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Machu Picchu Rediscovered: The Royal Estate In The Cloud Forest

Richard L. Burger And Lucy Salazar-Burger2


The Story
Machu Picchu has been described as one of the world's most mysterious places, not only because of the other worldly atmosphere created by its ruins, slopes, and mists but also because of all the questions we have about it. Why was it situated on what seems to be a totally irrational location, a narrow ridge on heavily forested slopes? What led the Inca to invest large amounts of labor in building one of the most beautiful settlements known anywhere in the world in such a remote place? Why was its spectacular mountaintop site unknown to the Spanish conquerors of the Inca? What role did Machu Picchu play in Inca society? Since its rediscovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911— knowledge of it before this had generally remained unknown to the world beyond local inhabitants—and despite the fact that thousands of visitors have journeyed to Machu Picchu, these mysteries remain unresolved in the mind of the public. Travelers, Peruvian and foreign, continue to receive implausible and misleading interpretations and go on crediting these erroneous notions. Bingham himself held and advanced many of these still current misconceptions, which, despite the evidence, have persisted for three-quarters of a century. The ruins of Machu Picchu have inspired many myths, but some of these stories are an outgrowth of the limitations of Hiram Bingham's training and early twentieth century scholarship in general. The redoubtable leader of the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition was a professor of Latin American history at Yale, a geographer, explorer, and adventurer, but he was no archaeologist. Bingham was highly intuitive but dependent on confusing and often inconsistent Spanish Colonial documentary sources. He used these materials to draw a number of conclusions that archaeological research and other kinds of investigation contradict. His reliance on this one type of evidence and his lack of training in the other led Bingham to convince himself that what he had found was indeed what he had been seeking. Because of the vagaries of history, Machu Picchu, whatever it may have been, had remained in a near pristine state between its "loss" in the sixteenth century and its recovery in the early twentieth. Consequently the site offers the most complete example

of Inca planning known to date. Thanks to Bingham's three expeditions in the 1910s (the expeditions of 1912 and 1914-15 were cosponsored by Yale and the National Geographic Society), the Machu Picchu materials at Yale Peabody Museum have offered unlimited opportunities for new studies, which in many cases have totally refuted his theories. In fact, no other collection of Inca materials outside of Peru is nearly so large or complete or has so much potential to yield insight. Current studies of these materials continue to shed light on the governance and administration of the Inca empire, the life of its elite and its servants, and the nature of Inca society and culture. More than eighty years after Bingham's first expedition, the mist is at last rising from Machu Picchu. While from the perspective of archaeological research this process is just beginning, the insights it has produced have already transformed our understanding of the site and the empire of which it was a part. It is now time to share those insights with a wider audience beyond the community of scholars in the field. Likewise, along with the stewardship of the unique collections excavated by Bingham eight decades ago comes a responsibility to make those collections more accessible to the public. It is with these goals in mind that the Peabody Museum has begun the process of planning and seeking support for the establishment of a permanent exhibition focusing on Machu Picchu. In its proposed exhibit, the Peabody Museum seeks to demystify Machu Picchu and provide its visitors with a clearer notion of the function of the site, its role in Inca history, and the process by which archaeologists have solved the Machu Picchu riddle.

The Expedition
Adept at attracting both financial backers and publicity, Hiram Bingham, Yale ‘98, eventually migrated out of academia into politics, serving successively as LieutenantGovernor, Governor, and U.S. Senator for Connecticut. Before that career change, however, Bingham made his name as the amateur archaeologist and intrepid explorer who both "discovered" Machu Picchu and expounded the abiding—and mistaken—explanations of the site that continue to be accepted. In 1911, with support from Yale alumni, Bingham mounted an expedition to the Cuzco area in southern Peru, the capital of Tawantinsuyu, the great Inca empire. He was looking for Vilcabamba, the Neo-Inca capital on the forested eastern slopes of the Andes; from this city descendants of the Inca emperors had opposed Spanish conquest for forty years. The Spaniards ultimately subdued the resistance and sacked Vilcabamba in 1572; the area around it became depopulated. In fact, the city's location remained lost to scholars. Bingham hoped to find Vilcabamba by using sixteenth-century historical references. Aided by a road built recently to facilitate the coca leaf trade, Bingham followed the Urubamba River into an area particularly favored by the Inca royal family, previously inaccessible to exploration. On July 23, 1911, a local farmer, Melchor Arteaga, told him of Inca ruins high on a ridge over the river, hidden by secondary


