Why have I embraced the imagery of Macchu Picchu in my adventure-themed exploratory blog on the semiotics of communication?
Machu Picchu is one of several pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas that has always fascinated me. Known as the “Lost City of the Incas,” it is a beautiful & serene city isolated in the midst of the Urubamba jungle in the Peruvian Andes and situated atop a mountain at 8,000 feet elevation. It was erected sometime in the 13th or 14th century and not discovered by outsiders until 1911 when the explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled across it.
This world-renowned archaeological site unveils a surprising urban center which demonstrate some incredible technological advancements. A few of them include:
- The use of “dry stone” construction techniques of polished polygonal stones of varying shapes, thereby requiring no mortar whatsoever (and quite unlike its Incan counterparts around the surrounding countryside). Carved out of granite, these tightly-fitted and uniquely-shaped stones are precise enough that in many places a knife blade can’t even penetrate the cracks between them, and this enables its buildings to withstand the area’s frequent earthquakes with little to no repairs required.
- Most visible from photos is the terraced agriculture, but a vital element of the complex ramps & terraces seen there is an advanced irrigation system of rock channel aqueducts which provided water not only to the farming terraces but also for drinking, bathing, and even scenic display (fountains). Even more amazingly, not only is the system still functional today, but it is ecologically conservative and self-sustaining.
- The complex also functioned as an astronomical observatory, the centerpiece of which was a giant rock carved out of the mountain itself called the Intihuatana Stone, whose four corners pointed directly north, south east, and west. In addition to its religious symbolism, the stone was designed to align with various geographic features of the surrounding landscape as well as constellations and astronomical events, thereby indicating solstices and equinoxes which told the Inca when to plant and governed their calendar.
- And on top of that, the use of natural raw material which was entirely appropriate to the surroundings and the low-impact sustainable design which provides a secure habitat for several endangered species led UNESCO to claim that the site is “one of the world’s greatest examples of a productive man-land relationship.”
And all of this was accomplished without a written language and without the use of the wheel (neither had been invented there)! Macchu Picchu is an engineering marvel even by today’s standards. As Angela Harris puts it,
“Even with today's technology, building a city of this magnitude with an irrigation system in the heart of a jungle, completely isolated, on a mountaintop, in an earthquake zone, with massive granite stones would be an engineering feat indeed.”
And yet, when it was finally discovered 500-600 years after its development, none of its original occupants remained. But unlike its pre-Columbian counterparts through the New World, the inhabitants were gone a few years before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532. No one knows exactly what happened to them, though plagues, internal civil unrest, solar/celestial events, and agricultural migrations have all been suggested as possible explanations for their demise. A very plausible explanation supported by the evidence is that of archaeologist Gary Ziegler, who attributes the demise of the Inca Empire to a smallpox epidemic which killed its ruler and 2/3 of the population (sadly, it was imported by European explorers to Panama); this, in turn, led to a devastating civil war over Inca secession, with Machu Picchu eventually being abandoned due to the high cost of maintenance with epidemic and war depleting the male population.
For me, Macchu Picchu represents a civilization (and in particular a sub-culture of that civilization) whose technological innovation was far advanced and unrivaled, and yet one which failed to discern the circumstances which would eventually bring about their own disappearance. They could read the stars and the seasons and build complex structures & systems which would outlast those of most other civilizations, but they apparently missed the signs that spelled the end of life as they knew it. Nothing lasts forever, but for all their incredible technological innovation, one would think the civilization should have at least endured a single millennium.
David J. Swisher
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For More Information:
Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu (UNESCO World Heritage Centre)
What Is Machu Picchu? by Angela Harris
Middle Ages Technologies: The Inca City Machu Picchu by Timothy Allman
Machu Picchu Abandoned: How they kept the secret. by Gary Ziegler