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Machu Picchu
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Seeing the skilled stone work of Machu Picchu, discoverer Hiram Bingham mistakenly believed himself to be standing in the legendary final refuge of the Incas, called Vilcabamba. See more pictures of famous landmarks.

A lost city floating in a kingdom of clouds. A stone Shangri-la set high in the Andes mountains of Peru. A mysterious settlement that the Incas built, occupied, and deserted, all in less than a century. This is Machu Picchu.

For hundreds of years the city was hidden in the jungle. Then, in 1911, a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham led a university expedition to the Peruvian Andes. On a valley floor along the Urubamba River, he met a farmer who guided him up to the ruins of the hidden city -- the only Incan site that hadn't been looted or destroyed during the previous four centuries.

Looking at the city's finely cut stone buildings, Bingham thought he had discovered Vilcabamba, the legendary last refuge of the Incas. Eventually, however, archaeological evidence piled up to the contrary. Machu Picchu instead seems to have been the hub of a sizable Incan province. According to recent evidence, the city may have been built by Pachacuti, the founding patriarch of the Incan empire, and populated by his royal house. If this supposition is correct, Machu Picchu would have been constructed sometime after 1438, when Pachacuti decisively repelled enemy invaders and the Incas began expanding their empire.

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Machu Picchu spans a mountain saddle between green jungle peaks. The settlement has only 200 residences, suggesting a population of about 1,000 people. Because the nearby agricultural lands could support a much larger population than this, some archaeologists theorize that the settlement's role was to grow coca leaves to send to the priests and nobility of the nearby Incan capital of Cuzco. 

Learn more about how scientists and historians are working to unravel the mysteries of Machu Picchu on the next page.