Melchor Arteaga crossing bridge over the Urubamba River. The bridge was washed away a few weeks later, leaving only one log. Photo by Hiram Bingham, July 24, 1911.

growth. The next day, guided by Arteaga and then by the child of a local sharecropper who had tilled the ruins, Bingham came upon an extraordinarily well-preserved Inca with unusually fine masonry; he returned the following year to clear and excavate the site. While the name Machu Picchu did not appear in any of the chronicles with which Bingham was familiar, he nevertheless connected the site to the places described in them. He proposed—incorrectly, as it turns out—that Machu Picchu was the birthplace of the Incas, based on the link that he saw between an unusual three-windowed building at the site and the myth that the ancestors of the Incas emerged from three caves or windows. Bingham's gifts as a popularizer of his own work had the unfortunate effect of establishing this and other misinterpretations as facts in the public consciousness. It was he who described Machu Picchu as a lost city, although, in fact, it was neither a city—its population had been 750 at most—nor was it lost in any meaningful sense. In an agreement with the Peruvian government, Bingham brought the materials recovered at Machu Picchu back with him to Yale, where Peabody Museum curators and staff have carefully curated and protected them since that time. One of the advantages of this arrangement is that they have remained available for reanalysis. As we shall see, new questions and the new techniques that now exist for answering them have enabled modern scholars to rediscover Machu Picchu.

Rediscovering Machu Picchu
Contrary to Bingham's speculations, Machu Picchu's origins appear to have been quite recent, perhaps sometime in the 1450s or '60s, preceding by less than a century Pizarro's conquest of the Incas' vast Andean empire. The site's origins also appear to have been considerably less spectacular than Bingham's theories would have it in other ways. In 1982, we concluded on the basis of the archaeological evidence that Machu Picchu, far from being the Inca birthplace, was merely one of a number of personal royal estates built by Incan emperors at a remove from the imperial capital, Cuzco. In fact, eighty years of


The Sacred Plaza and Intihuatana Pyramid of Machu Picchu with the peak of Huayna Picchu in the background. Elwood Erdis and a local Peruvian assistant in the foreground. Photo by Hiram Bingham, 1912.

scholarship have radically transformed our understanding of the Incan empire and of Machu Picchu's position in it. These new insights have given a new understanding of the Machu Picchu site, and while these studies have confirmed some of Bingham's intuitions, they substantially refuted others. Machu Picchu can only be properly understood in the larger context of Inca social, economic, and political structure. Machu Picchu does not resemble any of the five types of settlement that account for 99% of the sites within Tawantinsuyu between 1450 and 1532 A.D., when the Iricas held sway: •It was only a tiny fraction of the size of Cuzco, the Inca capital, for example, with its magnificent temples, palaces, and fortress. • Nor was its form or size comparable to Inca provincial administrative capitals like Pumpu or Huanuco Pampa. • Its location and strongly religious character set it apart from the administrative way stations called tambos that the Incas had set up along their 50,000-kilometer (more than 30,000 miles) road network. • It was far too elaborate to have been either a rural village or one of the planned government agricultural sites on which the Incas forcibly settled alien ethnic communities as a punishment or development strategy. • Its classic Inca architecture and the artifacts recovered from it showed that Machu Picchu could not have been one of the non-Inca villages that paid tribute to the empire through their labor on public works, state lands, mines, and other projects. However, Machu Picchu does have features consistent with one special type of settlement—the royal estate. These—and there was a group of them in the empire—were defined as being outside of the state administrative system and their support area, belonging instead to specific emperors and their descendants. These kin groups, called


