High in Peru’s Andes Mountains, fog shrouds the temples and palaces of an ancient city. Steeped in myth and enigma, the citadel of Machu Picchu was once the pride of the Inca civilization. And for many years, researchers have pondered over the outpost’s inaccessible location and why it was built exactly where it stands. Now, however, one man has made a discovery that explains one of the most enduring mysteries of the iconic site.
Set at almost 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu remained hidden for centuries before being rediscovered by the Western world. And even though it’s now a major tourist attraction, there is much about the grand city that we still don’t understand. All the while, though, experts have been attempting to unearth Machu Picchu’s secrets – and they’ve had some very surprising results.
One such specialist is geologist Rualdo Menegat, who has been studying Machu Picchu for years in a bid to unravel the mystery of its construction. At times, then, he conducted field work at dizzyingly high altitudes, taking measurements from the ancient city itself. On other occasions, however, he pored over data in a laboratory thousands of miles away from the Andean peaks.
Finally, in September 2019, Menegat was ready to reveal the fruits of his labor to his peers. So, at an annual gathering of geologists, he outlined his theories about how Machu Picchu had been built – and why. And now these remarkable findings are inspiring others to look at the Inca Empire in a whole new light.
The story of the Incas began back in the 12th century at a small hamlet nestled in the Andes Mountains. There, a tribe of farmers lived and worked in the region known as Cusco, which lies roughly 11,000 feet above sea level. And, ultimately, these agriculturalists would band together to create their own city-state.
Then, in 1438, the leader known as Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui came to power. And under his direction, the Kingdom of Cusco began a ruthless expansion into the surrounding area. Historians believe, in fact, that in just a few generations the Incan Empire grew to incorporate much of what is now South America.
At its peak, the Inca civilization spanned 2,500 miles across vast swathes of Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Chile. And while Cusco remained the empire’s most important city, other grand settlements began springing up across the region. Then, in around 1450 or so, work began on another outpost that was located around 50 miles northwest of the Incas’ capital.
According to archaeologists, this new city, dubbed Machu Picchu, was conceived as a compound for Pachacutec and his inner circle. And the estate not only featured a lavish palace complete with its own toilet facilities and garden, but it was also equipped with multiple temples and other structures. In fact, approximately 750 people are thought to have lived in the city at its peak.
After Pachacutec died, his son Túpac took over, and Machu Picchu continued to thrive and grow. Change was coming, though, and the glory days of this city in the mountains were not to last. In 1526, you see, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his men arrived on the fringes of the Inca Empire.
Spurred on by dreams of great riches, the conquistadors pushed deeper and deeper into the empire with each passing year. In the meantime, the Incas themselves descended into civil war. And with its people weakened by turmoil and European diseases, this mighty civilization ultimately fell, with cities such as Machu Picchu left abandoned as a consequence.
Then, for almost 400 years, Machu Picchu remained half-forgotten in the mountains – its existence known only to a handful of local tribes. In 1911, however, the American adventurer Hiram Bingham arrived in the region now known as Peru. Apparently, he was originally searching for Vilcabamba – a fabled lost city that is believed to be the last refuge of the Incas.
While Bingham was in Peru, moreover, a local man guided him to the overgrown ruins of Machu Picchu – which the American initially believed to be the mysterious Vilcabamba. And even though this wasn’t quite the case, Machu Picchu was nevertheless launched to international fame. From that moment on, tourists eager to see the relics of a lost civilization began to trickle in.
Today, Machu Picchu is considered Peru’s top tourist destination, attracting almost 1.5 million visitors a year. And although some of these sightseers make the lengthy hike in from Cusco, many arrive via rail at the city’s purpose-built station. There is also talk of constructing an airport at the site – a plan that would change the face of the ruins for good.
But while the future of Machu Picchu looks uncertain, there are many who are still attempting to unravel its past. And despite the estate’s popularity with tourists, the Inca mountain city has done an impressive job at keeping its secrets over the years – with the construction of the remote citadel perhaps being one of the most enduring mysteries.
Today, it’s believed that the Incas used a dry-stone technique to build the city’s remarkable stone walls. Essentially, this means that the rocks were cut and fitted together without utilizing mortar. But how did these ancient people carry out such a detailed and challenging feat? And why did they choose to do it in such an isolated spot?
Well, Menegat – a researcher at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul – sought to answer those questions. He noted, too, that the Incas appeared to have made a habit of constructing their cities in isolated and inaccessible locations. And as a geologist, he believed that the reason for this choice may lie somewhere below the ground.
