WASHINGTON (March 18, 2002)–An expedition sponsored by the National Geographic Society has discovered an extensive settlement in mountainous southeastern Peru in a region once inhabited by the Inca people as a refuge from the conquering Spanish.
The site clings to the steep slopes of an Andean peak in Peru’s Vilcabamba region and consists of the ruins of more than 100 structures, including circular dwellings, agricultural storehouses, ceremonial platforms, cemeteries, funeral towers, roads, water channels, terraces, a dam and a truncated pyramid. The site is located in a region that was the Incas’ last stronghold against the Spanish, before they were finally vanquished in 1572.
The expedition team conducted excavations at the site that uncovered Inca pottery from two distinct time periods, human remains and assorted stone implements.
The nine-member team, made up of American, British and Peruvian explorers, was led by Inca scholar Peter Frost of Cusco with Peruvian archaeologist Alfredo Valencia Zegarra and American explorer Scott Gorsuch. Frost reports that the site showed evidence of looting but that no scientific exploration of it has ever been recorded. “The site turned out to be far more extensive than we expected,” he said. “It’s spread over six square kilometers and is up around 11,000 feet on very steep terrain, and its natural beauty is stunning.” Dense cloud forest obscures some of the site, he said, which is on a peak known as Cerro Victoria.
“Victoria is an enormous and complete complex of archaeological sites, with great historical and functional significance, situated within an exceptional ecological system in stunningly beautiful country,” said Valencia.
The settlement is the largest and most significant Inca site to be discovered since Gene Savoy explored “Vilcabamba the Old,” another site in the region, in 1964. It is 22 miles southwest of Machu Picchu, the best-known Inca site, discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. Frost, a 56-year-old writer, photographer and Inca authority originally from England, said this is the first new Inca discovery he has made in his 30 years of work and exploration in Peru.
The settlement is surrounded by 18,000-foot peaks, the terrain dramatic and severe. “I think they chose this spot for two reasons,” Frost said. “I believe it was a combination of silver mines they could work nearby and the site’s ceremonial significance. It’s the only place in the area that has a superb view of all the nearby snow peaks. They were probably holding religious ceremonies in worship of these peaks and celestial and solar observations on these platforms to keep the Inca calendar.”
Some of the community’s dead had been buried above ground, in small, cylindrical structures made of stone. The expedition found several of these towers, which may have been used for elite members of the community or for people from a different ethnic group who shared the site. The funeral towers had been heavily looted and were empty, but skeletons were found in underground tombs at the site.
Besides human remains, the explorers found ceramic pottery from the early “formative Inca” period that may be especially significant, Frost said. The pottery suggests that the Inca may have inhabited the area much earlier than previously believed.
“This is one of the most important sites to be located in the Vilcabamba region since the Inca abandoned it over 400 years ago,” said high-altitude archaeologist Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. “It promises to provide new insights into Inca occupation of this remote area.”
The expedition, which took place in June 2001, was a test of endurance for the team. The site is four days on foot from the nearest road, and the team had to cross the 10,000-foot-deep Apurimac Canyon and a series of rugged Andean ranges to reach it. Water was carried for two hours up the mountain by mule. Two Indian families were found living at the site, which the local people call Corihuayrachina.
The ruins had been sighted in 1999 by Frost and Scott Gorsuch as they hiked through the remote region. “We spotted what appeared to be a sacred platform on one of the peaks, and it seemed to have significance — it caught the sun’s first rays in the morning and last ones at night,” Gorsuch, of Santa Barbara, Calif., said. Two years of planning were needed to overcome the logistical challenges of reaching the site.
The Vilcabamba region is one of the least understood and most significant places in the history of the Inca civilization, which is considered the last great empire in the Americas. Some 500 years ago the Inca established an imperial state in the Andes through an elaborate religious, social and military order. Despite having no use of the wheel or system of writing, they built thousands of miles of roads, pioneered in agriculture and abolished hunger with a system of food storehouses.
Less than a century later, the Spanish came in search of gold, plundering the region for four years and waging bloody warfare against the Inca. When Inca ruler Manco Inca led a rebellion in 1536 that nearly overthrew the Spanish, it was to the Vilcabamba region that he and his followers fled. There they defied the invaders for 36 years, until 1572.
“Few, if any, Spanish conquistadors ever reached the southern part of Vilcabamba,” Frost said. “This site may ultimately yield a record of Inca civilization from the very beginning to the very end, undisturbed by European contact — an unparalleled opportunity.”
Frost and his team plan to return to the site later this year with National Geographic support to continue exploring, mapping and excavating.
The team comprised Frost, Gorsuch, archaeologist Valencia of the University of San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru; American explorer Gary Ziegler; American archaeologists Meg Watters and Jeff Sogard; British archaeologist David Beresford-Jones; and Peruvian archaeologists Zenobio Valencia and Carlos Silva. Besides the National Geographic Society, the 2001 expedition’s supporters included Mountain Hardwear, Geophysical Survey Systems Inc., and Gordon Oldham, Sogard and Beresford-Jones.
National Geographic Channels International and PBS in the United States will present a television premiere that features the new site and provides insights into the Inca and their once-vast empire. The Special will premiere globally in May 2002; check local listings for dates and times. More information will be available at www.nationalgeographic.com.