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Machu Picchu Is Mini Re-creation of a Mythic Landscape?

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
June 15, 2009
 
Peru's Machu Picchu was an Inca pilgrimage site and a scaled-down version of a mythic landscape, according to a controversial new study.

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.

(See "Inca Elite Imported Diverse 'Staff' to Run Machu Picchu.")

"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.

Origin Mystery

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.

The first Inca then traveled to the summit of a nearby hill called Huanacauri, where one of them was turned into stone and became an important shrine.

Magli argues that certain structures at Machu Picchu symbolize important landmarks of this journey.

For instance, a disorderly pile of stones represents the underground "void" that the first Inca traveled through.

"Pacha-Mama, or Mother Earth, was associated with disorder," Magli said.

Similarly, a plaza at Machu Picchu represents Tampu-tocco, and a stone pyramid at the site doubles for the Huanacauri hill, Magli added.

Divine Orientation?

Visitors to Machu Picchu enter through a gate at the complex's southeastern end. The layout then coaxes them northwest. This, Magli said, is no accident.

In his study, published on the Web site arXiv.org, Magli argues that Machu Picchu's southeast-northwest layout is meant to replicate the path of the sun across the sky in Inca country, averaged over the course of a year.

Southeast-northwest is also the direction traveled by the first Inca during their mythic journey—again, likely influenced by the sun, which was worshipped as a god.

As a sacred site, Machu Picchu may have been open to commoners and highborn alike, much like a known Inca pilgrimage destination on the Island of the Sun, Magli said.

(See "Pilgrimage Route Uncovered at South America's Lake Titicaca.")

"As far as we know, the pilgrimage to the Island of the Sun was open to all, but not all were admitted in the innermost sanctuary," he said. "Perhaps the same occurred in Machu Picchu."

Archaeologist Richard Burger of Yale University is unconvinced.

Magli "does make the argument for the importance of celestial movements in relation to specific buildings," said Burger, who was not involved in the study.

Still, Magli's arguments "are not incompatible with the interpretation of Machu Picchu as a tropical retreat for the royal court any more than the presence of religious art and architecture at Versailles is incompatible with its role as a royal palace."
 

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