Virtually in the shadows of the fabled Machu Picchu and high in the cloud forests of Peru, a British-American team has rediscovered a complex of structures that apparently provided astronomical, agricultural and residential support for the royal city, a kind of "lost suburb" of the Andes.
A scant two miles from Machu Picchu and situated on a ridge facing the city across the Urubamba River, the complex would be readily visible to the half million people who visit the park each year -- were it not covered by dense jungle that the team had to hack its way through to reach it.
The jewels of the complex are a sun temple and an observatory whose precise geographical alignments not only provide a spectacular view of the royal city but also mark the alignments of the rising of the sun and the Pleiades constellation at the equinoxes and summer solstice -- key dates in the Inca calendar that serve a crucial religious function and mark the agricultural seasons.
"What is really important is that this expands our knowledge of the relationship of Machu Picchu with the ruins of the region," said archeologist Johan Reinhard of the Mountain Institute in West Virginia, who was not involved with the expedition.
The spatial alignments at the new site, called Llactapata, or "high city," mimic those at Machu Picchu, emphasizing the importance of the Inca worship of both the mountains and the sky. "This strengthens the argument of why Machu Picchu was built where it was," Reinhard said.
The Inca represented the greatest civilization of South America, ultimately ruling an area along the Pacific coast that stretched from the equator south to Chile. They built an intricate system of roads, paved with flat stones, to connect their many cities, even though they never had access to the wheel.
The Inca were fierce warriors who conquered all around them, but their violence was not totally reserved for others. Convicted criminals had their hands cut off, their eyes gouged out or, were hung up to starve to death or simply tossed off cliffs. The Inca even sacrificed their own to the gods, creating frozen mummies that still endure.
Machu Picchu, an 8,000-foot-high fortress built by the Inca king Pachacuti between 1460 and 1470, was the crown jewel of the Inca empire. The city, which researchers believe was used as a royal resort, was occupied for only 50 years or so before 180 Spanish conquistadors, armed with rifles, wiped out the 40,000-man Inca army.
Its 200 structures, reached by a four-hour train ride from Cuzco some 43 miles away, are largely intact, constructed of granite blocks cut with bronze tools so that they fit perfectly together without mortar.
The rediscovery of Llactapata suggests that perhaps Machu Picchu was more than just a vacation spot for the king.
A small section of the site was discovered by Yale archeologist Hiram Bingham during the 1911 expedition on which he found Machu Picchu. But he considered it unimportant and did not publish enough information to allow others to follow in his footsteps.
A reexamination of Bingham's expedition notes in the Yale archives, combined with thermal imaging studies conducted from a low-flying Cessna, allowed British explorer Hugh Thomson and American archeologist Gary Ziegler to identify the site's most likely location.
Then it was just a matter of hard work to reach it -- using machetes and getting out "in the rain and mud and hacking one's way through the cloud forest," in the words of University of Colorado astrophysicist Kim Malville, who accompanied the team.
Both Thomson and Ziegler are Inca experts who have been working in Peru longer than two decades. Thomson is an author and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, which revealed the discovery this week. Ziegler, based near Colorado Springs, finances his explorations by organizing archeology-based tours of Peru.
Last year, the pair announced the discovery of another lost Inca settlement, called Cota Coca, about 50 miles west of the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco. "The fact that we have found two in two years means there could be many more out there," Thomson said.
Bingham, who spent only five daylight hours at Llactapata (pronounced yak-ta-PA-ta), clearly was not impressed with the seven structures he found there. Both Machu Picchu, which he had just discovered, and Cuzco contain much more impressive buildings, constructed of polygonal, finely finished blocks of granite.
Llactapata is built from much cruder metamorphic rock, which is indigenous to the site, but is much more fragile and can be shaped only into rectangles and sheets.
"It's very crude stonework compared to Machu Picchu, not nearly as impressive," Ziegler said. "But what we know now is that the placement of the buildings is more important than their actual architecture."
One of the most remarkable findings at Llactapata, Thomson said, was a small sun temple that seems to be a miniature version of the famous Coricancha sun temple in Cuzco. The Coricancha is aligned so that sunlight enters the temple at sunrise on the summer solstice.
The interior of the Cuzco temple was probably coated with gold and silver, said Malville, an expert in archeoastronomy, and "it must have been a very spectacular scene to have the Inca emperor greeting the sun" with reflections throughout the structure.
The Llactapata temple "is an almost exact carbon copy of Coricancha," Malville said, with precisely the same alignment. "But it has the advantage over Cuzco of viewing the solstice sunrise over Machu Picchu, which is an extremely dramatic event."
He speculated that most of the population of Machu Picchu may have arisen early on solstice morning and made the hour-long trek across a suspension bridge over the Aobamba gorge to view the event, gathering on a 100-foot-long, ceremonial walkway in front of the temple.
A short distance from the temple, on a bluff overlooking the river, is another building that may have been an observatory or a water shrine. It is oriented precisely east and west for observation of the spring and fall equinoxes. "This seems to indicate that they were all very carefully placed by people who, to our knowledge, had no sophisticated surveying techniques," Ziegler said.
The team identified five different clusters of buildings, or sectors, and suspects that there are more in areas that its members were unable to clear. One sector features a large number of poorly made, crumbling structures that most likely were the homes of workers and farmers. Another sector was clearly an agricultural area.
Other researchers have concluded that Machu Picchu had enough agricultural area to support only about 55 people, not nearly enough to support the 300 permanent residents as well as frequent visitors, Ziegler said.
"Llactapata could have served as an agricultural area for Machu Picchu, as well as a living area for retainers and stone workers," he said.
Another sector appears to be a rest area, similar to those found in other settlements along the Inca Trail. Archeologists once thought that the trail traversed only from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. The discovery of Llactapata, as well as other recent evidence, indicates the trail continued on to Vilcabamba in the interior, and that Machu Picchu was just another rest stop, albeit the most important one.