Guide - History
THE INCA EMPIRE
In the relatively short space of a hundred years, the Incas went from a
little-known highland tribe to the greatest empire ever seen in the Americas.
They came to prominence late, in the 15th century, but through diplomacy and
warfare succeeded in dominating a territory of some 10 million Quechua speakers,
rivalling the Romans in terms of scale and organisation. Known as the Land of
the Four Quarters, or Tahuantinsuyu, the Inca empire extended more than 3000
miles from north to south, from Ecuador down to modern-day Bolivia and Chile. At
its heart sat Cusco, el ombligo del mundo - the navel of the world.
The formidable Inca ruler Pachacuteq, the “Alexander the Great” of the Andes,
was a major driving force behind the expansion which began in around 1438 after
his victory against the invading Chanca tribe. For strategic reasons, the region
around Cusco was the first to be inhabited and it’s possible that Machu Picchu
was conceived as a ceremonial and administrative centre.
Built and populated by Pachacuteq’s royal lineage, or panaca, it’s also possible
that the complex was designed to be a winter palace, a retreat from the harsh
Cusco winters. The architecture dates from the late imperial Inca period and
there are no traces of either pre-Inca settlements or post-Conquest occupation.
Much of Machu Picchu’s history remains a riddle but it’s highly likely that the
whole site was built and then abandoned in less than 100 years.
It’s estimated that there would have been a permanent population of around a
thousand people living among 200 dwellings. Terraces were cultivated to grow
maize, probably to brew chicha to use for ceremonial purposes, as well as other
crops which have since died out. For many archaeologists, Machu Picchu was the
headquarters of a region whose chief function was to provide a supply of coca
leaves for priests and the royal family to chew to counteract altitude, sickness
and hunger. For others, it was an impregnable watchtower that guarded a number
of Inca roads in the area. One thing seems certain however: that the exceptional
quality of the stonework makes it a place of great religious significance, a
place to venerate the sun and other deities such as Pachamama or mother earth.
THE SPANISH CONQUEST
|Francisco Pizarro and
Atahuallpa, the last Inca emperor, in 1532, drawing by Felipe Guamán Poma de
Ayala, c. 1600.
In 1532, Francisco Pizarro landed on the north coast of Peru, along with 260
fellow Spaniards. They headed inland to meet the Inca ruler Atahualpa whom they
subsequently tricked and took hostage. A vast ransom of gold and silver was
collected to be melted down and sent to Spain. Atahualpa was murdered
regardless. Spain maintained an uneasy truce with his half-brother Manco for two
years before thousands of Europeans arrived to join in the lucrative gold rush
and the vandalisation and looting of temples and palaces intensified. In 1536,
after a failed attempt to recapture Cusco, Manco fled to the jungle. The Spanish
proceeded to destroy anything linked to what they considered idolatrous practice
– sacred images, tombs, mummies…
Common consensus has it that Machu Picchu was abandoned in an orderly fashion,
maybe even before the Spanish arrived. This would explain why Hiram Bingham
didn’t find any precious artefacts there. The Incas had undergone a dreadful
civil war of their own just prior to the Spanish invasion which could have
spurred Machu Picchu’s inhabitants on to move elsewhere. Or it could have been
the case that the expensive running costs of such a centre were becoming a drain
on Cusco’s resources at a time of war.
As well as a lust to conquer, the Spanish brought with them European illnesses
like smallpox and measles, previously unknown in the Americas. The result was
catastrophic. The Incas had no immunity and by the end of the 16th century,
disease had reduced their numbers from ten million to less than a million. One
theory is that infection may have reached Machu Picchu, thereby decimating its
Whatever happened, once abandoned, this great wonder of the world lay forgotten
for nearly four centuries. Why the Spanish – who had no qualms in pillaging
other Inca sites - never paid Machu Picchu any attention is a conundrum that
continues to tease historians to this day. The Incas picked their location well.
The inspiration for Indiana Jones, Hiram Bingham was an American historian who
had been bewitched by tales of lost Inca cities ever since visiting the
pre-Hispanic ruin of Choquequirao, also in the vicinity of Cusco. When he came
across Machu Picchu, he was actually searching for the last Inca capital, Manco
Inca’s final stronghold, and initially stated erroneously that Machu Picchu was
in fact Vilcambama, that most lost of lost Inca cities.
On 24 July 1911, after having been told about the ruins by local resident
Melchor Arteaga, Bingham made the tough climb up the Urubamba canyon. It was no
easy hike and, exhausted, he reached a small hut where two men, Richarte and
Alvarez, had been living for four years to escape the army and having to pay
taxes. Hot and tired, he was disinclined to continue but the two men encouraged
him to take a look at the vine-covered complex.
After just a few hours there taking notes and photographs, he left but returned
the following year with the Yale Expedition, having taken the decision to spend
several months clearing the overgrown site. This excavation, together with a
later one in 1915, led to the discovery of several other notable buildings and
an important Inca highway, the Inca Trail. Bingham ultimately went on to become
a US senator.