The Women of Machu Picchu

By: The Scribe on Friday, December 10, 2010

Many people have heard of Machu Picchu, the mysterious lost Inca city in the mountains. This stunning marvel of ancient construction was likely built to serve as both a royal estate and a religious retreat and many of the skeletons that were found in and around the site seem to support the theory that many of the individuals living there served a religious purpose. What is surprising is that a large number of the skeletons are female.

The site itself was discovered in 1911 and has been successfully dated back to the time between 1460 and 1470. It is located in Peru, about 43 miles northwest of the city of Cuzco. The name means “Old Peak” and this is accurate, since the city is built about 8,000 feet above sea level.image

Although some theories have suggested that it may have been an administrative center its remote location makes this seem unlikely. It was originally constructed by the Incan ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. The site is a collection of 200 or so buildings and archaeologists have been able to discover that the majority of these were residences. At its heyday, the site housed approximately 1,200 people.

Many of the women who lived at Mach Picchu actually belonged to an order known as the Chosen Women or Quechua Aclla Cuna (“Virgins of the Sun”). Although they were originally believed to have lived at the site to act as servants for the Emperor it is now believed that their role was mainly a religious one. They took vows of chastity and were responsible for the preparation of any ritual food that was served during rites, weaving ritual garments, and tending and maintaining a sacred fire that was located at Machu Picchu. Other garments woven by the women were worn by the Emperor but were not specifically linked to any religious ceremonies.image

The women lived and worked under the supervision of a number of matrons. These women were known as Mama Cuna. In turn, they were overseen by a single high priestess. This woman was known as the Coya Pasca and she was believed to be a human, earthly consort of the Incan sun god.

Virgins were chosen by priests and came from many different Incan villages. They were young. It was not uncommon for a girl as young as eight years of age to be taken from a village and brought to Machu Picchu. These girls were commoners and were selected for a variety of reasons. Physical attractiveness was a factor in whether a woman would be chosen to become one of the Chosen Women.

The women were often required to serve for a period of six or seven years after which they may have found it possible to be released from their duties. Life for a Virgin of the Sun could be a good one, and might end as the wife or concubine of a rich or powerful individual. Some also ultimately ended up as sacrificial victims.

The city’s downfall was mainly due to smallpox. Half of the population was dead from the disease by 1527 and the city was completely abandoned and forgotten by 1532.


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