In the heart of the Inca Empire nestled in the jungles of the Peruvian Andes, lies an architectural and engineering marvel that has stood the test of time. Historians believe this city palace complex was built by the Incan emperor Pachacuti during the height of the Inca rule in western South America, around the mid fifteenth century. The five-mile complex of carved stone steps and citadels is thought to have been a royal estate and spiritual center. The city holds multiple temples and towers throughout that led historians to believe it had significant importance to Inca rulers and spiritual leaders. It was possibly a trade hub linking the Inca empire’s 25,000 miles of roadways to other communities such as the Aztec and Olmec people of Mexico, and the Chavín of Peru.
The Incas were brilliant architects, manipulating massive gray granite slabs, cut from the foundation of Machu Picchu and dragged up steep paths, to construct the nearly 200 buildings there. The Inca did not have use of heavy metal tools, wheels, or draft animals, so it is believed that hundreds of men dragged the stone blocks to the construction. The temples were built using polygonal blocks that fitted together perfectly like a puzzle. Expert Inca masons did not use mortar, but made the polygonal blocks using stone axes to cut the blocks, with obsidian pebbles and sand to smooth the edges. This mortar-less masonry method called ldquo ashlar, fitted together the stones perfectly but with a little ease to account for the constant threat of earthquakes. The most revered structure in Machu Picchu was the rounded Temple of the Sun. Priests observed and interpreted the shadows and light that entered the windows of the divine temple of the Sun God, Inti.
In the early 20th Century, Machu Picchu was “discovered” by an American archaeologist who unveiled the ruins to the world. Multiple expeditions were sent to Peru to learn about who lived there and what daily life was like at the city’s peak. Hundreds of skeletal remains were unearthed. Initially they were all believed to be mostly women, but upon further examination, it was discovered the remains belong to people of all ages, sizes, and genders. Archaeologists also identified various sectors of the city that were used for different purposes, such as farming, residential neighborhoods, a royal palace, and a spiritual center. Although Machu Picchu was considered a “lost city” by white explorers, the local indigenous people were still farming the terraced region and had been for centuries. These stepped agriculture terraces were nurtured by a complex aqueduct system which was still used in the twentieth century.
Machu Picchu was never considered lost to the locals who likely kept a strong record of the place passed down through oral tradition, but the modern historic record is primarily that of foreign archaeologists. As we work to reclaim these cultures that were oppressed and nearly obliterated by colonization, there is much we do not know. Future discoveries in collaboration with local authorities will decolonize our views of conquered cultures. What we do know for sure is that the Inca were a superpower in South America, with sophisticated agricultural, military, economic, and architectural techniques. In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors invaded South America. They brought with them plagues and superior weaponry that ended the Incan rule. Machu Picchu was abandoned about a hundred years after its completion, possibly due to the Spanish invasion.
Although, Machu Picchu was known to the local people of Peru at the time of its “discovery” in 1911 by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham, the ruins were unknown to the world. The awestruck Bingham immediately wrote a book called, “The Lost City of the Incas” that sent swarms of tourists to Peru to find the magical city. In order to learn about the function of this intriguing site, Bingham began to excavate artifacts and send them to Yale University to be studied. The exportation of these historic treasures sparked a feud between the United States and Peru that would last a hundred years.
When Bingham returned to Peru to retrieve more artifacts, he found that the Peruvian government had passed a law forbidding artifacts to be removed from the country. Peru was anxious to preserve its cultural heritage from looting and offered a resolution that would allow the artifacts to go to Yale to be studied under one condition: that the items taken would be returned to Peru whenever the government requested them back.
For a hundred years after receiving these artifacts, Yale denied the validity of this agreement, claiming that the laws at the time of the original excavation of the artifacts did not apply in this scenario. It was not until 2008, when Peru’s President Alan Garcia sued the United States for failure to comply with the agreement that Peru gained ground. He also lobbied President Barack Obama. In the end, Yale University President Richard Levin agreed to a settlement. He argued that Yale was meeting the original agreement by studying the artifacts at Yale’s Peabody Museum in Hartford, Connecticut; however, he agreed that since millions of people are now flocking to Peru to learn about Machu Picchu, all parties would be better served if the artifacts were returned to the Museo Machupicchu at the San Antonio Abad University in Cusco.