A team of researchers will be the first to analyze the genomes of the skeletal remains from more than 170 individuals buried at the site. By sequencing the skeletons’ ancient DNA, the researchers hope to better understand the functional role of Machu Picchu and its residents, as well as patterns of diversity, migration and labor diaspora in the Inca Empire – the largest in pre-Columbian America.
Perched on an Andes mountain ridge some 8,000 feet above sea level in Peru, Machu Picchu is a visual wonder and a technical masterpiece. “It is breathtaking,” said lead researcher Brenda Bradley, an associate professor of anthropology at the George Washington University. Other team members are Lars Fehren-Schmitz from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Yale University’s Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar.
Despite its distinction as one of the most iconic and important archeological sites in the world, the origins of Machu Picchu remain a mystery. The Inca left no record of why they built the site or how they used it before it was abandoned in the early 16th century. The Inca built the site’s 15th-century ruins without mortar, fitting the blocks of stone so tightly together that you still cannot fit a piece of paper between them. The design included steeped, agricultural terraces to boost planting space and protect against flooding.
“There is a longstanding debate about what the function of Machu Picchu was because it is so unique and unusual as an Inca site,” Dr. Bradley said. “It is too big to be a local settlement. And it’s too small and not the right structure to have been an administrative center for the Inca Empire.”
The prevailing hypothesis among researchers is that Machu Picchu was a so-called “royal retreat” – akin to what Camp David is for the White House – where Inca Emperor Pachacuti would have visited and held diplomatic meetings, Dr. Bradley explained. The archeology indicates that people who resided there were likely crafts specialists brought in from locations throughout the empire to work at the site.