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Archaeologists discover forgotten structures in Peru’s Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, built high in the Andes by the Inca civilization more than 500 years ago, remains one of the most fascinating and popular attractions for visitors to South America. The site, as well as the surrounding Machu Picchu National Park, also remains an important site for archaeological research, with new discoveries made to this day — as was the case with a new study.

Image credit: Flickr / Sandeepachetan

In a new study, a team of archaeologists from the University of Warsaw used drones and laser technology to explore the area around the Inca complex Chachabamba, a ceremonial center focused on water. They found a dozen previously-unknown small structures erected in a circular and rectangular pattern at the edge of the complex. 

The researchers suggest that the structures were inhabited by the individuals that operated Chachabamba. Dominika Sieczkowska, lead author of the study, told local media that there are indications that women were the main caretakers of the complex, based on objects discovered during previous archaeological studies. 

The ruins of Chachabamba, discovered around 1940, are located on an old Inca road along the southern bank of the Urubamba River. It was an important religious site, with a set of baths that were likely used for rituals. It’s also believed to have had a secondary function as a gatehouse, guarding the entrance to Machu Picchu. 

The area is difficult to study, as the ruins lie deep in the jungle. Also, in 2012, mudslides restricted access to the ruins even further. Seeking to further understand the area, and using novel archaeological approaches, researchers began doing archaeological research at the site in 2016. Now, they’ve published their findings. 

“This study was conducted to answer several fundamental questions,” the team wrote in their paper. “The amount of water that flowed through the channels which supplied water to the bathhouse system is unknown. a greater or lesser speed and quantity of water flow may have been crucial for the ceremonies performed in the baths.”

An innovative approach

A lidar view of the Vilcanota Valley and Chachabamba. Image credits: B. Ćmielewski.

For their study, the researchers used a relatively new tool in archaeology known as light detection and ranging (or LiDAR). Lidar uses a pulsed laser to estimate the variable distances of an object from the Earth’s surface. These pulses, together with data collected by an airborne system, generate 3D information about the target object.

LiDAR has become a valuable tool for archaeologists to study areas that are either dangerous or inaccessible to study. In 2018, Peru ordered a LiDAR survey by helicopter of the ruins of Chachabamba. While the data provided information over the area, it wasn’t sufficiently detailed, leading to researchers using drones for this study instead. All in all, drones and Lidar open up new avenues for archaeological research, especially in cases where objectives are remote and difficult to observe directly.

A ceremonial sector at the Chachabamba site. Image credits: D. Sieczkowska.

The scans showed 12 structures close to the main ceremonial part of Chachabamba and a set of underground stone canals. These were fed by the Urubamba River and supplied water across the site. The researchers then used computer simulations to re-create how water may have flowed to the ritual baths, based on the canal’s death.

“We can conclude that the water in the hydraulic system at Chachabamba served a more symbolic than utilitarian purpose (for example, the filling of vessels for domestic use). Our calculations indicate that the water may have flowed unevenly throughout the system and overflowed in certain parts of the channels,” the researchers wrote.

No doubt, many other structures await detection in South America’s deep jungle — we’re merely scratching the surface.

The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. 

Machu Picchu is even older than we thought

Early morning in wonderful Machu Picchu

High in the Andes Mountains of Peru, the mighty Inca built a dazzling empire that governed over 12 million people and marked 300 years of civilization — that’s until Spanish conquistadors annihilated the Inca in 1533. But despite the Inca lacking a writing system, their legacy lives on through some of their artifacts and ancient settlements, and there is no Inca site more iconic than the mountain-perched Machu Picchu.

Contrary to popular belief, Machu Picchu wasn’t actually a city. Although the monumental complex was fairly extensive, it was erected as a country estate of Inca Emperor Pachacuti on the eastern face of the Andes Mountains. In other words, this was a retreat for the elites away from the crowded capital Cusco rather than a settlement for all.

Before Francisco Pizarro’s Spanish conquistadors landed on Peru’s shores, archaeologists believe Machu Picchu was inhabited from 1440 A.D. to around the time of the Spanish conquest.

However, new findings published this week in the journal Antiquity reveal that the Machu Picchu may be about two decades older, suggesting Pachacuti placed the first stone at the Andes site around the year 1420 A.D.

Carbon doesn’t lie

Researchers led by Yale archaeologist Richard Burger arrived at the new estimate after using an advanced form of radiocarbon dating called accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS). This technology can date organic material found in bones and teeth, even when it is in tiny amounts.

