Last updated: June 18, 2019
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The Heritage of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the few pre-Columbian discoveries found in Peru. It has been shrouded in mystery for hundreds of years and various speculations have emerged as to its purpose to the Incan civilization since its discovery in the 1500s. Prior to that, it has remained hidden from human intervention for so long and now it has created controversy and debate for many.

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Situated in the Andes Mountains, it was built by emperor Pachacutec at the height of the Incan empire, called Tahuantinsuyu. Archaeological discoveries show that Machu Picchu was a royalty haven where sovereigns could rest while still attending to their copious responsibilities given the vastness of their territories.

The Incas ruled the Andean empire from northern Ecuador, through Peru to southern Chile and into east of the continent. It consolidated the empire in the 1400s in the Cuzco region and began expanding the empire until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. It defeated groups which were later incorporated into the empire . . . Incas were master engineers of road and irrigation systems, terraced agriculture, textiles, and were knowledgeable in trepanning or the treatment of head injuries. (“Historical Background – Timeline”)

This paper confronts vital issues concerning Machu Picchu and how it affects Peru, in general. To be acquainted with this ancient heritage, we shall delve into the following: (1) its location, (2) its discovery, (3) excavations, (4) dwellings and dwellers, and (5) controversy and debate over ancient artifacts. This is the great legacy of Machu Picchu.

Main Body

Its Location

Machu Picchu is the site of the ancient Inca ruins located about 50 miles northwest of Cuzco, Peru, in the Cordillera de Vilcabamba of the Andes Mountains. It is perched above the Urubamba River valley in a narrow saddle between two sharp peaks—Machu Picchu (‘Old Peak in the Quechua language’) and Huayna Picchu (‘New Peak’)—at an elevation of 7,710 feet (Encyclopædia Britannica 2008).

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Tahuantinsuyu (meaning Land of the Four Corners), or the Inca Empire, had reached the heights of human accomplishment, and was the greatest empire on the planet . . . probably surpassing even Ming China and the Ottoman Empire . . . From the imperial capital of Cuzco, the Incas ruled over northern Chile, upper Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and southern Colombia (“The End of an Incan Era”).

It was the greatest empire to have ever existed, amassing great wealth and power not only in nearby regions but also in faraway lands.

This great empire included the dry Atacama desert in the west, much of the Amazon rainforest to the east, and encompassed the whole of the Andes (the Incas were unique in their mastery of the Andes; no other empire has ever controlled such a great mountain chain). No Andean nation of today compares to the Inca Empire in size or wealth, the latter of which would eventually contribute to its downfall (“The End of an Incan Era”).

Its Discovery

During the Spanish invasion of Peru in 1532, after Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador, captured and executed Atahualpa, the Inca emperor, members of the Inca elite hastened either to ally themselves with the Spanish invaders or to join the Inca resistance. Soon the economic and political system upon which Machu Picchu was founded began to disintegrate, and the inhabitants fled the site (“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”).

The arrival and invasion of the Spanish conquistadores caused the sudden and complete collapse of the Incan empire, giving Spain foothold on vast territories formerly Incan. Primarily because of the location of Machu Picchu, which is hidden high atop the mountain, it held no economic or military significance to the colonizers.

Unimportant in the new Spanish economy, colonial chroniclers overlooked Machu Picchu, leaving little historical record. Though the majority of Tahuantinsuyu was destroyed, Inca culture eventually melded with that of the Spanish invaders, and lives on in their language, Quechua, still spoken by millions of people (“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”).

It was discovered only in 1911 by the Yale University professor Hiram Bingham, who was led to the site by Melchor Arteaga, a local Quechua-speaking resident. Bingham had been seeking Vilcabamba, the ‘lost city of the Incas,’ from which the last Inca rulers led a rebellion against Spanish rule until 1572 (Encyclopædia Britannica 2008).

The expedition of Bingham was to be a precedent. It was followed by many other expeditions involving the removal of precious ancient artifacts, hundreds of which are now in Yale’s Peabody Museum or scattered in other museums around the world.


