Machu Picchu, the famous 15th-century Inca site in southern Peru, is up to several decades older than previously thought, according to a new study led by Yale archaeologist Richard Burger.
Burger and researchers from several US institutions used Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS), an advanced form of radiocarbon dating, to date human remains recovered in the early 20th century at the monumental complex and former estate of Emperor Inca Pachacuti, located in the eastern face of the Andes Mountains.
Their findings, published in the journal Antiquity, reveal that Machu Picchu was in use since approximately 1420 AD. until AD 1530, ending around the time of the Spanish conquest, making the site at least 20 years older than the accepted historical record suggests and raising questions. about our understanding of Inca chronology.
Historical sources dating from the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire indicate that Pachacuti took power in 1438 AD. and later he conquered the lower valley of Urubamba where Machu Picchu is located. Based on those records, scholars have estimated that the site was built after 1440 AD, and perhaps as late as 1450 AD, depending on how long it took Pachacuti to subdue the region and build the stone palace.
AMS testing indicates that the historical timeline is inaccurate. “Until now, estimates of the antiquity of Machu Picchu and the length of its occupation were based on contradictory historical accounts written by Spaniards in the period after the Spanish conquest,” said Burger, professor of anthropology at the Yale College of Arts. and Sciences. “This is the first study based on scientific evidence that provides an estimate of the foundation of Machu Picchu and the duration of its occupation, which gives us a clearer picture of the origins and history of the site.”
The find suggests that Pachacuti, whose reign set the Incas on the path to becoming the largest and most powerful empire in pre-Columbian America, gained power and began its conquests decades earlier than textual sources indicate. As such, it has implications for people’s broader understanding of Inca history, Burger said.
“The results suggest that the discussion on the development of the Inca empire based mainly on colonial records needs revision,” he said in a statement. “Modern radiocarbon methods provide a better basis than historical records for understanding Inca chronology.”
The AMS technique can date bones and teeth that contain even small amounts of organic material, expanding the pool of remains suitable for scientific analysis. For this study, the researchers used it to analyze human samples from 26 individuals that were recovered from four cemeteries in Machu Picchu in 1912 during excavations led by Yale professor Hiram Bingham III, who had “rediscovered” the site the previous year.
The bones and teeth used in the analysis likely belonged to servants, or assistants, who were assigned to royal property, the study states. The remains show little evidence of involvement in heavy physical labor, such as construction, meaning they were likely from the period when the site functioned as a country palace, not when it was being built, the researchers said.
On November 30, 2010, Yale University and the Peruvian government reached an agreement for the return to Peru of the archaeological materials that Bingham excavated in Machu Picchu. On February 11, 2011, Yale signed an agreement with the National University of San Antonio Abad del Cusco establishing the International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture, which is dedicated to the exhibition, conservation and study of archaeological collections. . from the Bingham excavations of 1912. All human remains and other archaeological materials from Machu Picchu have subsequently been returned to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, where they are kept in the Machu Picchu Museum.