STONES OF MACHU PICCHU: The Many Faces of Myth and Mystery

Like many people, and all archeologists I assume, my recent visit to Peru was the fulfillment of a long-standing dream to witness first-hand the great site of Machu Picchu, as well as many of the other important Inca and pre-Columbian sites there.  As with most of these travelers, I was struck by the uniqueness and mystery of the world's most famous "lost city", which, much like the Grand Canyon and other such marvels of man or nature, has to be witnessed in person to be fully appreciated.  No pictures can do these places total justice (although I tried like so many others to shoot every possible view).  It is truly a magical place.  However, as the only archeologist in the group I was traveling with and as someone with a long-standing and keen interest in ancient stoneworks (see other entries in this blog series), I found myself time and again wandering off to get some private moment of thought or reaching for my compass to check some real or imagined sight line of celestial importance.  What is it about this place that so fascinates us--beyond its isolation and near inaccessibility--and causes speculation almost on a par with the great pyramids among the minds of the "magical thinkers" and other such folk of the modern world?  (NOTE:  Not the least of these was an appearance some years back by the actress and new-age proponent Shirley MacClaine, whose visit and entourage must have created quite an impact on the locals, since so many still refer to the "strange" practices they witnessed during her trip to this and other sites there.)

Even our excellent local guides, well-versed in the Quechua language and Inca lore, gave witness to the often conflicting rationales for the creation of such a marvelous and enigmatic true wonder of the ancient--or the modern for that matter--world.  Let's look at some of this on-going speculation, before I add my own thoughts and impressions of the site.

                                   "LOST CITY" OF THE INCAS

When Hiram Bingham first revealed Machu Picchu to the outside world in 1911-12 he gave rise to the myth of the "lost city", which persisted till very near the end of the 20th Cent.  Bingham believed he had found the final refuge of the last true Inca king, Manco Inca, who had fled and disappeared after his great defeat at the hands of the Pizarro brothers before the walls of Sacashuaman above Cuzco.  He firmly believed he had found old Vilcabamba, whose true location was not established as much farther away until the early 1960's by Gene Savoy and later explorers.  Still, the myth of the lost city--much like the mummy's curse of Howard Carter at Tutankamun's tomb--had been created, and such appealing stories are not easily set aside in the minds of the popular press or lay public.  Adding further to this tale was Bingham's discovery of a large group of burials on the site, which when they were grossly misidentified by his associate George Eaton as young females, fed the additional myth that Machu Picchu had also been the last refuge of the sacred virgins, who had been rescued from the conquistadores and hidden away in some lost "city".  Modern and more complete analylsis of these burials reveals that there is no inordinate proportion of young females present in this sample and that the bones are more likely those of workers or other temporary residents of the site.  The perpetuation of this tale by our excellent Quechua guide, Marco Luis Aragon of Cuzco, was somewhat surprising, given the easily available new information on these bones, but also tells us how difficult it is to debunk a popular story once it is set in stone, so to speak.  Besides, no one can deny it makes a likely tale for the tourists, especially when delivered in the presence of the mysterious stones themselves.

 There is a growing body of evidence that by the time of the fall of the Inca empire in the late 1530's the site of Machu Picchu itself had already fallen into disuse by the royal family and its very location quickly lost from the collective memory of the common people.  This is evidenced by the fact that the writer and blood descendant of the Inca royal family and an important conquistador, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega writing in 1560, fails to even mention the site of Machu Picchu (which would have had another name anyway) in his otherwise quite exhaustive Royal Commentaries on the entire history of the Inca empire and its lineage of 12 rulers.  Since the Spanish were so thorough in wiping out or absorbing the few remaining members of the ruling class of Incas, as well as their important iconography, and in the absence of written records by the Inca themselves, the quick erasure of both the location and purpose of Machu Picchu is only somewhat surprising.