panacas or royal corporations, were each headed by an Inca king and supported in luxury by the lands and retainers acquired by conquest during that king's reign. These royal retreats were associated with lands that were farmed for the panaca, the produce of which supported the centers and their visitors. There seem to have been many of these settlements in a number of areas, but the Urubamba Valley to the north of Cuzco was specially favored, perhaps because of its proximity to the capital and its warmer climate. Descriptions of Huayna Capac's estate in Yucay, upstream from Machu Picchu, tell of exotic lowland animals and plants being kept for the emperor's pleasure. According to the chroniclers, these centers were used as country estates for relaxation when the king or his descendants traveled out of Cuzco. Hunting, entertaining other Inca nobles and foreign dignitaries, and other activities are mentioned. The fine Inca masonry, the small size of the settlement, the absence of features tied to the economic infrastructure, and other elements led us to conclude in 1982, solely on the basis of archaeological evidence, that Machu Picchu was probably such a royal estate. This hypothesis appeared to be confirmed in 1986 when John Howland Rowe discovered a 1568 document, written only 36 years after Pizarro's arrival, that mentions a site Picchu, approximately where Machu Picchu is located today; the term Machu that precedes Picchu means old and was used by locals to differentiate it from the small hill behind it called Huayna Picchu, which means young. The entire area, according to Rowe, apparently belonged to the Inca emperor Pachacuti (or Inca Yupanqui). Although the site itself is not mentioned, the documents imply that the archaeological site of Machu Picchu would have fallen within Pachacuti's estate. This fact is not surprising because it was under Pachacuti's leadership that the Inca armies conquered the Urubamba drainage in an effort to protect the Cuzco basin from a sneak attack by their principal adversaries, the Chancas. Although the Machu Picchu area had only been lightly settled before the Inca conquest, it had strategic importance for the neighboring highland groups. It is generally believed that Pachacuti only conquered the middle and lower Urubamba after his conquest of the Chancas, probably sometime in the 1450s; in 1471 Topa Inca took over as emperor. Using these dates as boundaries, it seems reasonable to suggest that Machu Picchu was built sometime between 1450 and 1470, and had only been in use for some 80 years when Tawantinsuyu crumbled and the site was abandoned.

The Royal Haven
Studies of the structure and the functioning of the royal household indicate that during clear cold weather of the Andean winter (May to August), members of the Incan royalty relaxed, hunted, and entertained foreign dignitaries and other guests in Machu Picchu's warmer and more pleasant climate. The land around the retreat was terraced and farmed and otherwise made delightful to the rulers, their families, and visiting Inca nobles. In modern American terms Machu Picchu, as well as the other royal estates, was a kind of Inca "Camp David," except that the estates did not pass to the king's successor upon his departure from office.

Another major difference was in the style of rulership: the Inca traveled with his court, which consisted of hundreds of retainers and advisors: Even after his death, the Inca's mummy was cared for by hundreds of servants and, as during his lifetime, his body in mummified form was carefully tended, fed, and given a daily change of clothing.3 When the weather grew rainy, the mummy was carried on a litter to more pleasant climes. What implications does the identification of Machu Picchu as a royal estate have for the interpretation of the archaeological remains? First of all, the general layout becomes comprehensible from a functional perspective. It would be expected that the site would have been used for part of each year, perhaps during May to August, when nightly frosts are common in Cuzco. During this period, a number of royal families linked to the Inca would have resided at the site along with a much larger number of retainers to serve them. In addition, a permanent population of caretakers must have lived at the site throughout the year. Indeed, when we look at the layout of the site, we can immediately identify a sector of high-status households. In the classic form, called kancha by the Inca themselves, rectangular buildings used for sleeping, cooking and household storage were arranged within a walled compound around a central patio. Each kancha group has a single entrance, and would have been used by a single family group. Bingham, aware of Inca custom, correctly identified these as ayllu households. As one might expect, each house group is unique in its room arrangement, decorations, and other features, just as each family differs in size, history, and status. Many of the kanchas have particularly elite features, such as double-jamb entries, cut-stone walls, and other elegances. Now, after studying these households and comparing them with those of humble agriculturalists and their local-level chiefs, we can say with confidence that these are elite households. An unusual feature of these elite households is the bar-sockets that were carved in the entryway to each compound. These are believed to have been used to block entry to the compound, either symbolically by


