Machu Picchu

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu (mä´chōō pēk´chōō), Inca site in Peru, about 50 mi (80 km) NW of Cuzco. It is perched high upon a rock in a narrow saddle between two sharp mountain peaks and overlooks the Urubamba River 2,000 ft (600 m) below. Ignored and later forgotten by Spanish colonial authorities because of its abandoned condition, the site was uncovered in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham. The imposing city is one of the largest pre-Columbian sites found virtually intact. (Research published in 2008, however, suggests that Augusto Berns, a German adventurer and businessman, may have discovered and looted the site in 1867.)

Perhaps the most spectacular ruin in the Americas, Machu Picchu spreads over 5 sq mi (13 sq km), with over 3,000 steps linking its many different levels. It shows admirable architectural design and execution, including a terracing system built on extremely steep terrain; it has been estimated that 60% of the effort expended on construction was devoted to creating the terraces. It also contains rare examples of religious monuments, including a carved stone (the Intiwatana), a small tower (the Torreón), and a cave with a masonry entrance (the Intimachay). Such indigenous shrines were generally destroyed by Spanish authorities.

Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that it represents a mountain retreat of the Inca leader Pachacuti Yupanqui, who ruled c.1438–1471. Investigators have suggested the site may have served as a religious sanctuary and that the masonry windows at two of its monuments may have been aligned so as to define the June and December solstices. Experts do not agree whether the numerous steep walls at Machu Picchu and surrounding Inca sites were built as military fortifications or simply to delimit the boundaries of these special state installations.

See H. Bingham, Lost City of the Incas (1948, repr. 1969); C. Heaney, Cradle of Gold (2010).

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