More modern speculation as to the purpose of Machu Picchu has centered on the idea that it was not a "city" at all in the true sense Bingham and others proposed.  The lack of sufficient housing, craft areas, food producing capability, etc. quickly led more serious archeologists to propose that the isolated site was a "religious retreat" or summer palace for the king and his royal attendants.  We know from Inca Garcilaso and other contemporary writers like Pedro de Cieza de Leon that the Inca was "always" surrounded by a huge family and entourage that required large amounts of goods and services to sustain.  If we can believe even a large part of their estimates for the royal retinue, then the capabilities of Machu Picchu for supporting such numbers in "the style to which they had grown accustomed" just does not compute, even with the addition of other food-producing sites in the area. This does not even include what must have been an ever-present military guard of some size.  Best estimates for Machu Picchu reveal that it likely never housed more than 1,000 residents at any time, and even though there are food-producing terraces included in the site, recent theories support the need for an extended network of hamlets and villages in the region, which must have been essential in supplying the amazing needs of the King.  Any reading of the Inca's court leads one to see the consumptive power of the royal family, which included large and continuous gifting of constant streams of visitors (including royal hostages from conquered lands) and others always with the King and his own large family, including royal priests.  The actual construction of Machu Picchu also indicates that there is but one main complex of rooms and only a few, often quite austere, surrounding housing units.  All-in-all, even a quick analysis of the site can lead one to become suspicious of even this more popular view of the main purpose of the site.

If it was, indeed, a royal retreat, and given the absolute continuity of the Inca lineage (direct father to eldest son in every known case), why then would the site so suddenly fall into disuse if it was such an ideal place to go?  Most speculators feel that Machu Picchu must have been built during the great expansion period of the three greatest Incas: number 9, Inca Viracocha; 10, Pachacutec; and 11, Topa Inca Yupanqui. These were grandfather, father, and son, and it is most likely that one of them--probably Pachacutec--at least began, if not completed, the site at Machu Picchu.  Since the 12th and 13th Incas presided over the final expansion and dissolution of the empire shortly thereafter, why would such an important site have been so quickly lost from memory?  Also, during the civil war of the 13th Inca, Huascar, and his bastard brother Atahualpa--who lost it all to the Spanish shortly after killing his legitimate brother and every other royal blooded relative he could find and claiming the whole empire--it would have seemed that Machu Picchu might have served as a final refuge for the beleaguered Huascar's few survivors, if they had still been using it.  However, since Atahualpa was from the Quito region to the extreme north of the empire, not of the main bloodline himself, and had established that far place as the seat of his new realm when the Spanish came immediately thereafter, it is possible that having just overthrown his brother and wiped out much of the royal bloodline himself, the conditions for the loss of the knowledge of a temporary residence like Machu Picchu could have been met, especially since the common people were never privy to the goings-on of the royal family anyway.

Much recent speculation has centered on the site as being both the royal "retreat" and ceremonial complex of its likely builder, the great Pachacutec himself.  The sacred stops along the famous Inca Trail from Cuzco that culminates here has led some to believe that, in fact, all roads led to Machu Picchu, and that it was a revered pilgrammige destination as a place where the Inca origin myth could be played out in the midst of most of the major mountains, sacred river, and other critical locations in that myth.  There is recently a movement to suggest that the enigmatic sacred cave beneath the most important temple site could even been a recreation of the cave from which the original Incas appeared and also as the final burial location for Pachacutec himself, a mystery compounded by the unknown disposition of his royal mummy.

                                           CEREMONIAL SITE

Of course, from the very beginning the obvious ceremonial significance of Machu Picchu has been noted.  The presence of the great intihuatana (the hitching post of the Sun) and other solar temples and viewing apertures has always been of paramount importance in analyzing this site.  The nearby mountain of Huayna Picchu seems to possess a solar temple site of perhaps much earlier significance possibly as well.  Solar and solstice alignments are seemingly everywhere about the great site, and there can be no doubt that, much like Stonehenge, the site chosen for Machu Picchu was far from random or merely for the easily defensible position it commands. More recent studies at the nearby related mountaintop site of Llactapata seem to further add to the growing list of complex celestial observation potential of both sites and the entire area.  One of the first things that strikes the interested visitor is that the temples and ruins occupy a low ridge surrounded on all sides by more impressive peaks and on three sides by the sacred Urubamba river below.  Nestled on this precarious ridge, the Inca used natural formations time and again to reveal easily measurable solar alignments, solstice events, etc., which anyone with a good guide and a compass can readily ascertain and appreciate today.  The presence of an important spur of the Inca road and the main entry point when the complex was actually in use is also easily noted leading to the site through the important Sun Gate, another key solar marking point from the main site, above the ruins.  A newer, often totally neglected, aspect of celestial observation studies at ancient sites, however, is that this location and some of the viewing platforms or apertures might well have been even more important for night sky astronomical observations.  Our archeological obsession with solstices and equinoxes, while obviously reflected in ancient cultural ceremonial complexes, too often ignores, I believe, how much these ancient astronomers had to have known and been able to predict about what was going on in the night sky as well.

