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Beauty and Mystery:
Machu Picchu and the Incas of Peru

Report of the lecture given by Gloria Broadbent, MA
on July 25th 2012

When I recall Gloria Camino-Broadbent I will think of her as the lady with the big heart - a biological trait which she shares with some 140 million others world- wide who grow up in altitudes above 7500 feet. As well as larger hearts, they have a greater lung capacity. Exploring and photographing at altitude therefore presents no problem for our guest speaker, who was born and educated in Cusco, Peru which at around 11000 feet is some 3000 feet higher than Machu Picchu.

Peru lies on the west coast of South America between Ecuador and Chile. From west to east, it consists of a narrow band of coastline, then mountains (the Peruvian Andes) and finally jungle - the great Amazon basin. Machu Picchu was built at an altitude of 7711 feet between the mountains and the jungle.

The Inca Empire was founded in 1200 AD and expanded rapidly from Colombia right down to central Chile, becoming the largest empire in the Americas, and the world. The Incas used a variety of methods to expand their empire, from the conquest of some cultures through battle, to peaceful assimilation of others. As a result, Inca textiles, ceramics, jewellery and so on show a great diversity of colours, patterns and styles gleaned from a whole host of sources and influences.

The empire's capital was founded in Cusco. The official spoken language was Quechua but there was no alphabet or written language and all was passed on verbally. Illustrations of daily life and rituals were made by Guaman Poma de Ayala but their purpose was to record what was by then being destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors who had arrived in 1532. The manuscript was sent to King Phillip III, to bring the perceived injustices of the Spanish invaders to his attention. It disappeared and mysteriously surfaced at the Royal Danish Library centuries later in 1908, though it had apparently been kept in the library since at least 1660 and possibly earlier. One explanation is that the manuscript passed through the hands of a Danish ambassador and collector of books who came across it at the Madrid court.

An example of a Quipu from the Inca Empire, currently in the Larco Museum Collection in Lima

The Quipu, a collection of knots of different styles and colours tied in ropes attached to a longer cord, was used extensively as an accounting and record keeping device. The technique was not documented in later years and is lost to history. The Quipu may also record literature, census data and so on, and researchers at Harvard are striving to find ways to decode the information. One can only wonder at what would be revealed should they succeed!

Machu Picchu was brought to the world's attention in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University, although the archaeologist John Rowe had previously discovered references to Picchu, an estate of the Inca ruler Pacachuti (he who shakes the earth), to the north of Cusco. Bingham had married Alfreda Mitchell, granddaughter of Charles Tiffany and heiress to the family fortune, so although given a small grant by Yale University, Bingham mostly funded himself. He led a small expedition to the area, where locals guided them along the narrow granite cliffs up to the site which was overgrown with vegetation. It must have been quite a moment!

Machu Picchu, which means 'old mountain' in Quechua, was built in the mid 1400's, probably as a royal retreat and a centre of learning. The site would have been selected because of its position relative to sacred landscape features such as the River Uburamba and the mountains which are thought to be in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas. They worshipped the sun, and the mountains, and believed that every object in nature had its own spirit. They sacrificed children to the gods in extreme cases - during drought, famine, plagues and following earthquakes, or on the death of an emperor, and due to the dry cold of the Andes, archaeologists have discovered a number of mummified remains.

The site at Machu Picchu was 530 metres long and 200 metres wide. Models were used to plan the layout - an early example of urban planning to scale. The composition is very ordered and harmonious. The upper, urban sector contained the public buildings and the lower, agricultural sector contained workshops, granaries and so on. Two granite slabs called mortars were used for grinding corn. All buildings had three doorways in and out, and roofs were thatched.
The classical Inca architectural style of polished dry stone walls was used, where blocks of granite, quarried nearby, were cut to fit tightly together without mortar, rendering the structures more earthquake resistant. The Incas did not use the wheel in any practical way though it exists in toys of the time which shows that the principal was known to them. The steep terrain and dense vegetation would have rendered its use impractical in any case, and exactly how they moved and placed the enormous stones is a mystery, though it must have been simply manpower, dragging the stones over a double ladder called a slipper. The Incas had no strong metals to make tools to fashion the rocks - they used timber or pounders made from stone. Water channels were included to ensure good drainage - the source of water being from melted snow or rainfall.

One of the most striking features of Machu Picchu are the 12 or so acres of terraces and the 3000 steps between them, which are in some cases fashioned out of single blocks of white granite. One can only wonder at how this was achieved! Planting crops on terraces overcame the problem of soil erosion. Many crops were grown, including sweet potatoes, corn, quinoa, yams, chillis, and ordinary potatoes which were dehydrated and could be stored for many years. The 600 or so inhabitants were not self sufficient in agriculture however, and supplies must have been brought in from outside.

A view of the terraces at Machu Picchu

Exactly what happened at Machu Picchu remains a mystery. 164 human remains have been found, mostly female. Under the rule of Emperor Huayana Capac, the Inca Empire had reached its height. He decided, on his death, to divide the empire in two, leaving some territory to his favourite son and the rest to his legitimate heir. After he died in 1525, probably of smallpox carried from Europe by the Spanish to Panama, civil war ensued. Machu Picchu was most likely abandoned at this time as war depleted the male population who had not succumbed to disease. The roads to the site would have become rapidly overgrown without organised, continual maintenance. The Spanish, who arrived at the borders of the Inca territories in 1528, came at an opportune moment to begin their conquest and it took them just eight years to almost destroy the entire Inca culture. They were mostly illiterate adventurers interested only in wealth or power. Gold and silver, seized and melted down into ingots was their priority. By the time scholars and administrators arrived it was too late. The guild of historians, maintained by the Incas, was scattered and information lost. Machu Picchu would not have been of much importance to either the diminished Inca state or the plundering Spanish. It was forgotten as those who knew of its existence and where to find it died out.

Today, Machu Picchu is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site and is a source of immense national pride. It was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981, and a Unesco World heritage site. The level of tourism permitted is being carefully balanced with the preservation of the site, as scientists and archaeologists continue to excavate and rebuild this extraordinary monument.

Maggie Powell

Our guest speaker, Gloria Broadbent