holding a cord or wood bar, or, as Bingham suggested, by lashing a door across the space. One elaborate household is found outside this sector, on the other side of the plaza, and Bingham may have been correct when he called this the King's Group. It is significant that behind each of these elite household compounds, outside the compound walls, there are several buildings lacking patio area or any kancha-like arrangement. Such buildings at other Inca sites have been identified as houses belonging to yanacona, the Inca term for retainers assigned to particular elite families. Our current working hypothesis is that these buildings were occupied by servants associated with the adjacent households. When all of the possible domestic dwellings are counted, there are less than 150 such buildings within the site. Even if they were all residential in function and all were occupied, it is difficult to argue for a maximum population at any time in excess of 750 people, and it is likely that the actual number was closer to 500 people, most of whom were retainers. This number of course does not include the inhabitants of the land surrounding Machu Picchu whose farmers provided food for the people living there. However, there is no evidence within the city of houses of farmers, nor did Bingham's extensive excavations recover the types of stone tools used by agriculturalists. Indeed, if we set aside domestic architecture used by the elite and their servants, the most common features at Machu Picchu are those involved in the various religious cults that were central to elite life. Like most conquerors, the Incas claimed to be morally and theologically superior to the people they conquered, and they even claimed that their deities—Inti the sun and Wiracocha the creator—had instructed them to go forth and subdue the nations to their north, south, east and west. Their claim to legitimacy was closely tied to their ideology of being descended from the sun and having special links to the cosmos and its manipulation. Inca rituals required a core of specialists and involved complex astronomical observations and carefully specified sequences of prayer and sacrifice. Inca sites were carefully brought into alignment with mountain peaks and constellations that were the foci of myriad supernatural forces. Thus it is in no way surprising that an elite estate such as Machu Picchu would feature numerous places for such solar observations—the windows of the torreon, an unusual building with curved walls and fine stonework—or for making offerings—the principal temple—or for storing the bodies of ancestors—the cave beneath the torreon. It is interesting, however, that in addition to such public areas of worship and ceremony on the higher northwest sector of the site, there are also small family shrines within each of the elite compounds, where more intimate family rituals could be carried out.

Demystifying Machu Picchu
The scholarship of the last decade has convincingly disproved Bingham's dual identifications of Machu Picchu as either the last Inca capital (that is, Vilcabamba) or the mythic Inca birthplace (that is, Tambotoco). But how about Bingham's rather lurid claim that the so-called Virgins of the Sun occupied Machu Picchu? This theory, not particularly consistent with his other two theories, derived largely from G. F. Eaton's4 conclusion that the 143 skeletons recovered in the Machu Picchu burials had almost all been women, with a few "effeminate men." These burials have been discovered mainly in walled-up crevices beneath or adjacent to the large boulders strewn along the edges of the site. Bingham was familiar with the Inca custom of selecting young girls at the age of ten or so, and assigning them to state-run female institutions where they were trained and educated to become priestesses, sacrificial victims, or, in most cases, to be kept as secondary wives of Inca emperors or to be distributed as a sign of favor to successful generals, administrators, or allies. The houses or acllawasi where these celibate women lived were compared to nunneries by the Spaniards, and they were the focus of many Spanish accounts. Understandably, Eaton's findings brought this group to Bingham's mind. However, long after Bingham's pioneering work a documented accllawasi was excavated by Craig Morris at the site of Huanuco Pampa, an Inca city in the Central Andes. Morris found that it had a distinctive barracks-like form in which a large compound with a single entrance encloses a densely packed set of rooms. When excavated, these features yield high numbers of spindle whorls, hair pins, or other artifacts associated with females. But no such architectural arrangement exists at Machu Picchu. Nor did Bingham encounter large numbers of weaving implements or other characteristically female-related artifacts in any particular sector. Nor would a royal estate, such as Machu Picchu is now understood to have been, be a likely location for an acllawasi. How then can we explain Eaton's findings? The skeletal materials, like the other Machu Picchu artifacts brought back by Bingham from Machu Picchu to Yale and carefully curated and protected since then, have undergone reanalysis in recent years in two independent osteological studies carried out at the Yale Peabody Museum.5 Both studies concluded that there were roughly the same number of males as females represented and, moreover, that many of the females were adult females who had given birth. Quite simply, Bingham's theory of the Virgins of the Sun was an attempt to explain a nonexistent anomaly in the evidence.


