Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Mysterious Engineering of Machu Picchu: A Personal Account

Panoramic photo of Machu Picchu | View larger image here

Having traveled around the world and been to about a dozen UNESCO world heritage sites including Skara Brae, Skellig Michael and Chaco Canyon, Machu Picchu has always been at the very top of my list, both as a proponent of the Ancient Astronaut theory and on a personal level. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Peru for nine days, three of which were immersed fully in the Machu Picchu site and surrounding archeological areas--most importantly Huayna Picchu which is the mountain peak that looms in the background of every famous photo of the Machu Picchu ruins (I'll get to that later). Everyone knows of the city in the clouds or the "Lost City of the Incas" as some historians have dubbed it, but you cannot fully appreciate the magnitude of the engineering that went into the construction until you are actually there on-site studying the stonework in detail, up close and personal.

Just getting to the site is an adventure. As you round the 14th switchback on a dirt road in a bus too wide for said road it becomes quickly apparent that this is no easy place to reach. I would have hiked to the top, but the weather wasn't cooperating and I simply wasn't up to the task of lugging 40 pounds of camera equipment up 1,500 meters of slippery steps. Once you get past the crowds of tourists and guided tour groups you're able to spend some quiet time relatively alone in the site. I hit it at the very end of the rainy season which is just prior to the beginning of the major tourist influx. It was definitely a sweet spot and I reaped the benefit of staying in nearby Aguas Caliente for two nights to account for any inclement weather.

You couldn't fit a razor blade
between these stones

The first thing I was awestruck by was the sheer size of the site. It's far more expansive and spread out than you are led to believe in books and articles you can find online. Even with my 11mm ultra wide angle lens it was difficult to capture it all in a single frame. Some of the terraces extend for 1,000 meters both up and down the mountain slope. But even more surprising is the fact that 70% of the site has still yet to be excavated and explored. The vastness of this Incan wonder goes far beyond what we can see today. Looking out over the surrounding mountain peaks you can see areas of jungle that suddenly jut upward from the mountain side suggesting the presence of as yet undiscovered structures. Machu Picchu was found, but it's what hasn't been found that could be even more interesting.

Every stone interlocked with eachother. The gaps seen
in some areas were caused by earthquakes.
The second thing that hits you like a truck is the sheer size of the stones and the distance up the mountain that they were transported. The local guides and Inca historians will tell you this was all completed with ramps, logs and well coordinated human muscle power. The stone was transported from a quarry kilometers away and then somehow moved up 2,430 meters of near vertical jungle-covered mountain side in the rain while coping with frequent earthquakes, in 80 degree heat and 80% humidity... 560 years ago... with crude tools and rope made from jungle vines. Okay, so I might be inclined to believe this generally accepted theory purely from an Occam's Razor perspective. There's no evidence to suggest that there was any other novel method used to construct the site, so the most obvious explanation is probably the correct one. 

The angle of the stone was intentional,
it helped prevent collapse during
frequent earthquakes. This photo is
actually of an Inca structure in Cusco
not Machu Picchu, but the method
and architecture is identical.

Of course, whatever evidence that may exist to the contrary is locked up in the Peabody Museum at Yale University in the United States. Not Peru, mind you, Yale. For the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu by Hyram Bingham, Yale University so graciously loaned the country of origin a few artifacts from it's collection to be temporarily displayed for the year. I think that's bullshit and therefore have a beef with the Peabody. Many historians have since dismissed claims that Bingham, an American explorer often cited as one of the inspirations for the character Indiana Jones, discovered Machu Picchu. But it's now widely accepted that a Peruvian got there before him and a German named Augusto Berns may have looted the site in the late 19th century long before Bingham's arrival. There is some evidence that a German engineer, J. M. von Hassel, arrived even earlier than that. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874. Regardless, Bingham is still credited with bringing the archaeological wonder to the attention of the world and the Peruvian government tried to sidestep the controversy by deciding to celebrate "100 years of Machu Picchu in the world".

That said, there is no permanent and comprehensive collection of original artifacts from the site on display in Peru, and with no written Incan language (only the dying spoken language called Ketchua), that means there is no way to determine indefinitely how the site was constructed. It's all just speculation mixed with some logical deduction at this point and the Peruvian guides and scholars will tell you exactly that. When I questioned my own guide about the actual process involved with the stacking of the stone blocks--some of them up to 50 tons--she always started her answer with "What we think is..." 

