To many, Machu Picchu is the crowning achievement of the Incas. Like an ancient lost city, the ruins lay hidden from the world for centuries, even the Spanish invaders, until they were ‘revealed’ to archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. Yet, for all its undeniable majesty, Machu Picchu is not the only impressive legacy of the Incas. I visited several ruins in Peru: Ollantaytambo, Chinchero, Machu Picchu, Qenqo, Sacsayhuaman, Pisaq, Qoriqancha. They were all magnificent.
But, there’s an anomaly at Peru’s ancient archaeological sites. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that there are three distinct and very different styles of stone construction, still easy to overlook or ignore if you’re in a hurry. The conventional wisdom is that the Incas did all the masonry during their brief reign in the 13th-16th centuries. When the Spanish invaders arrived, everything was already in place. They made assumptions and recorded what they saw. Without a written language, the Incas cannot tell their own story.
Archaeologists (and tour guides) will say that the Incas employed the different styles according to the function they served. The more important the purpose—religious, astronomical, sacred—the more sophisticated and refined the construction. Let’s take a brief look at the three styles, which were first identified by a Peruvian researcher.
Alfredo Gamarra studied these structures over decades and came to the conclusion that they represent construction at three separate stages in human history, three distinct civilizations, of which the Incas were the last. Gamarra’s son, Jesus, carries on his father’s work. It isn’t a linear history as we today believe, that is, the progression from stone age cultures with crude tools to our technologically advanced society today, but the likelihood that humanity worldwide has undergone great cycles of development and decline over a considerable span of time, beginning in extreme antiquity. I made the trip to Peru in part to witness for myself this ancient stonework.
The Time of Hanan Pacha
The first stoneworks are identified by in situ carvings in outcroppings of bedrock. These monoliths can be very large. Gamarra uses the term Hanan Pacha to associate a historical time period for this kind of construction. It wasn’t a building technology so much as one of excision. The material looks like it was neatly scooped out or sliced from the rock rather than hammered out with tools. The cuts take the form of niches, stairs, throne-like hollows, platforms, snakelike channels, straight grooves and circular holes, among others. The entire vertical face of a hillside in Ollantaytambo, for instance, seems to have been sheared off in places by an enormous blade. Plane surfaces are amazingly straight and smooth, showing no signs of chisel marks. There also is startling evidence of vitrification, which implies the application of extreme heat to melt rock surfaces to glass-like finishes.
The second style of construction consists of megalithic stones, some weighing 100 tons or more, fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle and with such precision that scarcely a human hair can be inserted in the mortarless joints. This culture (or time period) Gamarra calls Uran Pacha. Incredibly, the seams are not always straight but follow the unlikeliest curvilinear outlines. This must not have been easy to do. And for what purpose? The interior angles can be sharp, non-geometric. In many cases, such as in Cusco, there appear to be broad spatula-like strokes, as if the stones were shaped or smoothed. If your eyes didn’t deceive you, you’d swear the stones were soft or putty-like when worked. Even more curious is that where adjacent stones abut, the edges are sometimes bull-nosed or rounded, sometimes beveled, sometimes perfectly straight, but always tight. There are also curious knobs that project out from the bottom edges of many stones. These works inspire awe and wonder, how massive stones such as these could possibly have been precision-cut and moved from quarries tens of miles (or kilometers) away. The greatest example of Uran Pacha stonework is at Sacsayhuaman in Cusco where some of the largest stones, one weighing in excess of 100 tons, were laid. Vitrification also is found on Uran Pacha stones.
The final and latest style, one attributed to the Incas, is characterized by roughly cut stones fitted together with lots of clay mortar. The masonry has nowhere near the sophistication nor precision of the second style. It’s typically associated with ambitious construction projects built on a vast scale, most notably the marvelous, extensive terracing that seems to typify Inca sites. The appearance is more crude with no attempt to replicate the fit-and-finish of its Uran Pacha predecessor. Most of Machu Picchu reflects this style. This is the time period of Ukun Pacha.
Gamarra also makes a case for the three styles appearing in the above historical order. The Hanan Pacha always appears at the bottom or surrounded by the other two, the Uran Pacha below or surrounded by the Ukun Pacha. An example is the top image taken at Machu Picchu and the following.
To this day, the construction and true purpose of these sites puzzle modern-day architects, engineers and archaeologists. There are many theories but few hard facts. If there are vast differences in style and execution, should it be automatically assumed that the Incas constructed everything, or is it more reasonable to believe they added to or repaired whatever they already found? I favor the latter explanation. In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards asked that very question of the Incas when they beheld both Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco) in Bolivia, presumably the birthplace of the Incas, and Sacsayhuaman. Their answer, as reported by the Spanish chronicler, Pedro Cieza de Leon, was that the complexes were already in ruins when they, the Incas, arrived.
Another bit of supporting evidence that these three construction types were executed in vastly different time periods is the presence of lichens on the Hanan and Uran Pacha stones, but not on the Ukun Pacha (Inca) constructions. Lichen growth has been used to date stones as early as 10,000 years old. It would be interesting if geologists were to carry out lichenometric analyses.
Did the Incas build Machu Picchu? Most of it, it would seem, but the rest remains a mystery. Who were the architects who built these amazing pre-Inca structures? Why have the builders gone to so much trouble? How were the heaviest stones moved? All I could do was stare in amazement and wonder how much we really don’t know of ancient human history and the technologies they possessed.