“It seemed to me that no civilization could be established in the Andes without knowing the rocks and mountains of the region,” Menegat explained to Newsweek in September 2019. “It could not be built on a whim. It is part of a practice of building settlements in high rocky places. But what guides this practice? What knowledge of the rocks and mountains did builders need to know to succeed in building cities under these conditions?”
According to Menegat, this area had also not been explored by any previous research, leading him to set out to conduct his own study of the geology surrounding Machu Picchu. Using a combination of satellite photos and measurements taken at the site, he began to map the tectonic faults that crisscross the region.
Long before the Incas and Machu Picchu emerged, though, the Andes Mountains had been created by a great geological upheaval. Millions of years ago, the two sections of Earth’s crust known as the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate collided. And as the Nazca Plate was pushed beneath the South American Plate, a high ridge of rock formed.
In an attempt to understand the landscape surrounding Machu Picchu, then, Menegat conducted four separate field trips to the region. When he wasn’t up in the mountains, meanwhile, he pored over data in his university laboratory. And along with satellite imagery, Menegat used previous geological studies of the area to inform his research.
What’s more, Menegat was impressively thorough with his work. “At each stage of the research, I presented the results to Peruvian researchers from various fields of knowledge – geology, archeology, anthropology, architecture, urbanism, landscape ecology, and epistemology – and regions of Peru, so as to assure me of the correctness of data… I also evaluate the scope and importance of my findings for Andean culture researchers,” he explained to Newsweek.
Eventually, though, Menegat’s research led him to a singular startling conclusion. It seemed that Machu Picchu had been constructed in a spot that most modern builders would steadfastly avoid: right on top of a series of tectonic faults. In fact, an entire network of cracks in the Earth’s crust seemingly ran beneath the city.
And according to Menegat, these faults vary in size. Indeed, while some of these breaks are little more than fissures, others stretch considerable distances beneath the mountains, with one particularly impressive example clocking in at more than 100 miles in length. A number of the faults also travel from northwest to southeast, while others run from northeast to southwest.
In fact, there’s so much geological activity here that five separate faults converge beneath Machu Picchu – creating an ominous X to mark the spot. And Menegat believes that this is unlikely to be a coincidence. Instead, he has argued that the tumultuous terrain is integral to the structure of the city itself.
While studying Machu Picchu, you see, Menegat observed that all of its main structures were built in alignment with the faults beneath the city. “The layout clearly reflects the fracture matrix underlying the site,” he explained in a press release from the Geological Society of America. And, shockingly, the mountain stronghold of the Incas is not the only settlement to have been built in such a manner.
Yes, Menegat discovered that a number of additional Inca cities also appear to be aligned along geological features. The ruins of Ollantaytambo – which lie less than 20 miles from Machu Picchu – are also believed to be located at the intersection of several tectonic faults. And 50 miles to the east at Pisac, a similar underlying structure can be found.
Menegat even claims that the Inca capital of Cusco was once constructed in alignment with the geological faults beneath the city. But why would these ancient people have chosen to build their settlements in such a way? Could it be the result of an age-old superstition, or perhaps even a choice with ritualistic connotations?
Well, Menegat believes that Inca culture actually had nothing to do with it. On September 23, 2019, the researcher presented his findings at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Phoenix, Arizona. And during his talk, the researcher put forward a novel explanation: the Incas actually used the faults to lighten the physical load of building cities.
Yes, according to Menegat, the Incas specifically sought out areas of geological turmoil as locations for their cities. Since the stoneworkers who built the famously perfect walls were experts at their craft, the specialist claims, they knew that the fractured rocks found above tectonic faults would provide the perfect building material.
“Where faults intersect, the rocks are even more fractured,” Menegat told Newsweek. “Therefore, they are places that have more loose blocks on the surface, and [these are] also places where [the rocks] can be easily removed to build terraces and buildings.” That wasn’t the only advantage to constructing cities on these sites, however.
Menegat has gone on to explain that the fractured rock was also naturally set into geometric shapes such as hexagons and triangles – meaning the materials should have slotted together more smoothly. And if the pieces of stone were not the correct shape, then their fragile nature would have made it easier to cut them down.
“The intense fracturing there predisposed the rocks to breaking along these same planes of weakness, which greatly reduced the energy needed to carve them,” Menegat explained in the press release. In fact, in the geologist’s opinion, the construction of Machu Picchu would have been “impossible” without these conditions.