One of the more unusual features not normally addressed in the guidebooks or less detailed literature is the presence of the so-called "shadow stones".  These appear to be deliberately constructed, often of exotic source material, small-scale reflections of a distant, rugged horizon that can only be seen and appreciated close-up and in their direct line of sight.  Many have noted that some of the Incas' most important and sacred peaks, including Salcantay (the second highest peak in Peru) to the south are visible in the four directions from here, forming almost an intersecting axis similar to the main temple of Qoricanch in Cuzco as well.  The determination of which temple came first, Qoricancha or the Torreon at Machu Picchu, might go a long way in helping to solve some of the growing Inca mystery. The Inca world was organized into these four quarters (the suyu) and Machu Picchu seems ideally, if not uniquely, situated to give a panoramic view of both the ordinal directions and the rising and setting points of the Sun throughout the solar year over named peaks.  Inca life revolved around the sun temples and high places, and no place I saw in Peru possesses more solar observational potential than does the site of Machu Picchu.  If it was, for some time at least, a popular residence for an aging or retired Inca, such as the great Pachacutec as some have suggested, then it must have been used for this later--after its importance as a solar observatory had already been long established I believe.  The sheer labor input to construct the terraces to protect the upper structures, not to mention the dragging of large, exotic stones such as some of the shadow rocks is almost overwhelming to contemplate.  Such an effort almost implies a religious fervor and dedication--or desperation as some have suggested--that can only be viewed within a cultural framework where some very specific knowledge about the past, present--or perhaps the future--was being sought after by the ruling powers of a great empire.  One can only conclude that, too often in the past and present too many scholars have ignored the relative position of Machu Picchu in relation to the much larger, and perhaps, more ancient complex of astronomical sites in the immediate area of which it is only a part, albeit a most significant one.  Huaynu Picchu is likely more ancient, and the nearby peak site of Llactapacata may be equally important as an observation post.  The great mistake of the analysis of this site must appear to always have been and continue to be one of observing and trying to analyze it within its own context primarily.

                           THE INCA UNIVERSITY THEORY

While visiting the site I was introduced to a relatively new theory about the purpose for the creation of Machu Picchu that has not yet found a great folllowing in the professional literature.  Marco Aragon, our very competent guide who was always eager to give the Quechua view of historical and other events, stated that some now believe that the site was constructed as a teaching "university" for the Inca priesthood (also of royal blood at the highest levels, by law).  The presence of so many major sun temples and celestial observation points, along with the absence of permanent settlement housing sufficient in size or quality to house the Inca and his attendants, does give some credence to a new interpretation.  We do know that the Inca always brought the best and brightest of the young high blood of conquered peoples back to Cuzco to train them in "the Inca Way" (as well as to serve as important hostages to insure their families stayed in line in the far off lands).  What better way to both indoctrinate these important young people--as well as their own--in the ways of the Sun Lord and his earthly son, the Inca, than to take them to a hidden and very secure place where they could be educated in safety and solitude.  The more I examined the site and entertained this new idea, the more it started to make sense, especially as I continued to read more about the almost obsessively organized and predictive behavior of these amazing Inca people and their belief system based upon this obsession with the movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars (especially the planets) in the celestial plane.

