for National Geographic News
The finding challenges the conventional view that Machu Picchu was a royal estate of the Inca ruler Pachacuti, who built it around A.D. 1460.
"I believe that much of the sacred space of the Incas has still to be recognized as such," said study author Giulio Magli, an astrophysicist at the Polytechnic Institute in Milan, Italy.
Perched on a mountain ridge some 8,000 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level, Machu Picchu was for years lost to history after the Spanish conquest. The site gained notoriety following a 1911 visit by U.S. explorer Hiram Bingham, whose Machu Picchu excavation was funded in part by the National Geographic Society. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)
(Read about the 1911 'rediscovery' of Machu Picchu.)
Now a popular tourist destination, Machu Picchu's original purpose has been a source of much speculation and debate.
According to Magli, Machu Picchu was conceived and built specifically as a pilgrimage site where worshippers could symbolically relive an important journey purportedly taken by their ancestors.
Harrowing Journey Remade in Rock?
In Inca mythology, the first Inca were created on Bolivia's Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca.
From there, they undertook a harrowing journey beneath the Earth and emerged at a place called Tampu-tocco, close to the future site of the Inca capital Cusco.
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