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Machu Picchu (Peru)

Inca Royal Estate and Ceremonial Center


Machu Picchu Overview

Machu Picchu Overview

Ed Nellis
Carved Shrine at Machu Picchu

Carved Shrine at Machu Picchu

Ed Nellis
Terraces at Machu Picchu

Terraces at Machu Picchu

Ed Nellis

Machu Picchu is the name of one of the residential palaces and ceremonial centers of the Inca Pachacuti, and the most famous archaeological site of the Inca Empire. The name means "Old Mountain", and it refers to one of two mountains on which Machu Picchu lies—the other is Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), located 3,000 feet above the Urubamba Valley in Peru.

Machu Picchu lies on a perennially cloud-draped ridge between the two peaks, part of the royal estate of the Inca king Pachacuti [AD 1438-1471]. The site is made up of single buildings arranged in groups, along streets, adjacent to plazas and terraces. Many of the buildings are residences, some of white granite masonry such as that seen in the city of Cuzco. Some of the buildings, which must have been built for special purposes, are partly carved into the bedrock and partly built from finely cut white granite.

Machu Picchu and Empire Building

While Machu Picchu is mostly known for its architectural beauty and its near inaccessibility, it is the empire-building career of its builder which provides a great deal of the site's importance. The Inca empire had its foundations around 1200 AD. It remained small, one of several competing regional polities, until late in the reign of the eighth Inca king, Viracocha, about 1438 AD. At that time, the Inca capital at Cuzco was attacked by the Chancas, a powerful group who lived to the north. Viracocha fled, but his son, Inca Yupanqui, refused to cede and fought his way to victory.

Machu Picchu and Pachacuti's Cataclysm

After his victory, Inca Yupanqui took the name Pachacuti (which means "cataclysm"), and began the empire building for which the Inca are renowned. His campaign of conquest and diplomacy extended Inca control out over the Central and Southern Highlands of Peru. Over the next 55 years, Pachacuti and his son Topa Inca conquered major portions of the southern coast of Peru, the northern half of Chile, northwest Argentina, and eastern Bolivia.

It was Pachacuti who began the fabulous white granite constructions in Cuzco itself as well as at Machu Picchu that are known as Inca architecture. Inca architecture, as seen in Cuzco, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu, is characterized by cut masonry without mortar. The faces of the stone are cut so finely that you can't insert a needle between them.

Machu Picchu 'Discovered'

The "discovery" of the site is usually ascribed to Hiram Bingham, adventurer/explorer/archaeologist/military man/state senator, who first visited the ruins in 1911; but it is pretty clear that the site was never really "lost." Bingham got a lot wrong in his book on Machu Picchu, but there is no doubt that his work in Peru brought the world's attention to the ancient culture of the Inca.


See the Walking Tour of Machu Picchu for more details about this amazing site.

This glossary entry is part of the About.com Guide to the Inca Empire and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

A Walking Tour of Machu Picchu has been assembled for this project.

Berger, K. and et al. 1988 Radiocarbon dating Machu Picchu, Peru. Antiquity 62:707-710.

Cuadra, C., M. B. Karkee, and K. Tokeshi 2008 Earthquake risk to Inca’s historical constructions in Machupicchu. Advances in Engineering Software 39(4):336-345.

Gordon, Robert and Robert Knopf 2007 Late horizon silver, copper, and tin from Machu Picchu, Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science 34:38-47.

Shinoda, Ken-ichi, Noboru Adachi, Sonia Guillen, and Izumi Shimada 2006 Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of Ancient Peruvian Highlanders. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 131(1):98-107.

Turner, Bethany L., George D. Kamenov, John D. Kingston, and George J. Armelagos 2009 Insights into immigration and social class at Machu Picchu, Peru based on oxygen, strontium, and lead isotopic analysis. Journal of Archaeological Science 36(2):317-332.

Wright, Kenneth R., Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, and William L. Lorah 1999 Ancient Machu Picchu Drainage Engineering. Journal of Irrigation and Drainage Engineering 125(6):360-369.

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