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Writer, photographer, archaeologist, and National Geographic grantee Peter Frost lives in Cusco, Peru, and has spent years investigating Inca and pre-Inca sites. He has written about the Inca for National Geographic magazine, and shares his insights with travelers on our Peru: Land of the Inca expeditions and select departures of our Machu Picchu Inn to Inn adventures. On this centennial of Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery of Machu Picchu, National Geographic Expeditions' Ford Cochran spoke with Peter about this world wonder and the people who built it.
Q: You’ve devoted many years to the study of Machu Picchu and the Inca, and you’ve taken a number of National Geographic travelers to the site. Could you give us some highlights of what you share with them?
A: I’ll start out with what we know: Machu Picchu was the royal estate of an Inca king, Pachacuti, the ninth Inca ruler and the first who could really call himself an emperor. He began the expansion of the Inca Empire. We learned this from documents found in the 1980s.
Why he built it where he did is open to interpretation and dispute. I’ll give you the two main theories: the first, which I and many scholars subscribe to, is that this was a sacred religious site. It’s remote, far away from the center of the Inca Empire, off the main axis, off to the east in the mountains. The reason I believe they built it here is that it’s special in terms of its spiritual connections.
If you were an Inca, you were looking at the snowcapped peaks and the sacred rivers. It stands at the end of a ridge that connects it with a peak bordering on 21,000 feet. Today we call the nearby river the Urubamba, but the Inca called it the Willcamayo—literally “sacred river.” It goes all the way around the site, nearly surrounding it. Machu Picchu sits right in the neck of the bend.
These two things, plus many others, suggest there’s something very special about the place. And also, the theory holds, they built it there because they could. You look around and see there’s nowhere else nearby that they could build a complex of that size.
The rival theory: Pachacuti built Machu Picchu so he could move his court to a warmer place during the winter months in Cusco. The main square of Cusco is at 11,150 feet. The center of Machu Picchu is at 7,500, more or less, so at lower elevation and warmer.
Q: How many people inhabited Machu Picchu?
A: At its maximum, Machu Picchu could have housed about 1,000 to 1,200 people. We don’t know how many lived there year-round, but it’s likely that the population rose and fell with visits of the Inca emperor. The evidence would suggest a sizable population, because they’ve found quite a large number of burials there.
Q: How long did it take for the Inca to construct Machu Picchu?
A: I suspect that it was being built throughout the period of the Incan empire. Much of it was built while Pachacuti was alive. He’s believed to have reigned from about 1438 to about 1470, and the Inca lasted another 50 years before they were conquered by the Spaniards. There’s lots of work that was abandoned, lots of evidence of remodeling, later work that was lower grade than the earlier work at the site.
One of the things I love about the Inca is that they were both wonderfully sensitive to the aesthetics of architecture and landscapes, and yet they were extremely practical and got things done efficiently. Machu Picchu has been designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. We owe it to the engineers, the fact that we have Machu Picchu at all—such brilliant foundations, drainage, and other innovations. Abandoned to the forest with no maintenance for about 400 years, it would have slid off the mountain if it hadn’t been so brilliantly designed.
Q: What ultimately became of the Inca?
A: The Inca were divided by the Spanish invasion, and by the civil war they had fought before the Spanish came. Some made a niche for themselves within Spanish society, and some retreated to the Vilcabamba Valley. They were invaded three times by the Spanish: twice early on and once at the end, when the Spanish finished them off. They maintained a rough state in Vilcabamba and built a new capital city there, out on the edges of the rain forest, and held out as long as they could. The last Inca king was finally dragged out of Vilcabamba in 1572 and executed in Cusco, and that was the end of the Inca royal line.
Q: What’s the legacy of Machu Picchu?
A: I think it’s huge. Machu Picchu is the only Inca site we have that’s still relatively intact. It was something extraordinary that they built, not everyday by any means. It’s a place where there’s still much to learn; it’s complex and fascinating in so many ways—still open to discovery in that sense. It changed the perspective of Peruvians themselves on their own past and their achievements. It’s a symbol of national pride and national identity, and it’s incredibly important.