reading Mark Adams' entertaining and informative "Turn Right at Machu Picchu," which I checked out from our local library.
I've always had a bit of an interest in Machu Picchu, but it wasn't until I began reading Adams' book that I realized that this month -- today, in fact -- marks the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery1 of the awe-inspiring Peruvian site by Hiram Bingham III.
It was on this date that Bingham was guided on a precarious expedition to the ruins by Peruvian farmer Melchor Arteaga; Sergeant Carrasco, a policeman who was his guide and interpreter; and an 11-year-old Quechua boy named Pablito Alvarez.2
But what was Machu Picchu?
That's a question that has continued to interest academics and archaeologists ever since Bingham's rediscovery of the site. The best thinking now is that Machu Picchu, which was constructed in the 1400s3, was simply one of the primary estates of the Incan emperor Pachacuti.
But there are other theories about the site:
- Bingham believed it was the traditional birthplace of the Incan "Virgins of the Suns."4
- It was an important religious site. It is positioned relative to sacred landscape features such as its mountains, which are purported to be in alignment with key astronomical events. From Wikipedia: "At the highest point of the mountain in which Machu Picchu was named after, there are 'artificial platforms [and] these had a religious function, as is clear from the Inca ritual offerings found buried under them' (Reinhard 2007). These platforms also are found in other Incan religious sites."
- It was an Inca llaqta - a settlement built to control the economy of conquered regions.
- It was a prison for the baddest of the bad Incan prisoners. (Sort of an Incan supermax.)
- It was an agricultural testing station. There wasn't enough space for large-scale agriculture, but there were plenty of terraces for small-scale experimentation in varying climates.
1. While it was Bingham who announced his discovery of Machu Picchu to the world and thus claimed credit, he was almost certainly not the first modern explorer to encounter the site. Some maps as old as 1874 show references to Machu Picchu. Two separate German explorers - Augusto Berns and J.M. von Hassel - may have been to Machu Picchu in the 1860s. And there are other reports of explorers climbing to the site in the early 20th century, between 1901 and 1906.
This website contains a good summary and narrative of Bingham's journey. Bingham himself documented his discovery in the April 1913 issue of National Geographic. The entire issue, with its 244 illustrations, was devoted to Machu Picchu.
3. Coincidentally, Machu Picchu was originally built around the same time period (perhaps a couple decades earlier) as the Amsterdam site I wrote about yesterday. Two locations on separate continents, more than 6,000 miles apart.
4. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the "Virgins of the Sun" (also known as as Chosen Women, Quechua Aclla Cuna, or Aklya Kona) were:
"[Incan women who] lived in temple convents under a vow of chastity. Their duties included the preparation of ritual food, the maintenance of a sacred fire, and the weaving of garments for the emperor and for ritual use. They were under the supervision of matrons called Mama Cuna. At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, the Virgins numbered several thousand and were governed by a high priestess, the Coya Pasca, a noblewoman who was believed to be the earthly consort of the sun god. The Virgins, not of noble birth, were village girls selected by officials for their beauty and talent; they were chosen at the age of 8 or 10 and shut up in the temples, which they were not allowed to leave for six or seven years. Of these girls, some became sacrificial victims, whereas others were sometimes made imperial concubines or the wives of nobles."