The Origins

Built during the reign of Inca Pachacutec (1438 – 1471), Machu Picchu took some 30 years to construct. Due to limited historical information the true and original name of this epic Inca citadel is unknown. The name Machupicchu (written in English as Machu Picchu) was given to the citadel by Hiram Bingham after its scientific discovery in 1911. The name, a Quechua word, derives from the mountain that lies to the south-west of the citadel, and today it is widely accepted that that the name Machu Picchu translates as “Old Mountain.”

The Citadel

Machu Picchu covers a vast area of approximately 9 hectares (22.3 acres), and is constructed on a mountain ridge high above the Urubamba Valley. Machu Picchu is split into two main sectors: the Agricultural Sector in the south and the Urban Sector in the north, of which both are roughly equal in size. Granite stone was the main building material used in the construction of Machu Picchu, which was obtained from onsite quarries and others within close proximity. The Agricultural Sector is largely made up of row after row of stepped terraces and store houses, whilst the Urban Sector is made up of streets, corrals, kanchas, storehouses, lodgings and impressive temples. The finest Inca construction techniques were reserved for the Royal Quarter; the best examples are found at the Sacred Plaza, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon.

The Residents

It’s not known precisely how many people lived at Machu Picchu, but historians estimate that the population was between 1000 – 1200 people. During archaeological excavations in 1912 a total of 107 burial caves situated around the Inca city were found. Archaeologists under the direction of Dr. George Eaton recorded 164 human skeletons, of which a disproportionately high number were adult females. In recent years medical experts claim that the methods used to determine sex and age of the skeletons during the original expedition where not highly sophisticated, leading to debate about the actual findings.

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The Spanish Conquest

Between 1537 – 1545, as the small Spanish army and its allies started to gain ground over the Inca Empire, Manco Inca abandoned Machu Picchu, fleeing to safer retreats. The residents took with them their most valuable belongings and destroyed Inca trails connecting Machu Picchu with the rest of the empire. Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish, and subsequently was left untouched, lost to the dense Amazon Jungle for the next 5 centuries.

The Re-discovery

On the morning of July 24, 1911, Hiram Bingham the young Yale University lecturer and explorer stumbled upon the Inca City of Machu Picchu. Led by a local pheasant famer Melchor Arteaga and a young boy called Pablito, Hiram Bingham was taken to the sprawling Inca citadel, hidden below a blanket of dense Amazon Jungle. Incredibly Machu Picchu was initially overlooked by Bingham, spending only a short time at the citadel before continuing his expedition to find the last known stronghold of the Incas – the city of Vilcabamba. Although Hiram Bingham was the first to really bring Machu Picchu to the world’s attention, evidence shows that other explorers had arrived at Machu Picchu many years before. In 1874 the German explorer Herman Göhring registered the citadel on his expedition map. Later, in 1901 Agustin Lizarraga left his name engraved on a wall of the three Windowed Temple, which was recorded as part of Hiram Bingham’s findings, but later omitted from his memoirs.

1912 Archaeological Expedition

In 1912, The National Geographic and Yale University led my Hiram Hingham organised an excavation of Machu Picchu. With support from the Peruvian Government and help from local hired labour, Bingham set about to unveil the hidden secrets of the Inca city. Starting in strategic locations around the citadel, they opened tombs, recovered important structures from the heavy jungle growth, made archaeological digs and photographed the area. Although the excavations were extensive, very little of great importance was found. Thousands of small articles were recovered including pieces of pots, plates, jugs cups and vases. Lithic materials found included hundreds of hammer stones, mortars, grinders and polishing stones. Due to the degradation from the humid climate little clothing or fabrics where recovered. No hierarchical mummies were discovered, with only tomb number 26 located on the Trail to Inti Punku yielding significant importance. Many of the articles recovered from Machu Picchu were later (rightly or wrongly) shipped to Yale University in the USA, where further scientific examinations were carried out. In recent years, after a high profile campaign by the Peruvian government, most of the items have now been returned to Peru and are on display at La Casa Concha Museum in Cusco’s historic centre.

Machu Picchu Today

Today, this epic Inca citadel is one of South America’s (if not the world’s) greatest archaeological sites. In 1981, Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary and later in 1983, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Official tourism figures for 2013 showed that Machu Picchu received over 650,000 international and national visitors, peaking during the months of June and July. Currently the Peruvian government has set a limit of 2,500 entrance tickets per day, but international interest is increasing at a rapid rate, with tourism figures growing by approximately 10% year on year. Worries over the environmental impact from over exploitation by tourism is a growing challenge for the future of Machu Picchu and indeed tourism in Peru.