10 Things You Never Knew About Machu Picchu

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As a Peruvian historical sanctuary, Machu Picchu has captured our imaginations since the dawn of its existence. In the mornings, this mystical city is shrouded in mist, but in the afternoon sun, you’ll see majestic stone edifices scattered across an emerald landscape.

Surprisingly, Machu Picchu remained hidden for centuries. However, it later emerged as one of the best-preserved sites of the Incan Empire. In 2007, voters chose Machu Picchu as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. While you might be familiar with the famous city (and its photo-bombing alpacas), there’s still much to learn about this mysterious place. Here are 10 things you likely didn’t know about Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu Means “Old Peak”

Machu Picchu on a cloudy day
Credit: jimfeng/ iStock

The Incan people spoke an enduring ancient language. In their native Quechua, Machu Picchu translated to “Old Peak.” We agree it isn’t a very exciting name for a world-famous site. However, the ancient city impresses in other ways. In 2018, more than 1.5 million visitors thronged the famous Inca citadel to see such sights as the iconic Temple of the Sun and Intihuatana stone, a beautifully-carved granite edifice. According to “The Guardian,” the ancient language of Quechua is still spoken by more than four million Peruvians today.

Part of the Site Is an Ancient Observatory

A famous astronomical observatory at Machu Picchu
Credit: SL_Photography/ iStock 

No one really knows why the Incan people built Machu Picchu, but there are numerous theories surrounding its origin. One of the more popular theories is that the city was a retreat for royal and elite Incas.

Historians are convinced, however, that part of the city once functioned as an astronomical observatory. According to “Scientific American,” a cave-like stone structure called Intimachay helped the Inca people track the seasons. The structure has windows on all sides to let in sunlight during solstices and equinoxes. This helped the Inca people know when to plant and harvest crops as well as when to hold religious celebrations.

Between 500 and 750 People Lived There at One Time

Inca city of Machu Picchu
Credit: VarnaK/ Shutterstock

Compared to today’s cities, Machu Picchu had a pretty modest population size. The book “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas” estimates that a maximum of 750 people lived in the city at its peak. Most of the population was from the servant class called yanaconas. They worked in the homes of elite Incas. The Spanish were the first to differentiate between yanaconas de españoles (servants of private citizens) and yanaconas del rey (servants who owed allegiance to the Spanish crown).

The Buildings Are Earthquake-Resistant

A man wanderings through the ruins of the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu
Credit: Russell Johnson/ Shutterstock

The 750 residents inhabited around 150 buildings in the city. Amazingly, these buildings have managed to stay largely intact in earthquake-prone Peru. According to “National Geographic,” builders used a very precise method of stone-cutting to create the structures.

The technique is so precise that not even an ATM card can be slid between the stones. By all indications, the workmen of Machu Picchu used no mortar in fashioning the buildings. That’s not only a feat of ancient engineering, but also a method of earthquake protection. We know the region is prone to earthquakes. However, the stone structures are seismic-resistant. The stone walls might tremble during an earthquake, but they inevitably settle down after the tremors subside.

Residents Abandoned the City for Unknown Reasons

Doorway at Machu Picchu
Credit: Uwe Bergwitz/ Shutterstock

Machu Picchu was only occupied by the Incan people for about a century, according to “History.” It appears that the residents simply abandoned the site, packed up, and left. So, why did they leave? Archaeologists have several guesses. The city was abandoned around the same time as the Spanish invasion of the Incan empire in the 1530s. Perhaps, the people fled as a response to it. However, there’s little to no evidence to suggest the Spanish ever found Machu Picchu. Historians and archaeologists agree the most likely scenario is that a smallpox epidemic drove residents out of the city.

Spanish Invaders Couldn’t Find the Legendary Site

Machu Picchu in the clouds
Credit: diegograndi/ iStock

The Spanish left no stone unturned during their conquest of the Incan Empire in the 16th century. In fact, the conquistadors reduced cities to rubble during their occupation. According to the “New York Times,” Machu Picchu was largely overlooked by the Spanish. There are two good reasons for this. Firstly, archaeological records indicate that residents abandoned the city before the Spanish arrived. Whether that was due to a smallpox epidemic or a strategic retreat is up for debate.

The second reason the Spanish didn’t destroy Machu Picchu is more obvious. They just didn’t see it. Thanks to its location, Machu Picchu can’t be seen from below. Visitors can only reach the city by hiking up a very long, steep trail. The Spanish invaders simply didn’t know Machu Picchu was there, so the city was spared colonial occupation for centuries.

Hiram Bingham “Rediscovered” the Site in 1911

People visiting Machu Picchu site
Credit: gg-foto/ Shutterstock

Machu Picchu remained a secret to the outside world for nearly 400 years. Locals knew of the mysterious city on the hill and a few explorers even visited the site. However, no one else explored the city until Hiram Bingham visited in 1911. “Smithsonian Magazine” reports that although locals knew about the site, it was Bingham who drew the world’s attention to it. He recognized Machu Picchu’s social and scientific significance. He worked to photograph the site and make the images available to the public.

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