Overview of Machu Picchu | View larger image here
The bottom line is that we still don't really know the how, what and why of Machu Picchu. I'm sure I'll catch some flack from a diehard Inca historian about this statement and I welcome the input because I've yet to see a theory that takes into account every environmental factor. The Incas never used the wheel in any practical manner. Its use in toy artifacts demonstrates that the principle was well-known to them, although it was not applied in their engineering. The lack of strong draft animals, as well as steep terrain and dense vegetation issues, may have rendered the wheel impractical. How they moved and placed the enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds--possibly thousands--of people to push the stones up inclined planes. A few of the stones still have knobs on them that could have been used to lever them into position. It is generally believed that after the stones were placed the Incas would have sanded the knobs away, but a few were overlooked. Either way, let's say I approached a modern day engineering and architectural firm and outlined exactly what I wanted them to create for me--a city perched atop an
8,000 foot mountain peak in the jungle completely removed from any and all infrastructure and comprised of tens of thousands of stone blocks excavated from a quarry kilometers away. Once they stopped laughing hysterically, they would quote me an astronomical monetary figure followed by a nearly insurmountable logistical nightmare involving thousands of helicopter flights and a series of on-site crane assemblies that would rival even the most ambitious mega-construction project today. It would make no sense today just as it would make no sense in 1450.

But let's back up for a moment, I don't want to get ahead of myself here because what most people aren't aware of is an even more incredible site called Huanya Picchu which overlooks Machu Picchu from 360 meters above. This is where, according to the historians, the high priests resided along with the virgins and they would hike down from the mountain peak each morning to announce the coming of the new day. I hiked to the top of this, and I can tell you it was by far the most treacherous and insane hike I've ever made in my time on this planet. The fact that there were structures made of solid stone weighing several tons at the top of this peak, which was FAR less accessible than Machu Picchu itself, makes you wonder how and why this site could even exist in the first place.

View from the top of Huanya Picchu--you can see the switchback road to the left of MP.
It took two hours and an iron will to reach the top.
Ultimately, Machu Picchu generates more questions than answers. Why were there no 50 ton stone blocks ever found in the river at the base of the mountain? Surely they would have lost a stone or two during the construction process? Vines would have snapped, and a block would have tumbled down the steep cliff landing in or next to the river below. Would they have recovered that lost block and still used it in construction? Perhaps. The simple fact remains that we still don't know so much about the site.

Nova recently produced a documentary called "Ghosts of Machu Picchu" which explored some of these unanswered questions, I recommend checking it out. After the episode was aired Nova had a Q & A session with one of the contributors to the program, architect and archeologist Vince R. Lee. As evidenced by his answers, unknowns still abound at this site. Here are just a few questions regarding transport of the stone blocks, you can see all of the questions and answers here.
Question: Did you give any thought to the way the Incas originally carried the stone before bringing it to the building site? If they were able to break up a very large stone into building block size and keep a record of the original sequence of breakage and then reconstitute that order at the building site they could save a great deal of work in reshaping, since the blocks they were putting together had originally fit together in the first place, and a minimum of polishing would be required. ~Barry

Answer: This is an intriguing idea which has occurred to a number of us researching this question. However, in almost every case we know of, the quarries of the Incas were simply large boulder fields where loose rock had fallen from mountain faces and were chosen for their quality and their shape, rough shape and then dragged down to the building site for finishing. There is one exception to this that I'm aware of, and it is at the site of Sillustani, near the shores of Lake Titicaca in Peru where a stone is actually being chopped out of live rock in the same manner in which the Egyptians, for example, quarried their rocks. So the Incas were apparently aware of and used this method but it is very, very rare.
Question: Is it possible the Incas could have moved the stone blocks by rolling them over lengths of cordage placed across the route? ~Peg

Answer: I'm not sure what the questioner means by "cordage," although the answer to the general question of how the Incas moved large rocks through the countryside is still under study. We do not have in most cases very clear roadways to indicate the method that was used to transport the stones. We often find ramps in and around the ruin sites themselves, but out in the countryside we find very little evidence of any particular route which we believe was used to move stones, and therefore we really have very little evidence of how it was done.
Having experienced Machu Picchu first hand and climbed to the top of Huayna Picchu, I can assure you that we're no closer to answering any of these questions. Researchers, archeologists and engineers continue to marvel at this newly named 'wonder of the world' and I have a feeling Machu Picchu will continue to keep it's secrets hidden. 

For more insight into this enigma, check out "Machu Picchu's Mysteries Continue to Lure Explorers" on the National Geographic website as well as NOVA's interview with Ken Wright, a civil engineer currently studying the site.

Agent K