Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas", it is perhaps the most familiar icon of Inca civilization. The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of what the structures originally looked like. By 1976, thirty percent of Machu Picchu had been restored. The restoration work continues to this day.
Since the site was not known to the Spanish during their conquest, it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site. Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll.
Machu Picchu is vulnerable to threats from a variety of sources. While natural phenomena like earthquakes and weather systems can play havoc with access, the site also suffers from the pressures of too many tourists. In addition, preservation of the area's cultural and archaeological heritage is an ongoing concern. Most notably, the removal of cultural artifacts by the Bingham expeditions in the early 20th century gave rise to a long-term dispute between the government of Peru and the custodian of the artifacts, Yale University.
History : Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. The construction of Machu Picchu appears to date from the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest. It is possible that most of its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. The latter had notes of a place called Piccho, although there is no record of the Spanish having visited the remote city. The types of sacred rocks defaced by the conquistadors in other locations are untouched at Machu Picchu.
Hiram Bingham theorized that the complex was the traditional birthplace of the Incan "Virgins of the Suns". More recent research by scholars such as John Howland Rowe and Richard Burger, has convinced most archaeologists that Machu Picchu was an estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti. In addition, Johan Reinhard presented evidence that the site was selected because of its position relative to sacred landscape features such as its mountains that are purported to be in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas.
Johan Reinhard believes Machu Picchu to be a sacred religious site. This theory stands mainly because of where Machu Picchu is located. Reinhard calls it "sacred geography" because the site is built on and around mountains that hold high religious importance in the Inca culture and in the previous culture that occupied the land. 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. The site’s other stone structures have finely worked stones with niches and, from what the “Spaniards wrote about Inca sites, we know that these [types of] building[s] were of ritual significance” (Reinhard 2007). This would be the most convincing evidence that Reinhard points out because this type of stylistic stonework is only found at the religious sites so it would be natural that they would exist at this religious site. Another theory maintains that Machu Picchu was an Inca llaqta, a settlement built to control the economy of conquered regions. Yet another asserts that it may have been built as a prison for a select few who had committed heinous crimes against Inca society. An alternative theory is that it is an agricultural testing station. Different types of crops could be tested in the many different micro-climates afforded by the location and the terraces; these were not large enough to grow food on a large scale, but may have been used to determine what could grow where. Another theory suggests that the city was built as an abode for the deities, or for the coronation of kings.
Although the citadel is located only about 80 kilometers (50 mi) from Cusco, the Inca capital, the Spanish never found it and consequently did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over much of the site, and few outsiders knew of its existence. On 24 July 1911, Hiram Bingham announced the discovery of Machu Picchu to scholars. As an American historian employed as a lecturer at Yale University, Bingham had been searching for the city of Vilcabamba, the last Inca refuge during the Spanish conquest. He had worked for years in previous trips and explorations around the zone. Pablito Alvarez, a local 11 year-old Quechua boy, led Bingham up to Machu Picchu. Some Quechuas lived in the original structures at Machu Picchu.
Bingham started archaeological studies and completed a survey of the area. He called the complex "The Lost City of the Incas," which was the title of his first book. Bingham made several more trips and conducted excavations on the site through 1915, collecting various artifacts which he took back to Yale. He wrote a number of books and articles about the discovery of Machu Picchu. As Bingham's excavations took place on Machu Picchu, local intellectuals began to oppose the operation of Bingham and his team of explorers. Though local institutions were initially enthused at the idea of the operation supplementing Peruvian knowledge about their ancestry, the team began to encounter accusations of legal and cultural malpractice. Local landowners began to demand payments of rent from the excavation team, and rumors arose about Bingham and his team stealing artifacts and smuggling them out of Peru through the bordering country of Bolivia. These accusations worsened when the local press caught wind of the rumors and helped to discredit the legitimacy of the excavation, branding the practice as harmful to the site and claiming that local archaeologists were being deprived of their rightful knowledge about their own history because of the intrusive excavations of the American archaeologists. By the time Bingham and his team left Machu Picchu locals began forming coalitions in order to defend their deserved ownership of Machu Picchu and its cultural remains, while Bingham claimed the artifacts ought to be studied by experts in American institutions, an argument that still exists today.
The site received significant publicity after the National Geographic Society devoted their entire April 1913 issue to Machu Picchu. In 1981 Peru declared an area of 325.92 square kilometers surrounding Machu Picchu as a "Historical Sanctuary". In addition to the ruins, the sanctuary includes a large portion of the adjoining region, rich with the flora and fauna of the Peruvian Yungas and Central Andean wet puna ecoregions. In 1983 UNESCO designated Machu Picchu a World Heritage Site, describing it as "an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization". The World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world because of environmental degradation. This has resulted from the impact of tourism, uncontrolled development in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, which included a poorly sited tram to ease visitor access, and the construction of a bridge across the Vilcanota River, which is likely to bring even more tourists to the site, in defiance of a court order and government protests against it.
Man sitting on ruins, hand-colored glass slide by Harry Ward Foote, who accompanied Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu, 1911 Although Bingham was the first person to bring word of the ruins to the outside world, previous outsiders were said to have seen them. Simone Waisbard, a long-time researcher of Cusco, claims that Enrique Palma, Gabino Sánchez, and Agustín Lizárraga left their names engraved on one of the rocks at Machu Picchu on 14 July 1901. In 1904, an engineer named Franklin supposedly spotted the ruins from a distant mountain. He told Thomas Payne, an English Christian missionary living in the region, about the site, Payne's family members claim. They also report that in 1906, Payne and fellow missionary Stuart E. McNairn (1867–1956) climbed up to the ruins.
The site may have been discovered and plundered in 1867 by a German businessman, Augusto Berns. There is some evidence that a German engineer, J. M. von Hassel, arrived earlier. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874.
Geography : Machu Picchu lies in the southern hemisphere, 13.164 degrees south of the equator. It is 80 kilometers northwest of Cusco, on the crest of the mountain Machu Picchu, located about 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above mean sea level, over 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) lower than Cusco, which has an altitude of 3,600 metres (11,800 ft). As such, it had a milder climate than the Inca capital. It is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America, one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of Latin America and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru.
The year at Machu Picchu is divided between wet and dry seasons, with the majority of annual rain falling from October through to April. It can rain at any time of the year. Machu Picchu is situated above a loop of the Urubamba River, which surrounds the site on three sides, with cliffs dropping vertically for 450 metres (1,480 ft) to the river at their base. The area is subject to morning mists rising from the river. The location of the city was a military secret, and its deep precipices and steep mountains provided excellent natural defenses. The Inca Bridge, an Inca rope bridge, across the Urubamba River in the Pongo de Mainique, provided a secret entrance for the Inca army. Another Inca bridge was built to the west of Machu Picchu, the tree-trunk bridge, at a location where a gap occurs in the cliff that measures 6 metres (20 ft). It could be bridged by two tree trunks, but with the trees removed, there was a 570 metres (1,870 ft) fall to the base of the cliffs.
The city sits in a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. The terraces reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides. Two high-altitude routes from Machu Picchu go across the mountains back to Cusco, one through the sun gate, and the other across the Inca bridge. Both could be blocked easily, should invaders approach along them. Regardless of its original purpose, it is strategically located and readily defended.