Why Was Machu Picchu Built?

Breathtaking view of Machu Picchu as it sits high in the Peruvian Andes.
  • Machu Picchu was built by the Incas and was used for about 100 years until it was mysteriously abandoned.
  • Scholars have surmised that the original purpose of Machu Picchu could have been as a military base, ceremonial center, or, more likely, a retreat for the elite members of society.
  • So many tourists venture into the site that, in order to help preserve the environment, limits of 2,500 visitors per day have been placed on admittance to this highly popular landmark.

Machu Picchu stands as a reminder of the once-great Incan Empire, a thriving civilization from the 1400s until the Spanish conquest in the 1530s. Built sometime around 1450, the exact purpose behind what are now the ruins of this massive Peruvian complex have long remained a mystery. Because of the range of buildings uncovered at the archaeological site, scholars have surmised that the original purpose of Machu Picchu could have been as a military base, ceremonial center, or, more likely, simply a retreat for the elite members of society. Given the information historians have learned about Incan society and religious practice, it is widely believed that rituals involving human and animal sacrifices took place at Machu Picchu.

Geography and Architecture

Machu Picchu is a wonder of civil engineering that demonstrates how sophisticated the Inca were as a civilization. Image credit: Russell Johnson/Shutterstock

Located at a height of almost 8,000 feet and situated between the Andes Mountains and the Amazon River Basin, Machu Picchu covers an area of about 5 square miles (13 square km). This picturesque landmark is made up of around 200 structures including temples, plazas, and individual residences. It is a marvel of civil engineering, though that might not be apparent to the naked eye: it was built on a ridge between two mountains in what could easily be considered a near-impossible place, even today. It also included complex water irrigation and drainage systems, and a lot of work, experts say over 60% of the total work on Machu Picchu, took place underneath the surface to lay a steady foundation.

Because the original builders didn’t have access to materials like mortar, iron, or steel, Machu Picchu was painstakingly constructed by custom fitting cut stones together. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, this construction method prevented damage caused by earthquakes, which are a common occurrence in Peru. The area had been divided into urban and rural sectors as well as an upper and lower town. The site also contains a temple devoted to the Incan Sun God Inti, a mausoleum, guardhouse as well as an area set aside for use by royal members only.

Eventual Desertion

It is unclear why Machu Picchu was deserted around 100 years after it was built. Image credit: Olga Kot Photo/Shutterstock

It’s been estimated that Machu Picchu (or “Old Peak” in Quechua) was deserted around 1572, which was some time after Spanish forces took over the area. Some historians have speculated that the residents of this ancient city succumbed to an epidemic of smallpox, because there is no evidence of the Spanish conquistadors made it anywhere near the mountaintop city indicating they may have heard to avoid it. The fact remains, however, that Spanish troops, led by Francisco Pizarro, never themselves discovered the existence of Machu Picchu during the period in which they began invading this portion of Peru in search of gold, silver, and other treasures. Although the site may have been known by local Indigenous peoples for many years, it remained hidden to the rest of the world until its rediscovery in 1911.

Rediscovery and International Fame

American explorer Hiram Bingham is credited with discovering Machu Picchu, as is indicated on this plaque in the ruins. Image credit: Arne Beruldsen/Shutterstock

Although there’s some evidence that other explorers may have actually rediscovered Machu Picchu before him, American explorer and politician Hiram Bingham is officially credited as being the first person to bring the area to the attention of the modern world. During an expedition in 1911 Bingham and his small crew were searching for the lost Incan city of Vilcabamba. After meeting with a local resident who told him about ruins located high up in the Andes mountains Hingham managed to clear his way through the overgrown jungle only to stumble upon the ancient site of Machu Picchu. 

When he came across it, three farming families occupied the ruins, living off of the land. In order to document his discovery, the explorer not only took an extensive array of photographs but he also removed a large array of ancient relics and assorted historic objects and brought them back to Yale University to be studied. This caused a controversy between Yale and the government of Peru relating to the ownership of the objects that lasted nearly 100 years, until Yale finally returned the objects after being sued.

Conservation and Tourism

A limit has bee placed on the number of tourists who can visit the ruins in a day to curb the negative impacts of tourism. Image credit: The World in HDR/Shutterstock

Today, Machu Picchu attracts visitors from around the world. So many tourists venture into the site that, in order to help preserve the environment, limits of 2,500 visitors per day have been placed on admittance to this highly popular landmark. Due to its historic and cultural importance, the Peruvian ruins have been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visiting Machu Picchu is not without risk, however, as tourists face a number of challenges including dangers due to flooding, altitude sickness, and the possibility of natural disasters such as deadly earthquakes and landslides. In recent years, there have been increasing calls for the local government to enact restrictions to help prevent further deterioration of Machu Picchu. UNESCO officials have even called for the area to be put on its list of World Heritage in Danger.

Machu Picchu is a sight to behold, but tourism to the area takes its toll on ruins. Hundreds of thousands of footsteps a day accelerate the erosion and deterioration of the centuries-old structure. Do the stunning views outweigh the impact your journey has? Only you can answer that question for yourself.


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