The ruins of Machu Picchu, rediscovered in 1911 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham, are one of the most beautiful and enigmatic ancient sites in the world. While the Inca people certainly used the Andean mountain top (9060 feet elevation), erecting many hundreds of stone structures from the early 1400’s, legends and myths indicate that Machu Picchu (meaning ‘Old Peak’ in the Quechua language) was revered as a sacred place from a far earlier time. Whatever its origins, the Inca turned the site into a small (5 square miles) but extraordinary city.
One of Machu Picchu’s primary functions was that of astronomical observatory. The Intihuatana stone (meaning ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’) has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods. The Intihuatana (also called the Saywa or Sukhanka stone) is designed to hitch the sun at the two equinoxes, not at the solstice (as is stated in some tourist literature and new-age books). At midday on March 21st and September 21st, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun “sits with all his might upon the pillar” and is for a moment “tied” to the rock. At these periods, the Incas held ceremonies at the stone in which they “tied the sun” to halt its northward movement in the sky. There is also an Intihuatana alignment with the December solstice (the summer solstice of the southern hemisphere), when at sunset the sun sinks behind Pumasillo (the Puma’s claw), the most sacred mountain of the western Vilcabamba range, but the shrine itself is primarily equinoctial.
Shamanic legends tell that when a sensitive person touches their forehead to the Intihuatana stone it opens their vision to the spirit world. Intihuatana stones were the supremely sacred objects of the Inca people and were systematically searched for and destroyed by the Spaniards. When the Intihuatana stone was broken at an Inca shrine, the Inca believed that the deities of the place died or departed. The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, even though they suspected its existence, thus the Intihuatana stone and its resident spirits remain in their original position. The mountain top sanctuary fell into disuse and was abandoned some forty years after the Spanish took Cuzco in 1533. Supply lines linking the many Inca social centers were disrupted and the great empire came to an end. The photograph shows the ruins of Machu Picchu in the foreground with the sacred peak of Wayna Picchu towering behind. Partway down the northern side of Wayna Picchu is the so-called “Temple of the Moon” inside a cavern. As with the ruins of Machu Picchu, there is no archaeological or iconographical evidence to substantiate the “new-age” assumption that this cave was a goddess site.
At the time of Columbus’ landfall on the New World, the greatest empire on earth was that of the Inca. Called Tawantinsuyu or ‘Land of the Four Quarters,’ it spanned more than 4300 miles along the mountains and coastal deserts of central South America. The vast empire stretched from central Chile to present Ecuador-Colombia border and included most of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, northern Chile and northwestern Argentina (this is a land area equal to the entire portion of the United States from Maine to Florida east of the Appalachians). It exceeded in size any medieval or contemporary European nation and equaled the longitudinal expanse of the Roman Empire. Yet for all its greatness, Tawantinsuyu existed for barely a century.
The origins of the Inca are shrouded in mystery and mythology. According to their own mythology, the Inca began when Manco Capac and his sister, Mama Occlo, rose out of Lake Titicaca, having been created by the Sun and the Moon as divine founders of a chosen people. Manco Capac and his sister then went off with a golden rod to find a suitable location to found a great city. Through a series of adventures, geomantic resonances, and astronomical correspondences, the site of Cuzco was chosen.
Archaeological research, on the other hand, indicates that the pre-imperial Inca were simply one of a number of petty tribes in the south central region of Peru. From roughly 1200 AD to the early 1400’s, the Inca engaged in numerous battles with local rivals, but never achieved supremacy over any of them. Around 1438, however, the Inca emperor Viracocha and his son, Pachakuti, defeated a powerful rival, the Chankas. From this time the empire building era of the Inca began. Other rival tribes around the Cuzco area were soon united and campaigns were launched into the Titicaca basin and beyond. During the ensuing reigns of the emperors Pachakuti, and Topa Inca the Inca armies expanded the frontiers of Tawantinsuyu from southern Columbia to central Chile.
The name of the archaeological site Machu Picchu is sometimes misspelled as machu pichu, macchu picchu, machu piccu, machupicchu, macu picchu, macho picchu, machu piccho, machu picch, macha picchu, machu piccuh, mach picchu. The correct spelling is Machu Picchu.