Commentary: Llactapata: A Big Inca Discovery, or Not? - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Llactapata: A Big Inca Discovery, or Not? November 18, 2003
by Mark Rose

It has everything: a jungle, a lost city, high-tech gear, and explorers. Who needs Indiana Jones with stories like the rediscovery of Llactapata near Machu Picchu? "It was announced today that an Anglo-American team, supported by The Royal Geographical Society, have found an important Inca ruin lost in the Peruvian cloud-forest, not far from Machu Picchu. Flying over the Andes, the team used infra-red cameras to see through the thick jungle vegetation and reveal the outlines of stone buildings beneath. They then travelled in to the site with a mule-team and used machetes to cut their way through to the substantial site, which lies at 9,000 ft in the Eastern Andes and is called Llactapata." That's how the November 6 press release framed the story, and newspapers and wire services have picked it up and run with it.


Machu Picchu (Mark Rose) [LARGER IMAGE]

It's a good plot--using science and muscle, intrepid explorers overcome forbidding landscape and find ancient ruin--but does the story withstand scrutiny? According to the Royal Geographical Society press release, the Thomson-Ziegler Research Expedition, named for its leaders, Briton Hugh Thomson and American Gary Ziegler included "seventeen explorers, eight muleteers, twelve horses and twenty-five mules." Okay. The two leaders are described as a writer-explorer and archaeologist, respectively. Okay, let's accept that, too. On-hand for the remote-sensing work was "an expert on Inca astronomy, Dr. Kim Malville." Okay, why not.

When we get to what this crew accomplished and how they did it, things are less straightforward. First, the "discovery." It is a discovery, right? After all the press release says they "have found an important Inca ruin lost in the Peruvian cloud-forest." Well, in the press release and in their on line report, they admit that the archaeologist Hiram Bingham found "the main part of the site" back in 1912, and the report gives a brief summary of Bingham's work there. Also in the report--but not mentioned in the press release--are more recent trips to the site: in 1982 by Hugh Thomson and in 1985 by mountaineer-archaeologist Johan Reinhard. Turns out the 1982 visitors mapped part of the site, but not the same area mapped by Bingham (yes, Bingham published a map of part of the site). Reinhard (1985) mapped a large structure at the site. So the location of the "lost" site was not unknown to Thomson (unless he forgot it since 1982), nor was the extent of the site entirely unexpected since three disparate sections of it had already been mapped.

Let's turn to the remote sensing. The press release says: "Flying over the Andes, the team used infra-red cameras to see through the thick jungle vegetation and reveal the outlines of stone buildings beneath.... This is the first time that infra-red cameras have been used in this way to find lost Inca sites." So they found the (not really) lost city using SCIENCE. Pretty cool. But hold on...what does Malville, who did the infra-red work, really say in his appendix to the report? There's actually only about four sentences that say what they did: "On May 2 and May 3 2003, the expedition flew over two regions of the Vilcabamba to test thermal infra-red technology for the purpose of mapping and locating Inca ruins." So they had just two days of flying time. "On the first day we over flew the area of Choquequirao and obtained good images of several of its buildings." One day used up, and the site of Choquequirao, already known, photographed. One day left: "On the second day, when we flew over Machu Picchu and Llactapata we encountered clouds over the targets." That statement's a bit enigmatic. Did they get any images or not? Malville doesn't say! He continues: "A preliminary analysis of the findings was used for the investigations by land at Llactapata. The material is being analyzed further." What findings? What material? It's a little puzzling.

"Inca Ruins Discovered near Machu Picchu." That's the title on the press release, and it's sort of true--Thomson-Ziegler documented more of the site than Bingham did in 1912 or those who visited the place in the 1980s did--but on the other hand, they knew the site was there. Was it really the "first time that infra-red cameras have been used in this way to find lost Inca sites"? Well, since the site wasn't lost it's a moot point, but it's hard to say what the infra-red work did, or did not, reveal about Llactapata.

Press releases are meant to grab the attention of reporters. To accomplish this they often include claims that push the boundaries the truth, and stretch it just a bit. Mark Twain called these "stretchers." It's unfortunate that reporters, perhaps working under tight deadlines, are taken in by the hype. It's also unfortunate that the real story of what archaeology is and what archaeologists do gets buried in it. Assuming that Thomson-Ziegler had proper permits, were doing high-quality work, etc., the study of this site might have been enough of a story without the overstated claims.

Mark Rose is executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY and a contributor to L. Zimmerman et al., eds., Ethical Issues in Archaeology (AltaMira: Walnut Creek, California, 2003).

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America