  William Sullivan, among others, in his important book, The Secret of the Incas, on the deep astronomical understanding that is apparently wrapped up in and forms the basis for much Andean myth--going well back before the arrival of the Incas from the Titicaca region--makes it clear that extremely detailed celestial observations and locations to do this would have been a necessity for generations of Inca and earlier priests.  Indeed, as he points out, the Inca himself must have been privy to this knowledge and in large measure was one of the principal repositories of the collected past culture memories expressed in their larger mythocopeia.  If this were so, then the presence of a so-called "royal estate" at Machu Picchu would have functioned more in the line of a place for the chief astronomer to visit on important occasions--of which there were many--to observe, confirm, or preside over those events selected as essential for the continued success of the royal Inca family and its long term ability to provide for the myriad of peoples it ruled.  Much of this ability to rule may ultimately be shown to have resulted in this relatively small faction's exclusive ability to "control" and predict the ever-critical movements of the heavenly bodies within the celestial sphere, along with the cultural myths that had been created to relate these over time to the concerned but uninformed masses.  We know this is not unusual among agricultural peoples at the most basic level in otherwise harsh climates, where necessity led early-on to a shift to large scale plant domestication and all the trappings and control mechanisms of the priest/kings that inevitably developed.  What better place than a hidden, protected site to map out the ceremonial strategies by the ruling class of priest/kings and the keepers of their carefully controlled knowledge of the ancient skies--past, present, and future, especially one so ideally situated in an already existing complex of important observational sites.

Lastly, this new theory would go a long way toward explaining the quick disappearance and lost collective memory of Machu Picchu just before and after the conquest.  The civil war of Huascar and Atahualpa would have wiped out much of the royal bloodline, and the Spanish would have been quick to expunge both the priests (also of royal blood) and the very memory of their sun-worship, which they quickly replaced with their own brand of monotheism.  We know this from their rapid destruction of features like the Intihuatana at every other major site and the destruction or conversion of larger temples to their own alternate uses.  As a royal residence, Machu Picchu would have held no mystery for the common Inca residents, and the knowledge of its existence would have been unnecessary to hide.  Indeed, it would have to have been common knowledge among those hundreds or even thousands needed to maintain it in the manner the King would have required had it remained primarily as a royal residence. (Remember:  Early records indicate that the Inca rarely if ever traveled with an entourage of less that two to three thousand people.) But as a religious teaching center, with secretive purposes known only to the highest priestly class, it could easily have faded into the rapidly lost past along with the rapid and bloody disappearance of these few men.  After all, the extensive astronomical capabilities of the high Inca priests, especially in the absence of an easy form of writing, would have almost required such a place dedicated to pure knowledge pursuit and the refinement and preservation of this learning. This theory, I feel, also accounts well for the types of generally austere living quarters found on the site itself.  (We in the 'university' education business know full well about such austerity!)  Increasingly, as reinterpretations of the few remaining early post-contact native based records--along with reevaluations of linguistic data and better translations become available--it becomes clearer that the sophistication of Andean (as well as other areas: see related blog post here Stone Markers on the Horizon) astronomical knowledge, as reflected in myths of great time-depth, have been grossly under appreciated in the past.

Regardless of what the true purpose of Machu Picchu was--and we may never know for sure--the magic and mystery of the place will continue for those fortunate to stand among its ruins and gaze up into the amazing horizons to be seen there in all directions.  Whatever its true purpose, the Incas certainly did not chose its location at random.  On that most would agree, I firmly believe. The popular myths will, no doubt, continue to grab and hold the minds of many, even those who see it as some magical place at which they can personally reach out and touch some unseen power known only to themselves.  At any rate, the power of the place itself is undeniable, and anyone who has the means or desire should move Machu Picchu (and the many other sites that abound in the region) to the top of their own "bucket list" and find a way to make the journey to this truly unique and awe-inspiring tribute to the human spirit and imagination.

For pictures on my recent visit relating to this article please go to my facebook profile page (which can be linked in the upper righthand corner of any page on this website) and check out my photo album there titled:  Machu Picchu.

The reader's comments or questions are eagerly invited by logging on to our easily accessible and secure website or by contacting this author directly by clicking on the Contact icon on this page-top menu strip.


I would like to share some of the knowledge on the place with you that I have collected on Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu, meaning an old Peak, is a sacred pre-Columbian spot at 2,430 m on a mountain edge above the Urubamba Valley in Peru. Designated as a Historical Sanctuary in Peru and World Heritage Site, it has been described as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization.” Not only this, but it was among the New Seven Wonders of the World when an online and telephonic poll was conducted by the New7Wonders foundation. If you are looking for a cool holiday, check out Machu Picchu Tours .

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