Machu Picchu – History, Elevation, Significance & Other Notable Facts

Standing at 7,700 feet (about 2400 meters) over the Peruvian village of Cuzco is the ruins of the ancient city of Machu Picchu. In the local Quecha language, Machu means “Old” and Picchu means “Mountain”, so it loosely translates to “Old Mountain” in English.

Today, Machu Picchu is no longer shrouded in mystery and has become one of the world’s most popular destinations, receiving over 1.4 million visitors every year. In 2007, it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World along with other monuments and landmarks like Christ the Redeemer in Brazil and the Colosseum in Italy. This breathtaking monument is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where is Machu Picchu located? And why did the Incas build the citadel in the first place? Below, World History Edu explores the history and major facts about Machu Picchu.

History: The Inca Empire & Life in Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu – history and excavation

Machu Picchu was built by the Incas in the 15th century during the height of the Inca civilization. It served more as a royal retreat for Inca emperors and other nobles. It is believed to have been the home of Emperor Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui.

At that time, the Inca Empire was a powerful kingdom that ruled over a distance between northern Ecuador to central Chile. At its peak, the empire had a population of more than 12.5 million people and over 100 ethnic groups. They first appeared in Peru around the 12th century, and according to legend, the Inca people were created by Inti, the sun god, who sent his Manco Capac to live on Earth. While on earth, Manco Capac killed his brothers and led his people, including his sisters to settle in Cuzco.

The empire’s territory started growing, especially during the reign of Emperor Mayta Capac. But the kingdom grew more powerful when Emperor Viracocha Inca came into power in the 15th century. Viracocha was successful in his military quests. Around 1438, the Incas were attacked by the Chancas. Viracocha sent his son, Cusi Inca Yupanqui, to defend Cuzco. Cusi, who later became known as Pachacuti, was successful and rose to become one of the Inca’s most influential leaders. He led several military campaigns and expanded the Inca Empire and made it extremely wealthy. Machu Picchu was one of the remarkable infrastructure projects that Pachucuti built.

Machu Picchu is located in the middle of the Andes mountain range on the side of a valley that was made by the Urubamba River. It is located about 2360 meters above sea level. The Incas created terraces not just for farming but to also reduce the effect of erosion

While it was in use, Machu Picchu might have been home to about 800 or more inhabitants, including nobles and servants of Emperor Pachacuti. During the colder months, the population dwindled. The residents usually ate grains, potatoes, legumes, and maize. It is also widely believed that many animals migrated to Machu Picchu, especially alpacas and llamas, as well as guinea pigs, which were likely used in funeral rituals.

Future excavations later revealed that Machu Picchu was inhabited by mostly women and might have been a sanctuary for the Virgins of the Sun, an elite group of Incan women. Other discoveries also revealed that the site might have been home to a diverse group of immigrants.

The Incas were talented engineers and built terraces that supported farming activities and developed a good drainage system. The terraces also protected the land from erosion and other natural disasters like landslides. Machu Picchu’s proximity to the Urubamba River made it possible for its inhabitants to have access to water. This allowed them to supplement their diet with fish. But despite these advancements during that period, it is likely that the food derived from farming might not have been enough for the people of Machu Picchu. As such, they were most likely importing other foods from surrounding areas.

The Arrival of the Spanish and Conquistadors

Though the Inca Empire was powerful, its reign was relatively short-lived. The leading cause behind its fall was the arrival of the Spanish, who were rapidly gaining control over South America. The Spanish arrived in the region carrying foreign diseases like smallpox and influenza, which decimated the Incan population, including Pachacuti’s successor, Huayna Capac and his successor.

While the Spanish took control over Cuzco and other surrounding civilizations, it appeared they had no idea of the existence of Machu Picchu or at least did not know exactly where the site was located. However, the site might have been likely discovered and plundered by a German businessman called Augusto Berns. However, it wasn’t until 1911, when Harvard professor and explorer, Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu completely by accident.

The First American Expedition

Bingham was a history professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. After attending the Pan-American Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile, he passed through Peru on his way back to the United States. While there, he explored the ancient site of Choqquequirau. Though he wasn’t an experienced archaeologist, he organized an expedition in 1911 to explore Peru in search of the lost Inca capital, which he believed was located in Vitcos.