“Until now, estimates of Machu Picchu’s antiquity and the length of its occupation were based on contradictory historical accounts written by Spaniards in the period following the Spanish conquest,” said Burger in a statement. “This is the first study based on scientific evidence to provide an estimate for the founding of Machu Picchu and the length of its occupation, giving us a clearer picture of the site’s origins and history.”

The primary implication is that Pachacuti must have started his reign much earlier than textual sources from the time of the conquistadores indicate. According to Burger, modern radiocarbon methods are actually a more reliable foundation than colonial historical records for understanding Inca chronology.

For their study, the researchers employed AMS on samples belonging to 26 human individuals that were recovered from four cemeteries at Machu Picchu. These individuals were likely retainers, or attendants, judging from funerary goods buried with the deceased, who looked after the royal estate. The bone samples show little evidence of the kind of intense wear and tear one would expect to see in a construction worker tasked with hard labor. This further strengthens the idea that Machu Picchu was already up and running as a country palace by the time these people arrived there.

Remarkably, these human remains were unearthed by Yale-affiliated explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham III, who brought them back to the United States in 1912. A year prior, Bingham was one of the first Euro-Americans to walk among the ruins of Machu Picchu after he was tipped off by a local muleteer. More than a hundred years later, these samples serve to paint a richer and more accurate history of the ancient Inca palace, complementing Spanish sources.

Now, these remains have been finally returned to their homeland. As of 2010, all human remains and archaeological materials from Bingham’s expedition have been returned to Cusco, the former capital of the Inca, where they are stored at the Museo Machu Picchu.

Fault lines could be the answer to Machu Picchu’s mystery

The Incas—a civilization that ruled over vast areas of South America’s Andean region in the 15th and 16th centuries—intentionally built Machu Picchu, and other cites, in a location where tectonic faults meet, according to a new study.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Incan citadel is located around 8,000 feet above sea level atop a narrow mountain ridge in the Andes. The reasons why the Incas chose this remote and inaccessible location have long remained a mystery to experts, until now.

A study by Rualdo Menegat showed that the decision may have had something to do with the location of tectonic faults—fracture zones between two blocks of rock in the Earth’s crust. These can range in length from a few millimeters to thousands of miles.

“Machu Picchu’s location is not a coincidence,” says Menegat. “It would be impossible to build such a site in the high mountains if the substrate was not fractured. It is part of a practice of building settlements in a high rocky place.”

Menegat used a combination of satellite imagery and field measurements to map a dense web of intersecting fractures and faults beneath Machu Pichu. His analysis indicates these features vary widely in scale, from tiny fractures visible in individual stones to major, 175-kilometer-long lineaments.

The researcher found that these faults occur in several sets, some of which correspond to the major fault zones responsible for raising the Central Andes. Because some of these faults are oriented northeast-southwest and others trend northwest-southeast, they collectively create an “X” shape where they intersect beneath Machu Picchu.

“Field investigations were carried out in four expeditions in 2001, 2006, 2010 and 2012,” Menegat said. “The analysis of satellite images was done in the laboratory. I also used various geological descriptions and studies of the Cusco region and the Sacred Valley.”

Menegat’s mapping suggests that the sanctuary’s urban sectors and the surrounding agricultural fields, as well as individual buildings and stairs, are all oriented along with the trends of these major faults.

At the same time, it also showed that some other Inca settlements in the region—such as Ollantaytambo, Pisac, and Cusco—were also built on top of fault intersections, like Machu Picchu. He argued that the Incas—who were master stoneworkers—deliberately chose sites like this at the intersection of faults

“Where faults intersect, the rocks are even more fractured,” he said. “Therefore, they are places that have more loose blocks on the surface, and also places where [the rocks] can be easily removed to build terraces and buildings. In addition, the blocks take on typical shapes such as triangles, hexagons, and rhombohedra. These forms fit geometrically on the wall mosaics of buildings,” Menegat said.

The researcher said that it would have been “impossible” to build such a site so high in the mountains if the rocks were not already fractured in this way. The Incas used these materials to create structures without mortar, featuring stones that fit together so perfectly, there are almost no visible gaps.

At the same time, the area at the intersection of faults may have provided other advantages. For example, the faults could have acted as a source of water, channeling rain and ice melt directly into the site. This allowed the Incas to build away from the bottom of valleys.

“About two-thirds of the effort to build the sanctuary involved constructing subsurface drainages,” Menegat said. “The preexisting fractures aided this process and help account for its remarkable preservation. Machu Picchu clearly shows us that the Incan civilization was an empire of fractured rocks.”

The findings “Geoarchaeological Insights into Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction and Cultural Dynamics” will be presented at the 2019 GSA Annual meeting in Phoenix.