Bingham did not know of the existence of Machu Picchu when he discovered it in 1911 with the help of a local farmer. On his way back to America, he brought crates of artifacts collected from the site with him. In 1912, he brought an expedition team when he returned to Machu Picchu to study its purpose and collect even more crates of artifacts.

After one year, in 1912, he returned to the site with an expedition team, including two topographers, a medical doctor, a geologist, an osteologist (bone specialist) and an archaeological engineer. Even with this interdisciplinary team of experts, Bingham was unable to ascertain the purpose and use of Machu Picchu. Although his methods were flawed and often overlooked the context in which many of the artifacts were found, the collections he recovered in 1912 still have much to teach us. (“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”)

Machu Picchu was further excavated in 1915 by Bingham, in 1934 by the Peruvian archaeologist Luis E. Valcarcel, and in 1940–41 by Paul Fejos. Additional discoveries throughout the Cordillera de Vilcabamba have shown that Machu Picchu was one of a series of pucaras (fortified sites), tambos (travelers’ barracks, or inns), and signal towers along the extensive Inca foot highway (Encyclopædia Britannica 2008).

Its Dwellers and its Dwellings

In the dry season, the royal estate held a thriving community of up to 600 inhabitants, divided into two groups: the ‘elite’ and the ‘retainers’, including artisans and household servants . . . We now know that the elite dedicated much of their time to feasting, hunting, and religious worship. The retainers participated in much more mundane tasks—cooking, brewing corn beer or chicha, and producing intricate metal objects (“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”).

In the absence of a written language, the Inca developed a complex system of recording information with a quipu, or ‘knot’ in Quechua. Inca administrators and record keepers used these knotted-string devices to record statistical data from censuses, keep tribute records and track genealogies. Made of cotton or wool, the system uses knot clusters and different colorations to record data (“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”).

Because of advances in our present-day technology, scientists are able to learn more about this ancient civilization. Details of their daily life like their diet, music, forms of entertainment, and other essentials give us a clear picture of their way of life.

Recent scientific studies, including close examinations of metal, pottery, and stone artifacts, are allowing scientists to learn about the inhabitants of Machu Picchu and their health, diet, and capacity for long-distance trade. The Incan diet revolved not around the Peruvian staple of potatoes, but was based largely on maize (“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”).

The remains of several inhabitants recovered in the site allowed researchers and scientists to go on a much more detailed examination of the Inca civilization.

Cranial deformation was a widespread practice in ancient South America. This entailed tightly wrapping cloth bands around the heads of infants, whose skulls are still thin and flexible. Reshaping in this way produced different head shapes, a characteristic which is now believed to be a marker of ethnicity in different peoples of the Inca empire (“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas”).

Machu Picchu is surrounded by agricultural terraces to feed the settlers and it is watered by natural springs. It has palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms and more than a hundred houses, all constructed from large blocks carved from the gray granite of the mountain top. The dwellings at Machu Picchu were probably built and occupied from the mid-15th to the early or mid-16th century (Encyclopedia Britannica 2008).

The architecture of the entire complex is distinctly Incan, as manifested in the large stone blocks excellently fitted to form structures for this fortified sanctuary.

Machu Picchu’s construction style and other evidence suggest that it was a palace complex of the ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui who reigned from 1438–1471. The reason for the site’s abandonment, however, is unknown, but lack of water may have been a factor. Walkways and thousands of steps, consisting of stone blocks as well as footholds carved into underlying rock, connect the plazas, the residential areas, the terraces, the cemetery, and the major buildings. The Main Plaza, partly divided by wide terraces, is at the north-central end of the site. At the southeastern end is the only formal entrance, which leads to the Inca Trail. (Encyclopedia Britannica 2008)

Other sections/areas such as the Sacred Rock in Machu Picchu give us an overview of the level of spirituality of the Incas.

