Machu Picchu is an ancient Incan city that sits 2000 feet above the Urubamba River Valley; and was built in 1450 in what is now Peru. Aside from any religious concerns, Machu Picchu is a masterpiece of architecture and engineering; with the network of buildings and extensive terraces are literally carved into the side of the mountain. Despite 550 years of wear and tear the ruins seems virtually untouched. This is quite a feat considering that the city was built without the use of animals, and that the bricks are not held together with any mortar. Machu Picchu was abandoned due to the Spanish invasion just over a hundred years after its construction.
In 1911, an American scholar by the name of Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu and shared his findings with the academic community. It is important to note that Bingham came across the “lost city” because a local boy took him to it. Furthermore there were already native Quechua people living in the structures at Machu Picchu. Various excavations and investigations were made and Bingham essentially looted the place and took thousands of objects back to the U.S. to be displayed in the Yale Peabody Museum. After the world at large was made aware of the city’s existence, it became an increasingly popular destination for academics and travelers. In 1981 the Peruvian government recognized Machu Picchu and a large area around it as a historical sanctuary. In 1983 it was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Today there is a luxury hotel hundreds of yards away from the site itself. There are many more hotels in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. Environmental degradation due to excessive tourism is a serious problem at Machu Picchu. “…the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu were getting run-down to a point many feared would soon be beyond repair. The trampling of the shallow dirt, the trail-side deforestation for firewood, human waste and other garbage left on the side of the Inca Trail were major environmental threats facing the famous ‘lost city.’” In response to these concerns the Peruvian government made stricter rules concerning tourism, reducing the number of people allowed on the trail each day to 500, and enforcing a pack-in pack-out policy. The polluting effect of tourism is still a very real problem, particularly from the perspective of the indigenous people.
Machu Picchu became such a controversial and important site because of its visibility and symbolism. Because of its fame, any serious developments concerning Machu Picchu will be newsworthy and visible; making it a very good way to deliver a message to the world. It is also a symbol of Western cultural appropriation and imperialism. Since knowledge of this sacred site became widespread in 1911, Europeans have been trying to control the site, and the study of the site. Bingham’s claim that he had discovered Machu Picchu when there were people living there is reflective of his racism and condescension towards the native people. He’s implying that the people living there don’t count because they’re not “civilized” or white. The removal of thousands of artifacts is another indication that Bingham completely failed to understand the importance of the site. Rather than looking at the ruins as a whole, considering the structures, location, culture, and people, Bingham took what he could and went to tell other white people because that’s what was important to him. The construction of a hotel and other tourist infrastructure is a further insulting offense. It’s comparable to putting a McDonald’s in St. Peter’s Square. It also encourages superficial cultural tourism. Instead of taking the time to understand, and interact with a culture, people come and stay at luxury resorts where they can avoid anything that’s not on the brochure. The message communicated is essentially that “Machu Picchu is great, only if there weren’t so many Peruvians.”
Apart from the disrespect that Europeans in particular have shown to the site, Machu Picchu has become such an issue because it is incredibly religiously and culturally important. Nature and its power are crucial foundations to indigenous spirituality. The location is breathtakingly in its natural beauty and majesty, and rather than trying to compete with or overwhelm what is already there, the city harmonizes with the landscape perfectly. A beautiful synthesis of technology and nature. Machu Picchu is also important to indigenous cultural heritage. The ancient city might be called the crowning achievement of Incan culture and spirituality. The culture and language of the contemporary indigenous people comes directly from Incas. In a very real sense, Machu Picchu is where these people come from. A local woman expressed her feeling about the state of the ruins. “Since ancient times, this land has been preserved as sacred. The guardian spirits do not want roadways or industry, or people who pollute the land. These are sacred areas. It was there the deities built the ancient city of Machu Picchu.” From a native perspective, this is clearly not a small problem or a minor annoyance. People feel that their spirituality and way of life are being trampled on, and they think this because it’s true.
There are indigenous groups dedicated to preserving not only Machu Picchu, but Peruvian indigenous religious heritage more broadly. One such notable group is Yachay Wasi. Their campaign, called the Inka Challenge, asks this question, “Will world governments, scientists, nonprofit sponsors and tourists respect Indigenous Peoples’ spiritual heritage: religion, burial sites and human remains, and will the international community respect and allow them to protect their sacred sites?” In short, the answer is no. Indigenous activists aren’t asking foreigners to stop coming to Machu Picchu, all they’re asking is that visitors respect the sacrality of the site, and recognize that it’s not disneyworld. In a country where 45% of the population is Indian, and 37% are part Indian, one might think that the government would take action to satisfy the wishes of so much of their populace. It seems that Western money is more crucial to the government than native support. In 1999, the government approved a plan for the construction of a massive luxury hotel, more restaurants and stores, and a cable car to the ruins. Due to widespread national and international protest and objection, the government suspended the plan, but has not cancelled it. Some fear it may eventually be revived.
The previously mentioned artifacts that were removed to a Yale museum are another topic of controversy. In Bingham’s diary he specifically states that the artifacts he took were loaned temporarily for a period of eighteen months. A 1912 contract between Peru and Yale also states that Peru has the right to demand return of the objects in question at any time. Indeed, the Peruvian government tried to invoke this right after the end of the First World War, and Yale denied the request. Their official stance is that the artifacts belong solely to them. The museum has also releases statements offering to work out some sort of deal with Peru, but the Peruvian government is so far reluctant to compromise because of, “Yale’s insistence that the University has valid title to the objects and the attitude that any sort of deal with Peru would be a magnanimous step on its part.” Yale’s actions in this matter are in the worst tradition of Western scholasticism, and reinforce the idea that Westerns academics are arrogant and untrustworthy, undermining legitimate attempts at cross cultural communication. We should be ashamed.
Ideally the foolish, poorly conceived tourist machinery that has been put in place would be removed, but we all know that is unlikely. In all probability money and materialism will prevail and the site will be degraded until it’s gone. How crude we are.
- Tim Wheeler
[faculy edit: In a highly publicized decision, Yale University has entered into a partnership with a Peruvian university to return Machu Picchu artifacts.] Yale and Peru Sign Accord