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Machu PicchuBritannica Elementary Article

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  • Machu Picchu.
In the mountains of south-central Peru stands Machu Picchu, a deserted city of the Inca people. The name Machu Picchu means “old peak” in Quechua, the language of the Inca. The dwellings at the site were probably built and occupied from the mid-15th to the early or mid-16th century. Machu Picchu is one of the few Indian sites dating from before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas to be found nearly intact.


Machu Picchu is located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of the city of Cuzco, which was the capital of the Inca Empire. It lies between two sharp peaks in the eastern part of the Andes Mountains, at an elevation of 7,710 feet (2,350 meters). The site is surrounded by mountain forest.

Machu Picchu can be reached from Cuzco by train and car. More adventurous visitors can reach the site by hiking the Inca highway, also known as the Inca Trail. This hike generally takes between three and six days. The trail is made up of several thousand stone-cut steps, a number of high walls, tunnels, and other examples of classical engineering.


The site

Machu Picchu is divided into two sections, one farming and one urban. The farming area is made up of steplike fields known as terraces. The Inca used the terraces for raising crops such as corn (maize) and sweet potatoes. The urban section has plazas, residential areas, terraces, a cemetery, temples, and other buildings. They are connected by walkways and thousands of stone steps.

Most of the structures at Machu Picchu are very well preserved because of the quality of Incan engineering and stonework. One notable structure is the Temple of the Sun. Once a year sunlight shines through a window of the temple onto the middle of a large granite stone. This stone is thought to be an Incan calendar. Another famous structure at Machu Picchu is a pillar known as the Intihuatana. The name Intihautana means “hitching post of the sun” when translated from Quechua. Although the exact function of the Intihautana is uncertain, it is believed that the pillar was used to keep track of the seasons.



The role of Machu Picchu in Incan society is not entirely understood, though evidence suggests that it was used either as a royal estate or as a religious sanctuary. It is not known why the site was abandoned, but lack of water may have been a reason.

Machu Picchu remained hidden from the Spanish during their conquest of the Inca in the 16th century. Vegetation grew over the site, and for hundreds of years it was known only by a few people who lived in the area. Finally, in 1911, a local farmer led a U.S. archaeologist named Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu. Bingham had been looking for Vilcabamba, the “lost city of the Inca,” from which the last Inca rulers had led a rebellion against Spanish rule. Instead he found Machu Picchu, and the world learned of its existence. As exploration of the site began, the discoveries included human skeletons.

Machu Picchu was named a World Heritage site in 1983 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Historical and environmental groups around the world are concerned about possible damage to the site from forest fires, erosion, and tourism.