City Occupied by Inca Discovered on Andean Peak in Peru

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
Updated March 22, 2002
High atop a mountain peak in the Andes of southeastern Peru, a group of explorers has discovered the ruins of a large settlement they think was occupied by the Inca in an early period of their rise to power.

The ruins include tombs and several artificially built platforms that suggest the area was an important burial site and ceremonial grounds for sacred rites. But the team also found the makings of a complete city.

Although it's not clear yet who built the city, or when, experts say the ruins promise new insight into the Inca—and perhaps other early inhabitants of the region, about which little is known.

"We don't know how long it existed, we don't have good carbon[-dating] data. But it shows evidence of early Inca settlement," said Peter Frost, an independent scholar and explorer who led the expedition.

"If that's true, it shakes up theories of Inca expansion because the Inca were not [thought] to be in the region so early," said Frost.

He first sighted the ruins in 1999 while hiking in the region with several companions. He returned last year with a team of archaeologists to map and investigate the site.

Frost said the ruins—many of them well preserved—include an Inca-style wall, agricultural terraces, a granary, cemeteries and funeral towers, animal corrals, and a complex of buildings surrounding a courtyard.

On the surrounding slopes of the summit, known as Cerro Victoria, the team also found the remains of more than 100 circular buildings at elevations of up to 12,500 feet (3,900 meters). The style is thought to be typical of the dwellings of Andeans who occupied the region before the Inca or under Inca rule, but Frost said initial observations point to occupation by the Inca themselves.

The newly discovered settlement is in the southern part of a sparsely inhabited region known as Vilcabamba, named for a local mountain chain. It lies 22 miles (35 kilometers) southwest of Machu Picchu, an ancient citadel that is the most famous Inca landmark. Another important Inca site, Choqequirau, is nearby.

Last Refuge of Inca

Vilcabamba has long been known as the last outpost of the Inca in their attempt to evade conquest by the Spanish, who arrived early in the 16th century in search of gold.

When the Inca ruler Manco Inca and his large army failed to overthrow the Spanish invaders in A.D. 1536, the Inca fled from their imperial capital at Cusco and took refuge in the Vilcabamba wilderness. They lived there for 36 years, until the Spanish finally penetrated the area and killed the last Inca ruler, Tupac Amaru in 1572, bringing an end to the Inca empire.

The uncertain location of the last capital of the Inca, supposedly replete with a vast storehouse of silver and gold, made the fabled "lost city" of Vilcabamba the object of a quest by scholars and treasure hunters in the centuries that followed.

Because few, if any, Spanish conquistadors ever reached the southern part of Vilcabamba, the ruins at Cerro Victoria "may ultimately yield a record of Inca civilization from the very beginning to the very end, undisturbed by European contact—an unparalleled opportunity," Frost said.

Peruvian archaeologist Alfredo Valencia Zegarra, the chief archaeologist of the nine-person expedition team that surveyed the ruins at Cerro Victoria last June, said the surrounding area has many historically important archaeological sites that have never been explored. He has conducted excavations at Machu Picchu and other well-known sites in the Cusco area.

Frost said the region has been difficult to explore because of its remote location and its heavily forested and treacherous terrain. A British-born writer, photographer, and professional guide, he has lived in Cusco for 15 years and explored the region for 30 years.

The ruins at Cerro Victoria were his first major Inca discovery. "I've always known that Vilcabamba was a primary area for recording unfamiliar Inca sites," he said in a telephone interview from Cusco.

Scott Gorsuch, a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, California, and an avid explorer, was among the group that first sighted the ruins at Cerro Victoria while hiking on a nearby ridge that bore evidence of ancient burials. The ruins are partially obscured by cloud forests with jungle-like vegetation, but through binoculars the men could see the mountaintop ruins in the distance.

"We spotted what appeared to be a sacred platform on one of the peaks, and it seemed to have significance—it caught the sun's first rays in the morning and last ones at night," said Gorsuch.

When he and the expedition team traveled to the site later, he said, they were surprised to find the remains of a large settlement, which covers about six square kilometers (2.3 square miles).

Frost speculated that the inhabitants favored the mountaintop location for two reasons: to mine rich lodes of silver in the area and because the site provided panoramic views of central Vilcabamba's snowy mountain peaks, some as high as 18,000 feet (5,486 meters), which were sacred to ancient Andeans.

"They were probably holding religious ceremonies in worship of these peaks," he said. The Inca, he added, may have made celestial and solar observations on the ceremonial platforms to develop the Inca calendar.

More Extensive Than Expected

Cerro Victoria had never been scientifically documented, although local people knew it as Corihuayrachina.

The expedition to the site took two years to plan because the summit was so difficult to reach. When the team arrived in June 2001, they found two local Indian families homesteading amid the settlement, using some of the same buildings that were once occupied by their ancient ancestors.

The team plans to return later this year to continue exploring, mapping, and excavating the site, which showed signs of considerable looting.

The initial excavations unearthed human remains, stone implements, and Inca pottery from two different time periods, including an early formative period of Inca development.

According to the team's initial report on the findings, the settlement has a "spectacular"—but now heavily looted—sacred ceremonial platform surrounded by a low wall. It contains the remains of what was once a large roofed subterranean tomb.

Some of the community's dead were buried above ground in small, cylindrical structures made of stone. These funeral towers, or chullpas, have been heavily looted and were empty, but skeletons were found in the underground tombs. Two ancient cemeteries were also discovered.

From ground-penetrating radar and excavation, the team concluded that a distinctive wall built in a style characteristic of the Inca was part of a three-sided building that was probably used for important ceremonial or religious functions. Adjacent to that main building was a courtyard containing other buildings—possibly an administrative center.

Circular buildings like those found on the surrounding slopes have been found at other sites in Vilcabamba. Scholars long assumed they were dwellings of pre-Inca tribes or of communities that were colonized by the Inca, but Frost said evidence suggests some were occupied by the Inca.

Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence who specializes in archaeological research at high altitudes, said the discovery "is one of the most important sites to be located in the Vilcabamba region since the Inca abandoned it over 400 years ago." Cerro Victoria, he added, "promises to provide new insights into Inca occupation of this remote area."

During expeditions in the early 1900s organized under the auspices of Yale University and the National Geographic Society, a young professor and explorer named Hiram Bingham came upon Machu Picchu in 1911 and believed it was the "lost city" of Vilcabamba.

Historians later refuted that assertion. One of Bingham's other discoveries, however, did prove to be the long elusive last capital of the Inca.

In 1964, an explorer named Gene Savoy concluded that ruins in an area called Espiratu Pampa, which Bingham had tentatively identified at one time as the "lost city," were in fact Vilcabamba la Vieja ("Vilcabamba the Old"), so named to differentiate it from a later city of Vilcabamba built by the Spanish.

The National Geographic Society funded the expedition to Cerro Victoria along with Mountain Hardwear and Geophysical Survey Systems Inc. National Geographic is also supporting a follow-up trip later this year.

In May, National Geographic Channel's International and PBS in the United States will present a television special on the new archaeological discovery and the culture of the Inca. Check local listings for dates and times.

The Web site and other divisions of National Geographic will also feature a series of special reports on the Inca in the months ahead. More information will be available at

News Alerts From the National Geographic News Desk

Receive regular e-mail alerts about breaking National Geographic news. Send an e-mail to the news desk with the word "Subscribe" in the header field. We'll let you know whenever we publish an interesting story.

Join the National Geographic Society, the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.