“How old is Machu Picchu?” is a common question to ponder about the most representative city and visited of ancient Peru. Fortunately, scientific studies conducted at the archaeological site help reveal answers to its mysterious origins.
Radiocarbon testing (carbon-14 dating) places the date of Machu Picchu’s construction around 1450 during the reign of the Inca King Pachacutec, the great builder, considered as the great founder of the Inca Empire. Other vestiges dating from this same time period include Korikancha, or the Temple of the Sun, in Cusco which retains a circular tower and the remains of some original walls in modern times that were crafted by the Inca.
Theories help break down the purpose for which Machu Picchu served the Inca Empire. It is believed that Machu Picchu was built to house and support a population of around a thousand people – likely of higher class or religious importance – from the Inca Empire. Read more about Why Machu Picchu is Important.
The temples, terraces, and living structures at Machu Picchu were built with granite, a material abundant in the area.
Inca builders chipped and chiseled stones to construct their citadel of Machu Picchu from a 250- million-year-old granite quarry. The report, which appears in the book “Geology in the Conservation of Machu Picchu,” states that the rocks were formed some five to ten miles within the Earth’s crust.
“Then with the process of Andean uplift, the rocks surfaced as fractured granite over thousands of years,” said Victor Carlotto, an author and chief geoscientist of Mining and Metallurgical Geological Institute (Ingemmet).
These granite stones are the important building blocks of Machu Picchu. It couldn’t have been easy for the Inca to chip off huge chunks of rocks, transport them, and then assemble them into stable terraces, walkways, platforms, buildings, and drainage systems. Amazingly, the foundation of Machu Picchu, built high atop a mountain, has been able to withstand seismic activity and rain-induced landslides throughout the centuries.
Hidden among the cliffs and lush vegetation, the ancient city of Machu Picchu remained secret until the twentieth century, and not even the Spanish conquistadors in search of treasures, were able to find it. Machu Picchu was quiet, uninhabited and silent in the mists of the Peruvian highlands with its secrets hidden since it was abandoned before the conquest.
In 1911, explorer and Yale History Professor Hiram Bingham traveled to the Cusco area in search of Vilcabamba, the legendary last refuge of the Inca rebels where they organized guerilla-style resistance efforts until their final defeat in 1572. In the company of local sharecropper Melchor Arriaga and a local police officer commissioned by the Peruvian state to accompany the crew, Bingham made his way from a plantation called Mandorpampa, a 5-days’ journey from Cusco, and unveiled the first traces of what seemed to be “the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest.” It was noon of July 23, 1911, and the lost Inca city had been found.
After mapping the site, Hiram Bingham was convinced that he had reached Vilcabamba. Bingham’s team excavated the ruins and the material artifacts were flown from Peru to the U.S. Staff at the Yale University Peabody Museum inventoried the findings and placed them into storage rooms, where they languished for decades.
In the 1950s, new explorations proved Bingham wrong – the real Vilcabamba was deeper in the jungle. But Bingham had made his mark. By bringing international attention to this important site, he certainly changed the history of Peru.
In 2011, the impending centennial of Bingham “scientific discovery” impelled new interest in the field of Machu Picchu studies. Celebrated in Peru as the 100th birthday of Machu Picchu, the occasion also ignited controversy over the rightful possession of and guardianship over those ancient remains. In 2010, after years of pressure from Peruvian officials, Yale University agreed to return its Machu Picchu artifacts to Peru.