Looking Back in Time at Machu Picchu

Caitlin Hotchkiss October 16, 2013 3

How do you tell time? Do you have a fancy watch, or do you check your smartphone to stay punctual? Neither of these technologies were an option for the ancient Inca—instead, they had intihuatana, ritual stones that served as an astronomic clock or calendar.

Roughly translated from Quechua, intihuatana means “the hitching post of the sun,” as the Inca believed that the sacred stone held the sun in place in the sky. Intihuatana functioned as sundials of sorts, marking the time and date based on the shadows they cast.

The Intihuatana at Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy of Leonardo Tamburri.

The Intihuatana at Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy of Leonardo Tamburri.

The oldest of these creations date back to 2100-2300 BC; however, not many have survived in Peru, as most intihuatana were destroyed by the invading Spanish clergy in the late 16th century (they believed the stones to be blasphemous). Yet in 1911, an intihuatana was discovered near the town of Písac, and it was a doozy. According to Wikipedia:

The Písac intihuatana was carved at the top of a natural pyramid’s summit. It is characterized by odd shapes which defy interpretation, and incomplete descriptions of its purpose in Inca chronicles. Featuring a serpent at its top, an upright stone column tilts 13 degrees northward,and was originally surmounted by a round disc.Other features include a granite block resembling a “large dining room table”, resembling a carved shelf, bench, meditation seat, or altar, and a base displaying similarities to the rectangular four Station Stones’s base.

This particular intihuatana is known for casting no shadow at all at midday on March 21 and September 21 every year—when the sun equinoxes.

The splendour of Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy of Leonardo Tamburri.

The splendour of Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy of Leonardo Tamburri.

Here’s the rub: Even though the Písac intihuatana managed to survive the Spanish clergy, it didn’t come away unscathed after an encounter with a 21st century film crew. Back in September 2000, the crew was on site in Machu Picchu to film a beer commercial when a 45kg (1,000-lb) camera crane fell onto the stone, breaking off a piece the size of a ballpoint pen. You can imagine how well this went over with historical preservation societies in Peru. Here’s the BBC report on it at the time, including this gem: “The production crew sneaked the crane into the sanctuary at dawn after the National Institute of Culture specifically prohibited the use of a crane.”

Doorway in Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy Leonardo Tamburri.

Doorway in Machu Picchu. Photo courtesy Leonardo Tamburri.

Just a friendly reminder that if you’re on one of our awesome Inca Trail treks, please do not bring any oversized film cranes. Please do, however, bring normal-sized cameras, plus excitement and a sense of adventure—Machu Picchu is without a doubt made for that.

3 Comments »

  1. Julia November 13, 2013 at 9:25 am - Reply

    My colleague just returned from Machu Picchu and I am so jealous… it’s been on my short list to see but now it’s become an even higher priority!

  2. Callie April 2, 2014 at 1:04 pm - Reply

    Everyone loves what you guys are usually up too. Such
    clever work and reporting! Keep up the very good works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my
    own blogroll.

  3. Sacha Mlynek April 3, 2014 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Thank you, Callie!

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