A scientific find at Machu Picchu has cast doubt on the reliability of the colonial records for modern Western historians trying to piece together an understanding of the Inca people who built the site.
For more than 75 years, many historians and scientists have assumed that the famous site of Peru was built sometime after AD 1438. This was based primarily on 16th century Spanish accounts of their conquest of the region. However, improved radiocarbon dating techniques performed on remains have now found it to be at least two decades older.
“The results suggest that the discussion of the development of the Inca Empire based primarily on colonial records needs revision,” said lead author of the research, Professor Richard Burger of Yale University.
“Modern radiocarbon methods provide a better basis for understanding Inca chronology than conflicting historical documents. “
The historic site is one of the best known in the world, but its past and the people who used it remain among the most mysterious to Western historians.
The ancient citadel would typically attract over a million visitors each year. Yet developing an understanding of its detailed history was made more difficult by huge cultural differences, such as the lack of contemporary historical documents inscribed in a way that would have been recognizable to Europeans.
To solve this problem, Burger led a team of American investigators in performing Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) dating of human remains from Machu Picchu.
They examined the remains of 26 people and the results, published in the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity, strongly suggested continued use of the site from 1420 at the latest – and probably earlier – until 1530. The latter date would coincide approximately with the beginning of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.
“This is the first scientifically-based study to provide an estimate of the foundation of Machu Picchu and the length of its occupation,” Burger said, adding that such earlier attempts had produced no results. sufficiently reliable.
There is a debate among academics about the relative values of historical and archaeological records in the development of historical narratives. “The Inca chronology is a subject of debate among archaeologists and historians,” said Dr Gabriela Ramos of the University of Cambridge.
“The dating of Inca sites is subject to speculation as written accounts and archaeological evidence do not always match. For decades historians and anthropologists have relied primarily on written accounts and it is fairly recent that archaeological findings, the use of radiocarbon dating and other techniques contribute to, add to, or alter our understanding of societies. pre-Columbian.
“The fact that very few Inca tombs have survived – due to looting – and, overall within Andean archaeological research, the fact that the Inca period is the least studied [mean that] we still don’t know as much about the Incas as we do about their predecessors.
Dr Trish Biers, an osteologist at the same institution, said the colonial archives are important to our understanding of what the Spaniards witnessed at the time. But that they were “heavily influenced by political propaganda, religious superiority and the overall subversive voice of the Spanish Empire, which had its own brilliant agenda.”
She said: “Scientific methods, especially on human remains, can give us insight into what people were going through – for example, diet, disease, and work – both on an individual and an individual level. at the population level. Which is pretty cool.
Ramos stressed that rejecting historical documents in favor of scientific techniques alone would not be beneficial. “Without an understanding of the rationale for Inca politics, Inca religion and how the Incas relate to conquered and allied populations – all described in written sources – archeology would be of little use or would be too much. difficult for scholars to interpret and contextualize. their discoveries.
Machu Picchu, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, is said to have been used as a country palace by the Incas. Work published in 1945 by historian John Rowe suggested the date that many academics later accepted as the most likely for its construction.
It was based on the belief that the Inca Emperor Pachacuti conquered the lower Urubamba Valley – the region of present-day Peru that includes Machu Picchu – in 1438 and that construction probably took place between around 1440 and 1450. .