In the southern part of the ruins is the Sacred Rock, also known as the Temple of the Sun. It centers on an inclined rock mass with a small grotto; walls of cut stone fill in some of its irregular features. Rising above the rock is the horseshoe-shaped enclosure known as the Military Tower. In the western part of Machu Picchu is the temple district, also known as the Acropolis (Encyclopedia Britannica 2008).

Of all the ancient Peruvian ruins discovered in the region, Machu Picchu is in the best-preserved condition in view of the fact that it has been concealed for so long. Structures such as the Princess’s Palace continue to keep visitors in awe of the amount of work done and the attention given to details in order to produce these timeless wonders.

The Princess’s Palace is a bi-level structure of highly crafted stonework that probably housed a member of the Inca nobility. The Palace of the Inca is a complex of rooms with niched walls and a courtyard. At the other end of Machu Picchu, another path leads to the famous Inca Bridge, a rope structure that crosses the Urubamba River. Many other ruined cities were built in the region; Machu Picchu is only the most extensively excavated of these (Encyclopedia Britannica 2008).

Controversy and Debate over Ancient Artifacts

Machu Picchu is the most economically important tourist attraction in Peru, bringing in visitors from around the world. For this reason the Peruvian government wishes to repatriate the materials taken by Bingham to Yale in America.

The artifacts Bingham brought back from his trips to Peru currently compose a prominent exhibit in Yale’s Peabody Museum and are now the subject of an escalating legal dispute between the state of Peru and Yale University. Yale claims that Bingham had permission from the Peruvian president to remove the artifacts and that Peru’s Civil Code of 1852 permanently transferred title to Yale. While Peru does not dispute that Bingham had permission, it takes the position that the artifacts were only on loan to the University. (McIntosh)

Because of the relevance of this site to tourism, the Peruvian government believes that repatriating the artifacts would result in a much-needed boost to their tourism efforts, creating jobs and business opportunities in the region, thereby improving the economy.

International battles over cultural property housed in museums outside the country of origin believe that repatriating cultural objects will rob museums of the important opportunity to educate the viewing public, and rob academics and scientists of the chance to discover information about ancient cultures, the origins of mankind, and society in general (McIntosh).

One aspect that requires much consideration is the financial cost of preservation or maintenance of these items should it ever be returned to the state of Peru.

However, given the suspect circumstances that often accompany the acquisition of these objects, the recent trend is to view countries that retain the native artifacts of other countries as imperialistic, paternalistic, or even outright thieves. International law has responded to this shift in perspective and subsequent treaties have been signed and agreements made that facilitate the prosecution of art thieves and looters, as well as hinder the export of illicitly acquired cultural property (McIntosh).


Little has been recorded on the history of the Incan empire. Nowhere else on earth could anyone see a clearer perspective of the grandeur of this ancient civilization than in Machu Picchu. Indeed, it has revealed a rich culture in the history of humanity worthy of praise, educating our generation with bountiful knowledge of an era of wealth and power. The repatriation of the ancient artifacts taken from their nation to various parts of the world would not only provide the much-needed revenue these works of art would generate for their economy but even more so, it would restore their nation’s rich cultural heritage, symbolized in these national treasures, to where decency states it should belong. The Incan empire was one of the greatest civilizations in the annals of history and its discovery has shed a bright light on an ancient culture cloaked in darkness for so long.

Works Cited

“The End of an Incan Era.” Worldtrek. 5 May 2008<>.

“Historical Background – Timeline.” University of North Carolina. 5 May 2008< PLS%20333/PLS333_notes1.htm>.

“Machu Picchu.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2008.

“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas.” Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 4 May 2008<>.

“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas.” Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 4 May 2008<>.

“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas.” Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 4 May 2008<>.

“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas.” Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 4 May 2008<>.

“Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas.” Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. 4 May 2008<>.

McIntosh, Molly. “Exploring Machu Picchu: An Analysis of the Legal and Ethical Issues Surrounding the Repatriation of Cultural Property.” Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law. 5 May 2008 <’l+L.+199;.