Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Inca: Masters of Cyclopean Masonry

By Matthew Zuk

Machu Picchu

The Incan Empire (circa A.D. 1150 – 1550)[1] produced some of the most impressive architectural feats not only in South America, but also in the entire world. Many of these structures have proven to be inexplicable enigmas and no one knows for sure how on earth they were built!

Photo from Wikimedia Commons


Built at over 11,000 feet above sea level and in the shape of a puma (as seen from the air), Cuzco (also known as Cusco) is one of the most amazing sites of the ancient world.[2] The city of Cuzco was the capital of the Inca Empire and is famous for its use of “cyclopean” masonry. Cyclopean architecture is a style of construction that uses specially cut stones fit together to create a structure without the use of mortar. This term was first used for the walls and structures built by the Mycenaean civilization in Greece. (While Cuzco is not typically described as “cyclopean” due to its location in South America instead of Greece, it still uses the same technique.) This style of construction creates stronger structures because it eliminates mortar, which is typically weaker than the stone it holds together.[3]

The Incan walls at Cuzco are in a league of their own when it comes to stone cutting and placement. At Cuzco each stone is so perfectly cut and fit together that not even a knife blade can be fit between the stones. Even more astonishing is the shape in which these stones are cut, most of them being cut in odd (usually hexagon or trapezoid) shapes.[4] This would further strengthen the structure, as the stones would be more stable than the typical square or rectangular shape.

Wall at Paredones, Peru
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

New Discoveries

Cyclopean construction has been found for the first time on the coast of Peru. Previously discovered ruins in this region were made of adobe (an earth, clay, and straw mixture, similar to that of the Pueblo Indians in the Southwestern United States). However, this recently discovered site contains walls that mix the two building techniques; they have a base of perfectly shaped stones and then adobe walls. Giuseppe Orefici, the director of the dig, stated that specialist stone carvers were brought from Cuzco to construct the walls. The city also seems to have had some significance as artifacts and tombs found at the site indicate the presence of a more “elite” (upper, even ruling, class) society.[5]

Other Examples

There are other examples of cyclopean architecture found in the Incan ruins in Peru. Some more famous and impressive examples include Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuaman. An important factor to remember with both of these sites is that they are at high elevations. Machu Picchu was built at a location over 7,000 feet above sea level and Sacsayhuaman is at 12,000 feet above sea level![6]

Machu Picchu
Photograph by Robert Clark

  • Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the most famous Incan sites ever discovered; this is mostly due to its location and excellent preservation. The Incan city is located high up in the Andes Mountains and in pristine condition because it is quite difficult to reach. It contains a variety of features that display advancement. Cyclopean walls are among these feats; typical of Incan architecture these walls are constructed of perfectly cut stones that are seamlessly placed together without the use of mortar. The site also contains elements of archaeoastronomy, including the entrance to a cave that only admits light into it before and after the winter solstice, which coincides with their ritual Capac Churi (the initiation of royal boys into manhood).[7]

  • Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman is a large Incan fortress-like structure and may be the most impressive example of flawless cyclopean architecture ever discovered. It is just over a mile away from Cuzco and is believed to be a fortress, though some claim it was only constructed to complete the puma figure which can be seen from the air (the symbol of the Inca, this figure started at Cuzco and it is believed Sacsayhuaman is the head of the puma). The walls are absolutely massive and stunning to behold. They are flawlessly cut and fit together so perfectly that not even a blade of grass can fit between them.[8]

The stones used in the structure are extremely large as well, some weighing over 150 tons. The largest is twenty-nine feet high and is thought to weigh 360 tons! The quarry from which these stones were cut is about ten miles away. How the Incans cut these stones, moved them into place and fit them together so perfectly is a mystery.[9] Even when the Conquistadors from Spain saw these ruins they were mystified as to how the supposedly “primitive” Inca could have built such a structure.[10]


Like many other ancient sites the mystery of how the ancients built these incredible structures may never be known. One biblical truth we can draw from these examples is the amazing intelligence of ancient man. However, we must not fall into being amazed by the achievements of man and leave the thought there. All credit goes to our Creator, God almighty. Ancient man is intelligent yes, but why? Because God created them that way.

One of the Axioms we have at Jackson Hole Bible College is “everything goes back to God”. Ancient man is not responsible for their genius or for their achievements; it all goes back to God. That is a lesson for us as believers as well. All of our gifts, talents and abilities come from God and therefore we need to give Him all credit, glory, praise and honor. In and of ourselves we can do nothing good, we are only capable of doing evil. It is only by God’s grace and strength and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that we can do things that please God (John 15:5, Ephesians 2:8-10, Philippians 2:13).

The reason we have gifts and talents is because God gave them to us so that we might use them for His glory. The sad part is that we so often use them for selfish ambition and pride, using them to glorify ourselves instead of God. By doing this we are trying to place ourselves above God; He gave the gifts to us and yet instead of using them properly we waste them on selfish pursuits. We need to set aside this pride and instead live our lives in a God honoring way; we need to use what He has given us to bring Him praise and glory. However we must always rely on His strength. On our own we will always fail and come up short. But God never fails, He is all-powerful, all knowing, and completely trustworthy. He never lies and can never change. What an awesome God we serve!

More mysterious sites: 

[1] Pringle, Heather. "Inca Empire - Pictures, More from National Geographic Magazine." (accessed October 30, 2013).
[2] "World Mysteries - Mystic Places: Sacsayhuaman, Cusco, Coricancha, Muyuqmarka." (accessed October 29, 2013).
[3] "cyclopean masonry -- Encyclopedia Britannica." (accessed October 30, 2013).
[4] Landis, Don. The Genius of Ancient Man: Evolution's Nightmare. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2012.
[5] Chase, Rachel. "Archaeologists discover Inca ruins in Nazca, Peru - Peru this Week." (accessed October 30, 2013).
[6] ("World Mysteries")
[7] Dearborn, David S. P, Katharina J. Schreiber, and Raymond E. White. American Antiquity. Society for American Archaeology, 1987. (accessed October 29, 2013).
[8] ("World Mysteries")
[9] Tracking Ancient Man. "Sacsayhuaman Walls." (accessed October 29, 2013).
[10] ("World Mysteries")

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