Ever since Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, various theories have been put forward as to what Machu Picchu was used for. Bingham’s Machu Picchu theories helped set the tone of debate for the following 50 years, but have since been displaced or disproved, at least in part, by more thorough archeological investigations.
The idea of Machu Picchu as a fully functioning city has been largely dismissed (it could not have supported a long-term population of much more than 1,000 people), leaving a handful of prevailing theories as to its primary purpose.
Machu Picchu: Inca Fortress
Bingham believed that the Incas built Machu Picchu primarily for defensive reasons. The site certainly meets many of the traditional requirements of a defensive post. It sits perched atop a mountain, whose steep sides lead down into deep canyons cut by fast flowing rivers, a natural first line of defense.
Furthermore, access to the site is via narrow Inca trails, often with precipitous drops into the canyons below, another deterrent to invasion or siege. Finally, the numerous walls of Machu Picchu, combined with defensive terraces and a dry-moat, certainly point towards a military design, that of a mountaintop fortress built for defensive reasons.
Machu Picchu: Religious Significance
Despite the evidence for a fortified location, the walls of Machu Picchu are not the rough-cut blocks of a simple military outpost. Bingham himself was fully aware of the grandeur of Machu Picchu, and did not see the site in a purely militaristic light, noting the presence of various temples and ceremonial constructions. Later, however, archeologists would sway much further towards the idea of Machu Picchu being primarily a religious site.
Historian Luis G. Lumbreras, former director of Peru’s National Institute of Culture, sees the walls surrounding Machu Picchu’s urban area in a ceremonial, rather than defensive, context, “not as part of a military fortification, rather as a form of restricted ceremonial isolation” (Lumbreras, Machu Picchu). For historians such as Lumbreras, therefore, Machu Picchu’s temples, and the site’s religious significance, outweigh any defensive preoccupations.
The Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Intihuatana (believed to function as a solar calendar or clock) provide ample evidence of Machu Picchu’s religious importance. Whether the site was primarily a ceremonial center, however, is still subject to debate.
Machu Picchu: Administrative Center
Archeologists have also labeled Machu Picchu as an Inca llacta or tambo, a center devoted to the control and administration of newly conquered regions. Again, however, the grandeur of Machu Picchu would seem to rule against such a purely practical role. Furthermore, according to archeologists Richard L. Burger and Lucy Salazar-Burger, both Machu Picchu’s location and its strongly religious character “set it apart from the administrative way stations called tambos that the Incas had set up along their 50,000-kilometer (more than 30,000 miles) road network.”
Machu Picchu: Inca Estate
Since the mid-1980s, research carried out by the likes of John Howland Rowe, Mariá Rostworowski, Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar-Burger has provided strong evidence to suggest that Machu Picchu was a royal estate, a “pleasure palace” for the Inca elite.
According to Rowe, the entire area surrounding Machu Picchu, including the site itself, belonged to the Inca emperor Pachacuti (also known as Inca Yupanqui or Pachacutec). In 1986, Rowe discovered a 1568 document in which the site “Picchu” was recorded, the location of which would appear to fall within the Inca’s private estate.
Rowe’s discovery seemed to support contemporaneous archeological research carried out by Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar-Burger. In an article originally published in Discovery in 1993, Burger and Salazar argued that Machu Picchu did not resemble any of the five major settlement types in the Inca Empire (the Inca capital, provincial capitals, tambos, rural villages/agricultural sites, or Inca tribute settlements), but did have features consistent with one special type of settlement, that of the royal estate.
Burger and Salazar suggested that the Inca nobility left Cusco during the cold weather of the Andean winter, taking refuge in the royal retreat of Machu Picchu. Here, “members of the Incan royalty relaxed, hunted, and entertained foreign dignitaries and other guests in Machu Picchu’s warmer and more pleasant climate.”
What Was Machu Picchu?
For now, at least, the idea of Machu Picchu as a royal retreat remains the most widely accepted theory. Beyond the supporting archeological evidence obtained by the likes of Burger, Salazar and Rowe, the idea has perhaps gained such a strong foothold due to its inclusive nature in light of previous theories.
What functions, after all, would an Inca ruler desire from his stately retreat? In all probability, he would require a degree of fortification, the ability to continue his religious and ceremonial duties, and all the necessary tools for the administration of both his estate and his empire. Of course, all of these roles have been put forward individually as possible answers to the question, “What was Machu Picchu?”