptional quality of the stonework makes it a place of great religious significance, a place to venerate the sun and other deities such as Pachamama or mother earth.

Francisco Pizarro and Atahuallpa, the last Inca emperor, in 1532, drawing by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, c. 1600.

In 1532, Francisco Pizarro landed on the north coast of Peru, along with 260 fellow Spaniards. They headed inland to meet the Inca ruler Atahualpa whom they subsequently tricked and took hostage. A vast ransom of gold and silver was collected to be melted down and sent to Spain. Atahualpa was murdered regardless. Spain maintained an uneasy truce with his half-brother Manco for two years before thousands of Europeans arrived to join in the lucrative gold rush and the vandalisation and looting of temples and palaces intensified. In 1536, after a failed attempt to recapture Cusco, Manco fled to the jungle. The Spanish proceeded to destroy anything linked to what they considered idolatrous practice – sacred images, tombs, mummies…  

Common consensus has it that Machu Picchu was abandoned in an orderly fashion, maybe even before the Spanish arrived. This would explain why Hiram Bingham didn’t find any precious artefacts there. The Incas had undergone a dreadful civil war of their own just prior to the Spanish invasion which could have spurred Machu Picchu’s inhabitants on to move elsewhere. Or it could have been the case that the expensive running costs of such a centre were becoming a drain on Cusco’s resources at a time of war.

As well as a lust to conquer, the Spanish brought with them European illnesses like smallpox and measles, previously unknown in the Americas. The result was catastrophic. The Incas had no immunity and by the end of the 16th century, disease had reduced their numbers from ten million to less than a million. One theory is that infection may have reached Machu Picchu, thereby decimating its population.

Whatever happened, once abandoned, this great wonder of the world lay forgotten for nearly four centuries. Why the Spanish – who had no qualms in pillaging other Inca sites - never paid Machu Picchu any attention is a conundrum that continues to tease historians to this day. The Incas picked their location well.
The inspiration for Indiana Jones, Hiram Bingham was an American historian who had been bewitched by tales of lost Inca cities ever since visiting the pre-Hispanic ruin of Choquequirao, also in the vicinity of Cusco. When he came across Machu Picchu, he was actually searching for the last Inca capital, Manco Inca’s final stronghold, and initially stated erroneously that Machu Picchu was in fact Vilcambama, that most lost of lost Inca cities.

On 24 July 1911, after having been told about the ruins by local resident Melchor Arteaga, Bingham made the tough climb up the Urubamba canyon. It was no easy hike and, exhausted, he reached a small hut where two men, Richarte and Alvarez, had been living for four years to escape the army and having to pay taxes. Hot and tired, he was disinclined to continue but the two men encouraged him to take a look at the vine-covered complex.

After just a few hours there taking notes and photographs, he left but returned the following year with the Yale Expedition, having taken the decision to spend several months clearing the overgrown site. This excavation, together with a later one in 1915, led to the discovery of several other notable buildings and an important Inca highway, the Inca Trail. Bingham ultimately went on to become a US senator.



www.machupicchuperu.info  Text Copyright Anne Noon. Photos Copyright Mike Weston. All rights reserved 2007-2010

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