Anyone headed to Machu Picchu always asks the same question: “What was Machu Picchu for?” People see the incredible photos, hear about others’ experiences, know that it houses significant Inca ruins, but when it comes down to the time to visit they usually realize they aren’t sure what it originally was. Don’t worry- nobody knows.
Part of Machu Picchu’s allure is its mystery. Its creation alone remains an unfathomable feat based on the time period, and many archaeological discoveries at the site remain largely unexplained. We actually know so little for sure about Machu Picchu, we don’t even have a solid answer on why it was built or what it was fore. So when you find yourself asking that question as you travel to this Wonder of the World, know you’re not alone.
Read more: The Different Treks on Top of Machu Picchu
Of course, like any oft-asked question, there are a million theories awaiting you. So to help you uncover some of the mystery, we’ve compiled the most popular theories on Machu Picchu’s origin, creation and tentative answers to the question of, Why was Machu Picchu built in the first place?
- Machu Picchu was a holy nunnery or woman’s retreat
Originally, one of Hiram Bingham’s theories was that Machu Picchu was a woman’s retreat, based on the holy features of the site and the incorrect belief that a majority of the skeletons found at the site were women. Later research by anthropologist John Verano shows that actually half of the skeletons belonged to men. Researchers at the time perhaps incorrectly assumed they were all women due to the smaller size of these Andean skeletons compared to European and African discoveries that had been more widely studied at that point in time. While some still mention this theory, historians now agree that the evidence no longer supports this.
- Machu Picchu was a holy haven for pilgrimages
One theory has proposed that Machu Picchu was part of an Incan ritual that involved making a pilgrimage from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Proponents of this theory believe it was meant to replicate the mythical journey that Incas believed their ancestors made from the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca. Giulio Magli, the Italian archaeological astronomer who proposed this theory, said that the pilgrimage would conclude at the highest peak in the main ruins- on the steps leading up to the Intihuatana stone.
In fact, Magli has suggested that the entire site itself is a scaled-down replica of a landscape from Inca religion.
- Machu Picchu was built in honor of a sacred landscape
If you’ve seen a photo of Machu Picchu, you’ve probably noticed that it sits in a very unusual location. A feat for the time period, somehow this massive citadel was built perched on a mountaintop, the base of which is encircled by the Urubamba River. When inside the citadel, you’ll notice that where the sun rises and sets perfectly aligns with religiously significant mountains during solstices and equinoxes. Multiple windows in the temples and rooms inside the ruins are clearly designed to line up with the sun and moon during these astrological events. Considering that the Incas worshipped the sun, this seems to be more than coincidence, suggesting that it was built to honor this special setting.
- Machu Picchu was a royal retreat
Perhaps the most widely accepted theory (currently), many believe the site was built as a retreat for Inca royalty to come relax, hunt and entertain guests. The layout of the citadel suggests it was not lived in full time, supporting the idea that it was the 15th-century Inca Emperor Pachacuti.
Furthermore, the Verano studies on the skeletons that disproved the “woman’s retreat theory” has actually helped support this theory. Verano says that the skeletons belonging to men, women and children likely represent helpers who were brought in from throughout the Inca Empire to serve as the staff of the retreat, responsible for cooking, growing the crops, and cleaning.
This theory is further supported by a 16th century Spanish document that referred to a royal estate called Picchu, mapped in the same general area as Machu Picchu.
- Machu Picchu was built by aliens, not the Incas
Understandably, this is the theory that receives the least scientific support, yet it wouldn’t be a post on the theories of why and how Machu Picchu was built without mentioning this classic. In fewer words, many believe that due to many historians awe that such a city was built with such advanced methods for the time, it probably wasn’t built by the Incas and must be the work of aliens. We’ll let you assume how many currently support this theory
So…what’s the answer? Have we decided why Machu Picchu was built? Unfortunately, no. Most agree on theory number 4, that Machu Picchu was built as a royal retreat, however many also consider that it may have had more purposes than that. Clearly built in perfect harmony with the natural landscape and having functions ranging from spiritual to agricultural to administrative, it doesn’t seem we’ll completely rule any of them out any time soon (well, except the aliens one). Perhaps the best education in understanding it now is to visit and see for yourself! Make sure to travel with a knowledgeable tour guide who can point out all of the features and explain the significant aspects mentioned above.
You can make arrangements for one of our tour guides to show you around by contacting us here, or check out our current travel packages for all of your Machu Picchu, Cusco and Peru travel needs. We’ll always send you with informative, English-speaking local guides who can share the rich history of Peru with you!