The burials of Inca men and women do, however, shed light on life in Machu Picchu. Like modern vacation homes, royal estates were not the preferred burial grounds of the elite. Inca royalty who died suddenly while visiting Machu Picchu would have been borne back on litters (as they had been brought there) for mummification or burial in Cuzco, the imperial capital. One would expect only retainers to be interred at a place like Machu Picchu. This expectation accords well with the archaeological evidence. First of all, little energy was expended in preparation of the burial chamber which, in most cases, was just an unmodified natural space with a few rocks piled around the body to keep wild animals out. Secondly, most of the goods left with those found buried at Machu Picchu were modest at best. Since the dead were believed to use the items interred with them in their journey to the next world, even low-ranking officials—burials of the lowest Inca bureaucrat (called curaka pachaka), who had charge of 100 taxpayers, are known from excavation in Ica—were interred with precious metal cups, more than a dozen pieces of pottery and other offerings. The burials at Machu Picchu, in contrast, usually had only a few modest offerings with the body, rarely more than four or six pots, and even these were frequently vessels that had been repaired during the life of the deceased. On burial goods alone we could infer that the Machu Picchu dead were people of relatively low status. Similarly, many of these skeletons bear the traces of broken bones and bad backs that mark common working folk/as one would expect from retainers. At the same time, the retainers of the Inca elite are known to have been drawn from throughout the provinces; for example, the royal estate upstream from Machu Picchu at Yucay was said to have had retainers brought from Ecuador. The nonlocal origin and heterogeneity of the retainer population also fits well with the burial sample. For example, there are several types of cranial deformation represented, including types that are not typical of the Cuzco region. Moreover, a carbon-isotope study of the skeletal remains shows that while all of the tested individuals had corn as their staple, there was much more variation in the amount of maize than has ever been encountered in a single homogeneous population. The likely explanation of this is that some of the individuals had been brought from high altitude areas where maize by necessity was consumed at a somewhat lower level. The identification of the Machu Picchu burials as primarily of servants helps to explain why Bingham failed to encounter large quantities of precious metal objects, since these would have been proscribed for most retainers. Ironically, Bingham's misreading of Machu Picchu and its importance led some Cuzco scholars and journalists to expect the kinds of rich grave goods known from other Inca sites. When Bingham failed to produce them, he was charged with having stolen all of the gold and silver items for personal gain, accusations that, in part, eventually led him to abandon Peruvian archaeology.

Why Machu Picchu Was "Lost"?
Machu Picchu's location is indeed spectacular, and it was probably for this reason that it was selected. Whether or not it was couched in terms of sacred geography or


cosmological determinism, the Incas appreciated the aesthetic qualities of highland landscapes as much as or more than modern-day archaeologists and travelers do; their fascination with the site's location may have shared many features with our own. Yet the choice of this spot had disadvantages as well as advantages. For one thing, the site was located 160 kilometers from Cuzco in a lightly settled region; as such, it was particularly vulnerable to surprise attacks either from rebellious locals or other highland groups like the Chanca or unconquered jungle groups downstream. With little prospect of reinforcements in the immediate area, the elite staying at Machu Picchu would have had to be concerned about security even during a short sojourn at the site. This concern is reflected in Machu Picchu's architecture. The building atop Huayna Picchu was positioned to enable detection of advancing armies far in advance of their arrival. The major road leading to Machu Picchu features a drawbridge spanning a chasm from which attendants could remove the requisite logs in case of a threat. The site itself is inaccessible from three sides because of the steep slopes; the fourth side is protected by a deep dry moat, which has since been largely filled in by eroding soil. Beyond the stone-lined trench are two high stone walls. There is a single entrance into the inner city and this could have been lashed and defended even if the moat and the first wall were breached. As many scholars have noted, while Machu Picchu is not laid out as a military installation, it is undeniable that, in contrast to many Inca sites, special design features made the site defensible in case of an attack. As this discussion suggests, the relationship between the elite and support populations in this situation may have been perceived as sensitive, and this tension can be seen reflected in the way hospitality was provided to these groups. Inca rule was premised on the myth of royal generosity; Inca bureaucrats spent much of their time wining and dining the taxpayers at state centers, providing them with corn beer, coca leaves, and music. Studies at Huanuco Pampa and other Inca administrative centers have demonstrated that the structures most commonly found around the main open plaza areas are long hallways (sometimes called kallankas by archaeologists) that were used for this ritual feasting. What identifies these kallankas are their many doorways and the
The largest kallanka at Machu Picchu. The ruins of the eight-door structure are in the foreground, with the watchman’s hut and funerary rock in the center distance and the city of Machu Picchu below to the left.

