Machu Picchu is believed to have been a royal estate or sacred religious site for Inca leaders, whose civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century. Historians believe Machu Picchu was built at the height of the Inca Empire, which dominated western South America in the 15th and 16th centuries.
It was abandoned an estimated 100 years after its construction, probably around the time the Spanish began their conquest of the mighty pre-Columbian civilization in the 1530s. Others have theorized that it was a religious site, pointing to its proximity to mountains and other geographical features that the Incas held sacred.
Dozens of alternate hypotheses have cropped up in the years since Machu Picchu was first unveiled to the world, with scholars variously interpreting it as a prison.
Although known locally, it was unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become an important tourist attraction.
Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of what the structures originally looked like. Johan Reinhard believes Machu Picchu to be a sacred religious site.
This theory stands mainly because of where Machu Picchu is located. Reinhard calls it “sacred geography” because the site is built on and around mountains that hold high religious importance in the Inca culture and in the previous culture that occupied the land.
Another theory maintains that Machu Picchu was an Inca llaqta, a settlement built to control the economy of conquered regions. Yet another asserts that it may have been built as a prison for a select few who had committed heinous crimes against Inca society. An alternative theory is that it is an agricultural testing station.
Due to early publications, many people were led to believe that Hiram had long sought after the lost city of the Incas and eventually found it after trekking through a hazardous tropical jungle.
Alfred Bingham reveals that this was not the case. In actuality, Machu Picchu was not a chief objective of Hiram’s 1911 expedition. Nor was the search for the city long and dangerous. Hiram had been led to the location just forty-eight hours after beginning his journey.
The road to Machu Picchu was not hidden in a treacherous wilderness; rather it was located next to a heavily populated region of farmers. Furthermore, Hiram frequently claimed that the paths to Machu Picchu were the most inaccessible in all of the Andes. On the other hand, the letters indicate that Hiram used a modern road system and travelled to the region with ease.
There are many intriguing aspects of the history of Machu Picchu, with one of the most fascinating being the relatively small period of its use. This intricate and beautiful complex was built at the height of the Inca Empire, but it was in use for less than 100 years-around the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru, in the early sixteenth century, Machu Picchu was abandoned.
While the Spanish were responsible for plundering many other Incan sites, this most sacred site remained a secret. Over the course of centuries, much of the site became overgrown. While it was known by the local people, it wasn’t discovered for the rest of the world until 1911 when an 11-year-old boy led Professor Bingham to the site.