However, Machu Picchu’s position on top of several tectonic faults didn’t just make the workload easier. According to Menegat, this specific geology also funnelled melted ice and precipitation towards the city, which in turn provided a ready source of clean water to the community in spite of the inaccessible mountain location.
“The Andean world is inhospitable,” Menegat told Newsweek. “Here, human life is possible only in a few places where water drips through fractures. The Incas knew to follow this criterion, which allowed them to establish networks of settlements in this kind of oasis of habitability provided by the faults and fractures.”
Owing to the water that came from the mountains, then, the Incas didn’t need to build in the low valleys – thus reducing the risk of danger from rock fall and flooding. And these unlikely but surprisingly sustainable cities were so successful that in total they were able to support a population of some ten million people.
But Menegat believes that the fractured rock beneath Machu Picchu had yet another purpose. While heavy rain was sometimes a problem even this high up in the Andes, the geology of the region could have provided natural drainage and so helped to protect the site from flooding. In fact, this feature may well have prevented the city from falling further into ruin after it was abandoned.
“About two-thirds of the effort to build the sanctuary involved constructing subsurface drainage,” Menegat explained in the press release. “The pre-existing fractures aided this process and help account for its remarkable preservation. Machu Picchu clearly shows us that the Inca civilization was an empire of fractured rocks.”
Fascinatingly, Menegat also revealed that the Incas had their own way of describing the tectonic activity on which their cities were built. “There is a Quechua word for large fractures,” he told Newsweek. “As the great Peruvian writer José Maria Arguedas said, the Incas called the fractures that crossed the mountains ‘quijlo.’ Geologists call them faults.”
But does this mean that the people who built Machu Picchu had an incredibly advanced comprehension of geology for the time? Well, while they may not have known the cause of tectonic faults, Menegat believes that they could definitely spot them. “The Incas knew how to recognize intensely fractured zones and knew that they extended over long stretches,” he continued.
Amazingly, then, the Incas’ knowledge of faults therefore enabled them to build structures that were to last for more than 550 years. But just as researchers such as Menegat are beginning to understand the secrets of Machu Picchu, the ruins are more at risk than ever. If plans to construct an airport just a few miles away are carried out, you see, the hub would bring dangerous numbers of visitors to the already crowded site. And although archaeologists are petitioning against the development, the future of the ancient city continues to hang in the balance – for now.
But what of other momentous discoveries of this kind? Well, much like Machu Picchu, Easter Island is a place that has long captivated experts with its many mysteries. And in 2019 researchers finally found an answer to one of the greatest questions surrounding this enigmatic site and its strange monuments.
On average, an Easter Island statue stands 13 feet tall and weighs a whopping 13.8 tons. Despite the monuments’ size and presence, though, no one knows much about these figures or why they came to be. But researchers may now have an answer to at least one enduring enigma: why are the statues situated where they still stand today?
Experts have long strived to understand these incredible carvings. And for years researchers have come up with theories to explain everything from the look of the statues to how their creators must have transported them hundreds of years ago. Some of these opinions have been pretty credible too.
Yet the mystery of why, exactly, the Easter Island community placed their statues where they did still remains. So a team of six researchers from educational institutions across the U.S. put their heads together. These experts then analyzed the landscape of the surrounding area and came to realize how a long-lost civilization might have selected the precise sites for their imposing carvings.
But what is the history of these monoliths? Well, around the start of the 13th century, a handful of people from Marae Renga boarded two canoes to explore the south-eastern Pacific Ocean. And their expedition led them to what we know today as Easter Island. To say they had found a remote piece of land, then, would be something of an understatement.
Easter Island sits at the Polynesian Triangle’s southernmost corner, after all. And today the nearest piece of permanently settled land is Pitcairn Island, which is almost 1,300 miles distant. So to reach the nearest continental landmass, Easter Island residents have to sail 2,182 miles to Chile – the country that had laid claim to the isle in 1888.
But after the Marae Renga people initially discovered Easter Island – in about 1200 AD, according to the experts – the Polynesians who settled there developed a unique and prosperous culture of their own. And the most famous proof of the community’s sophistication is of course the Easter Island statues themselves. Yet much mystery still surrounds the stone effigies created by the people who came to be known as the Rapa Nui.
Of course, the answers to many of these mysteries would disappear with Easter Island’s inhabitants. Many locals in fact perished or left when devastating changes came to their land. One interesting example of such a shift came via the introduction of a very small, yet very harmful species: the Polynesian rat.