large numbers of broken beer containers found surrounding them.

In Machu Picchu, such kallankas are not found in the plaza area. Instead, smaller versions of the kallankas are associated with each of the elite compounds, as if the royal families created facilities only to entertain each other, clearly excluding the larger agricultural population that must have inhabited the countryside. There is, however, one large kallanka in the Machu Picchu complex and it is located outside of the city walls, above the agricultural ten-aces about 120 meters to the south. Although small by Inca standards, this eight-door kallanka is twice the size of any inside the city; it would have been perfect for entertaining a large group of farmers without allowing them inside the town walls. In front of the kallanka is an open plaza space with a carved stone, probably used for religious rituals on these occasions. The reason for Machu Picchu's abandonment is easy to understand. It was never a self-sufficient center with an economic rationale. Its very existence was a luxury made possible by the surplus labor and goods at the disposal of the Inca elite. When Tawantinsuyu was conquered the socioeconomic system underlying it collapsed and royal estates like Machu Picchu lost both the reason and the resources to continue to function. Some royal estates closer to Cuzco such as Yucay or Pisac were transformed into simple rural villages and continued to survive as part of the emerging colonial economy. But others, like Machu Picchu, were too far from the main road system and urban markets to make continued utilization feasible; by the time the farmers finally abandoned the area the Inca elite and their retainers had long since fled, taking with them whatever portable objects were of value. The reason Machu Picchu does not appear in any of the chronicles is not particularly mysterious either. Historical records of that time were the work of Spanish writers, who wrote mainly of those settlements perceived as being of special economic or military importance. Royal estates, of which Machu Picchu was but one of many, had little reason to attract their attention, particularly if like Machu Picchu they had been abandoned before large numbers of Spaniards had entered the region. Other impressive royal estates, such as Pisac, are similarly ignored by the chronicles, even though they were closer to Cuzco and continued to be used in colonial times. Mysterious or not, the "loss" to memory of Machu Picchu and the other royal estates until quite recently limited our understanding of the social and political life of the Incan empire. Misinterpretations notwithstanding, Yale's Hiram Bingham made an inestimable contribution to our knowledge of Peru before the conquests. Resources permitting, within a very few years, the Peabody Museum will offer its visitors an opportunity to appreciate Bingham's legacy to modern archaeological scholarship and the remarkable culture of which Machu Picchu was an expression.

Originally published in Discovery 24(2):20-25 1993. For purposes of increased clarity, several illustrations have been added to this online version.

Richard L. Burger is (1993) Professor and Chairman of the Yale Department of Anthropology and Curator of Anthropology at the Yale Peabody Museum. Lucy Salazar-Burger is a Curatorial Affiliate of the Museum.



Included here are four drwings from the book, El Primer Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno by Felipe Guman Poma de Ayala, a member of the non-Inca native elite. He live at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth.

George F. Eaton (1872-1949) was Curator of Osteology (1902-20) at the Peabody Museum of Natural History and a member of the 1012 Yale Expedition to Peru.

2002 Update – A third and definitive reanalysis of the Machu Picchu skeletal material was performed in 2000 by Dr. John Verano, a noted expert on the subject of Andean human osteology from Tulane University. His analysis, although identifying slightly more females than males among the Machu Picchu burials (1.68::1), generally confirmed the results of the these two earlier analyses in rejecting Eaton’s conclusion, which had said that there were almost four times the number of female as males among the Machu Picchu burials.