While in Peru, Bingham received help from locals, including one person who gave insight into the ruins at Machu Picchu. Interested in this tip, Bingham and his team arrived at the ancient site. By that time, what was left of Machu Picchu was covered in thick vegetation and the local farmers living nearby the site had cleared some of the old agricultural terraces for their farming activities. Because of how overgrown the forest was, Bingham was unable to fully explore Machu Picchu, so he only took a few notes of the site. He eventually ended up finding the lost city of Vitcos.

He returned to Machu Picchu the following year, this time with the support of both Yale University and the Peruvian president, Augusto Bernardino Leguia y Salcedo. The team began the excavation of the site from that period until 1915. He took several artefacts back to Yale to continue his studies, including numerous Incan knives.

Although the Peruvian government initially welcomed Bingham and his team to conduct excavations, relationships soon soured and the explorers were accused of smuggling most of the artefacts out of Peru and to the United States. The team was also accused of not allowing local explorers and archaeologists to partake in excavations to learn about their history. The local landowners also started requesting rent from the team, and by the time Bingham left the area, many of the locals had formed groups with the purpose of maintaining Machu Picchu’s culture and history.

The Layout of Machu Picchu

Located in the Andes mountains, the ancient site of Machu Picchu was separated into three main areas: the Sacred Quarter, including buildings like the Intihuatana (which the Incas used to tell the time), the Temple of the Sun, as well as the Hall of Three Windows; the residential section, where visitors can find the Sacerdotes y Nobles, which was the living quarters of Machu Picchu’s nobles; and the southernmost part of the site, where most of the locals lived.

There are other key landmarks at Machu Picchu:

  • The Royal Tomb: Located under the Temple of the Sun, the Royal Tomb is a natural rock cave. Although visitors aren’t allowed to enter, its main attraction is a large altar, which visitors view from the entrance.
  • The Temple of Condor: A site also located under the Temple of the Sun. It was believed to have been a place of worship and was most likely used for rituals. Only Inca high priests, who were part of the nobility, had access to this place.
  • The Central Plaza: During the time of the Inca civilization, the Central Plaza was used to host ceremonial events.
  • The Sun Gate: The Sun Gate was the main entrance into Machu Picchu back in the 15th century. It was also known as IntiPunku.
  • The Water Fountains: Perhaps one of the most attractive features of Machu Picchu. These 16 fountains show how innovative the Incas were with their irrigation system.

There are other sites like the Sacred Rock and Inca Bridge, all of which hold deep meaning and give insight into the lives of the Incas at Machu Picchu.

Temple of Three Windows, i.e. the three trapezoidal windows

Other Notable Facts About Machu Picchu

Here are some fun things to know about Machu Picchu:

  • Every stone used in constructing this site was proportionally cut to fit each other and they fit so well that the Incas did not need mortar to keep the walls standing. It is one of the world’s best-preserved ancient sites, with about 60% of the ruins protected by vegetation. The Peruvian government declared the site to be a no-flight zone and limited the number of visitors to 2,500 daily. Its preservation is so important that UNESCO has considered placing it on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
  • In the 1990s, the Peruvian government announced plans to introduce cable cars and build a luxury hotel at the site to increase tourism. However, many people protested against the idea and it was scrapped. The conversation surrounding the use of cable cars came up again in 2018.
  • The ancient site is home to many llamas who have somehow picked up the habit of photobombing. Back in the days of the Incas, llamas were reared primarily for their wool and dung. They were also one of the few animals capable of living at higher altitudes.
  • Machu Picchu helped the Incas practice astronomy. The Intihuatana Stone was used as a clock and helped the Incas know when to plant crops.
  • Machu Picchu has appeared in several blockbusters, including “Secret of the Incas” and “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
  • As part of the Peruvian government’s effort to promote tourism career, a decision was made that all tourists that visit the Inca citadel must have a tour guide.

FAQ’s about Machu Picchu

The following are some of the most asked questions about the archeological complex:

What country is Machu Picchu in?

Machu Picchu is located in the South American country of Peru.  It is about 130 kilometers northwest of Cusco, the famous capital of the Incas.

Why is Machu Picchu significant?

Machu Picchu, which stands at over 2400 meters above sea level, is believed to have served as the royal and religious residence of the ruling class of the Inca civilization.

When was Machu Picchu built?

The Inca citadel was built in the 15th century.

What was Machu Picchu used for?

The Incas, unlike the Aztecs, did not have a written language. Therefore, it is a bit difficult to determine what exactly Machu Picchu was used for. However, archeologists and scholars have proposed that the complex most likely served as a religious site and royal residence of the Inca nobility.

When did Machu Picchu become a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Machu Picchu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

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