The Mystery of Machu Picchu
Most often seen rising out of an early morning mist, Machu Picchu is truly a grand feat of engineering and design. But why was such an impressive structure abandoned? War? Disease? Divine intervention? Read on to learn more about the what, when and who, behind one of the greatest archaeological mysteries in human history!
Most modern historians agree that Peru’s most-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu, was built by the great statesman Pachacutec, who ruled the expansive Incan empire from 1438 to 1471. A strong leader known for his territorial conquests, Pachacutec built off his victorious war over the Chancas people to expand the Incan territory more than 2,500 miles beyond the Cusco Valley and across the South American continent.
Likely serving as a refuge for members of Inca aristocracy, the archaeological marvel known as Machu Picchu, discovered in 1911 by explorer Hiram Bingham, was built into the eastern slopes of the Vilcanota Mountain Range, located 80 miles northwest of Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire. The site’s strategic location, which includes steep cliffs on all sides and only one, narrow entrance, suggest that Machu Picchu may have served as a high altitude fortress for the Inca elite. With this theory in mind, many agree that the citadel’s placement was chosen with admirable success, as it likely only needed a few warriors to defend it, even in the event of a surprise attack.
That is why it is all the more mysterious that the well-placed site, occupied by at least three generations of Incas, appears to have been abandoned so suddenly. Here are our favorite five theories for why this amazing structure, composed of perfectly cut stones - which didn’t even require mortar to stay together - was abandoned less than 100 years after it was built.
1) Forget Me Not
One of the strongest hypotheses for the sudden desertion of Machu Picchu is one of secrecy and time’s effect on memory. Regular-class citizens, which made up the bulk of Inca society, didn’t know of Machu Picchu’s existence or whereabouts, as knowledge of the routes leading there were prohibited for anyone who was not part of the small circle of elite Inca. Consequently, the grand city may have simply faded from the Inca’s collective memory over the years before completely vanishing into oblivion.
2) Viva La Revolución!
Another theory for Machu Picchu's abandonment lies in the arrival of European explorers. Some scholars theorize that the Inca people quickly saw the writing on the wall once wars with foreign invaders began, as they realized that every man, woman and child would need to fight to protect the Inca state from imminent destruction. Using this line of thinking, Machu Picchu, along with the other Inca sites in the area, may have been left behind due to a civilization-wide recruitment of able-bodied warriors by Manco Inca and his successors from 1536 to 1572. Historical evidence even shows that Instead of using Machu Picchu as a home base for their resistance to Spanish domination, these rebels sought refuge in the more remote Vilcabamba region, in the river basins of Vilcabamba, Vitcos and Pampacona-Concebidayoc.
3) Foreign Disease
Another possible answer to the Machu Picchu mystery linked with the arrival of European conquistadors is disease. Carried from Cusco by Incas trading valuable military information from one cultural hub to another, some scholars believe that a foreign-born plague may have been responsible for the decimation of Machu Picchu’s population. But if this scenario is true, why were there few if any human remains found at the Machu Picchu site?
4) Power Trip
While war and plagues seem like fairly plausible reasons for abandonment, some historians also consider it possible that the sudden evacuation of Machu Picchu could be linked to the death of Pachacutec, the great emperor of the Inca. This line of thinking stems from our knowledge of the ancient Inca custom of constructing a “fresh royal estate” for each new ruler. While somewhat far-fetched, it is possible that the next ruler in line exercised his newly-bestowed power and moved the seat of his empire elsewhere after the death of Pachacutec.
5) Word From Above
The last of our favorite five theories is also the most far-out. Because the Inca were such a spiritually-inclined people, some historians have speculated that the Inca Gods - Inti, God of the Sun, Viracocha, the Creator, and Killa, God of the Moon - told the Inca people to leave Machu Picchu because it was a sacred site on which no mortals were permitted to live. While this theory is our personal favorite, it does feel the least likely when compared with the other four previously mentioned.
As you can likely tell from the above, the truth about why Machu Picchu was left behind will probably remain a mystery forever. Fortunately, whether or not we ever learn what really happened doesn’t take away from the site’s incredible beauty, as well as its status as one of the most amazing feats of human ingenuity the world has ever seen. In fact, the structures at Machu Picchu were so well built and so well aligned with numerous astrological events - including the solstices, equinoxes and many constellations - that some even speculate there may have been some alien involvement in the great citadel’s construction! But that’s a whole other set of theories...
Want to see this amazing place first-hand to make your own conclusions as to who built it and why it was abandoned? Join us today on a Tour!