Throughout history, you see, the arrival of the Polynesian rat and other similar rodents to new lands has caused irreversible damage to vegetation. And on Easter Island the rodents chewed and damaged seeds that would have otherwise thrived. As the land’s ecosystem drastically reconfigured itself, then, the Rapa Nui population plummeted from as many as 15,000 people to no more than 3,000 in the space of about a century.
Then in 1722 the Europeans landed on the island – and found the indigenous population already much diminished. Yet the newcomers also brought diseases that then wiped out a further section of the land’s natives. Peruvian slavers made another dent in the island’s headcount too. So perhaps these raids explain why some Rapa Nui chose to move to move to different archipelagos.
Yet even as its population dwindled, the people of Easter Island continued with their lives and traditions. Between about 1250 AD and the start of the 16th century, in fact, the Rapa Nui built their famous moai. The enormous anthropomorphic statues look eye-catchingly different to real-life people, though. The huge head on each giant figure tends to make up almost half of each structure, after all.
So experts do know some details about these enormous figures. For starters, distinguished carvers made the monolithic statues – although it’s unclear how they earned the right to perform such important tasks. One theory is that the carvers held high-ranking positions in the social hierarchy. Another suggests that tribes might have chosen a seasoned carver from each of the island’s clans.
In any case, the monuments these artisans created are truly impressive, artistic achievements. Consider the tallest completed moai, Paro. The statue measures in at nearly 33 feet and weighs just over 90 tons. And among the uncompleted Easter Island statues, experts have found one that, if finished to scale, would have stood an estimated 69 feet tall and weighed up to 165 tons.
Researchers have therefore wondered for years how the Rapa Nui were able to transport their enormous statues around the island. And at one point, experts believed that the island had been treeless – which made the mystery even more confounding. But later analysis of Easter Island pollen revealed that trees had in fact covered the landscape until about 1200 AD. Some species persisted for another four centuries after that too.
So, knowing that trees were indeed available, experts could come up with theories as to how the people used their resources to move such enormous and heavy effigies. One explanation imagines that the locals balanced the statues on felled trees and rolled them from point A to point B. This method would have required up to 150 people to transport a single stone.
Other investigators have envisaged that the Rapa Nui used a combination of human strength as well as ropes and wooden contraptions similar to sleds. The experts have also theorized that the people constructed tracks – since dubbed the Easter Island roads. Pushing the statues along such pathways would have made transportation easier.
More recent studies have drawn different conclusions, though. In fact, archaeological evidence has revealed that the Rapa Nui probably wrapped ropes around the statues from opposite sides. Then they likely pulled the ropes to rock the moai from one way to the other. This would have made the statues do a sort of walk to their chosen resting places.
In order to complete such a ritual without toppling their carvings, though, the islanders had to coordinate such a “walk” perfectly. So experts believe the Rapa Nui had a chant that they’d recite while pulling the moai. The rhythms of the chant would keep them tugging in perfect synchronicity.
This revised theory dovetails with the oral history passed down by the Rapa Nui too. You see, the legends state that the islanders used divine power that inspired the statues to walk themselves to their designated locations. Some stories say that a king had such abilities, while others highlight a lady who resided by herself atop of the island’s mountain and directed the moai.
Yet another moai-related mystery that is believed to have been solved is who the strangely proportioned statues represent. The carvings have distinct features, after all. Their large and wide noses, for instance, give way to chiseled chins. Plus, the statues have angular, rectangle ears, and the carvers used deep slits to give the impression of the figures’ eyes.
Many of the statues sited along the outer edges of Easter Island face inward towards where the Rapa Nui once lived too. So all of these details have led archaeologists to believe that the statues symbolize the souls of important community figures. These could include chiefs, ancestors and others who held significant tribal positions.
One archaeologist who supports this theory is Jo Anne Van Tilburg, who has spent years studying the Easter Island moai. Van Tilburg in fact argues that the people built the statues in a standardized style – yet each one stands for a different, revered individual. The archaeologist told TV channel PBS that the living probably used the statues to talk to their gods too.
On top of that, Van Tilburg believes the extra-large statues were built large specifically to bridge the gap between this world and the next. The Rapa Nui might have therefore believed the outsized figures opened lines of communication with those who had passed on. “The moai thus mediates between sky and earth, people and chiefs, and chiefs and gods,” Van Tilburg explained.
Some of the island’s oral history backs up this idea too. Benedicto Tuki, who lived on Easter Island and claimed he was a blood relation to its first king, said the inward-facing statues looked over the land and its people, which both shared the Rapa Nui moniker. And the few moai that faced outward did so in honor of the seas and lands from which the tribes originally came, he said.
