Machu Picchu: it’s an iconic travel destination, and one that millions of people dream about visiting for years.
For some it’s a dream harbored since childhood, one that was sparked ever since they read about it in a National Geographic or watched Indiana Jones & The Secret of the Incas, while others saw the incredible photos of those fog-covered mountains towering about the ancient Incan citadel, and in them, the promise of their very own archaeological action-adventure story.
And yet, when it comes down to actually visiting the site, there’s usually one question on everyone’s minds when walking through this elaborate city made of blocks of stone that were cut, aligned and fit so tightly together that not even a knife’s blade could fit between them were by Incas who had no iron, no steel, no cements and no wheels –
What could this place be?
Why? By whom? For what?
Here are the top theories – some based on fact, others not so much.
Theory # 1: Machu Picchu was a Temple of the Sun / a hot spot for Holy Virgins
Hiram Bingham, who ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu, suggested that it was a sacred spiritual center, dedicated to the worship of Inti, the ancient Incan sun god, and occupied by “virgins of the sun” who trained as religious practitioners, weaving and preparing things for festivals but who could also be sacrificed as an offering. Yep.
Now, the citadel’s architecture supports this idea – the temples in the city, for instance, were oriented to catch the rays of the rising sun – but most support for this theory was largely based on dozens of skeletons Bingham’s team found buried at the site, and identified as all female.
However, like the plot of a Tintin comic, this theory, although colorful, is not real. The theory was overthrown in 2000 when re-examination by anthropologist John Verano, showed that half of the skeletons actually belonged to men.
While some still mention this theory, historians now generally agree that the skeletons were not those of priestesses.
Theory # 2: Machu Picchu was a sort of Royal Holiday Resort
Verano’s discovery about the skeletons is consistent with one of the most current popular theories about the site: that it was the royal retreat of the 15th-century Inca Emperor Pachacuti.
This is largely based on a 16th century Spanish document that referred to a royal estate called Picchu, which was built in the same general area as Machu Picchu. Furthermore, archaeologists argue that the layout of the city suggests that it was not lived in full-time.
Instead, they surmise that Machu Picchu functioned as a luxurious estate getaway where Pachacuti and his court could escape from Cusco’s harsh winter climate. At the warm mountaintop citadel, they could hunt, entertain and host Inca nobles and foreign aristocrats.
The skeletons belonging to men and women were likely servants of the royalty. The citadel was used for about 100 years, and then mysteriously abandoned.
Theory # 3: Aliens Built Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is of such an incredible size, proportion and architectural sophistication that it’s hard to imagine that it was built by a race that had not yet discovered the wheel or iron tools or bulldozers and cranes.
Without the aid of technology, some theorize seems unlikely that mere human effort could shape, move and place such large rocks together perfectly, on the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. Instead, the rumours go – perhaps the Incas had outside help from visitors from outer space, or maybe Machu Picchu was built entirely by ancient aliens.
And then eventually the extraterrestrial marched back into their ship and went back to Mars or wherever they came from, leaving behind evidence of their damn fine engineering prowess. It’s far-fetched, but would explain the advanced technical skill and understanding of astronomy evident in the city as well as the subsequent mysterious abandonment. Aliens – 1, Archaeology – 0 ?
Theory # 4: Machu Picchu was an Incan Mecca
Another more scientific theory, suggested by Giulio Magli, proposed that the Machu Picchu was part of an Incan ritual that involved making a pilgrimage from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
The Inca took this pilgrimage to replicate the mythical journey that their ancestors took from the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca.
Theory #5: Machu Picchu was built to honor the landscape
According to archaeologist Dr. Johan Reinhard, the Inca may have built Machu Picchu to honor the geographical features of the Amazon River Basin and surrounding mountains which were venerated by the Inca.
Support for this theory is bolstered by the fact that Machu Picchu is built atop a mountain that is almost completely encircled by the Urubamba River, which the Inca named the Vilcamayo, or Sacred River.
So, what do you think? Was this stone city a summer retreat for royalty built by a technologically advanced human race? Or was it an inter-galactic holiday destination built by extraterrestrials?
There’s plenty of room for speculation, but when you’re standing at the top of Machu Picchu, it’s difficult to differentiate between fact and fiction.
Looking down at this well-crafted city of stone that took decades to build and abandoned, as if on a whim, one thing is clear: nothing is too extraordinary or impossible here —not even theories of extraterrestrial or supernatural assistance.
Make up your own mind about the origins of Machu Picchu by joining us on a larger-than-life adventure in South America. We’ll be drinking pisco sours and exploring colonial towns and Incan ruins in Peru and then journey to Brazil where we’ll visit the Christ the Redeemer statue and let the good times roll! Click here for details.