Tuki’s knowledge, which he shared with Smithsonian magazine, had come from the stories that older family members had shared with him. He said, “This is not written down. My grandmother told me before she died.” Many mysteries of the island therefore still linger – and experts strive to solve them.
In 2009, for instance, British researchers Colin Richards and Sue Hamilton cracked one long-standing mystery about the moai. For years, you see, people had wondered why some of the statues appeared to wear red stone headgear. And to answer the question, Richards and Hamilton’s research required them to retrace the Rapa Nui’s steps in constructing the figures.
Richards and Hamilton then found that the red stones came from an ancient quarry that held special meaning for the Rapa Nui. As Richards told The Independent in 2009, “It is clear that the quarry had a sacred context as well as an industrial one. The Polynesians saw the landscape as a living thing and after they carved the rock the spirits entered the statues.”
So, according to Richards and Hamilton, the Easter Island people added the sacred stone to their statues to represent the status held by the figure while they had lived. The researchers also said the stones stood in for the topknot or braid that tribal chieftains would wear to show their dominance. Hamilton described their society as “highly competitive” too.
Ten years later, researchers would explain another of the lingering mysteries surrounding the Easter Island moai. This time, though, it had to do with the positioning of the statues. As previously mentioned, some islanders apparently claimed that the figures faced inward to watch over them and their land.
But researchers wondered if the actual locations of the effigies and the ahu – the platforms on which many moai stood – had any further meaning. So an archaeological team, comprised of experts from six American institutions, focused their studies on Easter Island’s eastern side. And in that area they found and analyzed 93 ahu.
The researchers then looked at each ahu and surveyed its surrounding areas. Specifically, the team looked to find any sort of nearby resources that the statues might highlight. They searched for evidence of the sweet potato, for instance, as well as potential fishing sites and other amenities.
Such a study was a long time coming, according to Robert DiNapoli, a researcher and anthropologist from the University of Oregon. He told the Daily Express in January 2019, “Many researchers, ourselves included, have long speculated associations between ahu, moai and different kinds of resources.”
Yet upon compiling the list of ahu and the resources in their proximities, DiNapoli and the other researchers found no connection between most of them. For one thing, the statues sat nowhere near any gardens. The experts could therefore conclude that the figures didn’t exist to protect or otherwise monitor such valuable pieces of the landscape.
But the research team did find something interesting when it came to ahu and water. Namely, the monoliths didn’t signpost any sort of undersea resource. The statues did, however, seem to denote areas in which the Easter Island locals could have found fresh water. This would have been an important resource in spots where potable H2O wasn’t readily available.
And Easter Island doesn’t actually have any springs or streams to provide drinkable fresh water. The research team therefore realized that the people would have drank groundwater discharge. This fresh water flows out from aquifers at the coast and into the surrounding ocean.
Anthropology professor Carl Lipo of Binghamton University in New York co-authored the Easter Island research study. He explained groundwater discharge to CNN in January 2019, saying, “Fresh water would literally come out right between the coast and the ocean in a stream. We’d see horses drinking out of the ocean, and it turned out they knew exactly where the fresh water was coming out.”
Lipo and the rest of the researchers subsequently concluded that the moai placed along Easter Island’s coast stood there to point out the areas where groundwater emerged. Inland, meanwhile, their presence highlighted sources of natural, potable water. For instance, some moai stood near caves where fresh water hid.
So the research team had their answer. They believe the Easter Island statues owed their placements at least in part to highlight the presence of fresh water. As Lipo put it, “Building the statues wasn’t inexplicable behavior, but something that was not only culturally significant but central to their survival.”
University of Arizona anthropologist and researcher Terry Hunt also chimed in about what the practice said about the Rapa Nui. According to the Daily Express, he said, “The monuments… reflect generations of sharing, perhaps on a daily basis, centered on water, but also food, family and social ties.”
And, Hunt concluded, the moai’s placement highlighted the Rapa Nui’s propensity for communal behavior. He said, “The sharing points to a critical part of explaining the island’s paradox: despite limited resources, the islanders succeeded by sharing in activities, knowledge and resources for over 500 years until European contact disrupted life.”
Of course, researchers still don’t have all of their answers when it comes to Easter Island. But that’s precisely why their work continues. The same team hopes to get their heads around why the statues came to be in the first place, for instance. Yet Lipo already knows one thing. He told CNN, “It’s incredible how much energy went into them.” And the same can be said about those working to better understand this unique island community.