The Mystery of Machu Picchu

Make the exploration of Machu Picchu a real adventure with these innovative lessons.

By Cathy Neushul


View of Machu Picchu

There’s something about Machu Picchu that makes even the most couch-bound adventurer want to don his Indiana Jones outfit and set out for Peru with a backpack and a load of enthusiasm. While you can’t take this journey with your class, you can explore Peru with them by using a variety of creative and interesting methods.

Generate Interest

The first step is to describe why this particular ruin is so interesting to archeologists, historians, and even laymen. Ideally, your class will have already talked about Native American populations, including the Inca, before you embark on an exploration of Machu Picchu.  

There are two books that I’ve read recently that can help you provide a new and interesting perspective on Machu Picchu. The first is 1491 by Charles C. Mann. 1491 debunks the traditional views of America before Columbus’ famous voyage by describing the advanced systems and lifestyles of the Native American groups in this region. It is fascinating to find out about the innovations the Incas used in daily life. You will certainly not find traditional view of Columbus’ experience. The European invasion of the Americas is looked at more as an unfortunate development, rather than as a salvation for the native groups.

The next book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams, chronicles a journalist’s journey to retrace the steps of famous explorer Hiram Bingham III, a possible model for the Indiana Jones character, when he discovered Machu Picchu. The author interacts with local people, describes his experiences in the jungle, and talks about how the journey has broadened his perspective.

High schoolers could read these books independently. However, with younger learners, it would be better to read sections of the books aloud, or just share the information with your class. Everyone's perspective will be broadened regarding the inhabitants of America in the 1400’s after exposure to these books.

Explore and Report

Once you’ve set the stage for this historic topic, have your class do some exploring. With regard to Machu Picchu, have each person come up with a topic he would like to research. Give the class an outline of your expectations, but allow them to be creative in their research and approach. Perhaps they would like to create a video documentary in which they discuss Inca art, an art project in which facts related to Machu Picchu are displayed, or a replica of this famous ruin. Someone could research and talk about current theories to explain how Incan buildings were aligned to provide a spectacular display of light during certain times of the year. In reality, how this was accomplished is still a mystery. Whatever aspect of Incan culture or Machu Piccu they choose to explore, the key is for students to come up with an original research idea and produce a quality research paper on the topic. 

Take a Virtual Tour 

Another way to experience this Incan wonder is to have your class take a virtual tour of Machu Picchu and the surrounding area. Learners can imagine a potential trip, describing where they would go, what they would like to see, and why they would visit certain areas. Machu Picchu provides a wealth of fascinating topics for your class. Turn them loose to explore, and revel in their creative discoveries. 

More Lessons:  

A City Lost and Found

Here is a true critical-thinking lesson. Learners hypothesize about the origins of Machu Picchu and discuss archeological methodologies. By analyzing the history of the site in this manner, they can explore the idea that learning is not a static process, and that scientists and historians are constantly developing new theories about the world around us.

Treasure Hunt Inca

A simple treasure hunt activity in which learners find information related to the Incas, such as the function of the Sun Temple. This is a fun, quick participatory review of information. 

Corn in Ancient America

Have your class learn about the history of corn. They discuss the cultivation of corn from Native American times to the present. There are interesting facts and a useful list of resources provided. 

Tangled Text

By focusing on the string and knot system that the Incas used for communication, learners develop theories on how and why it worked. This is a great way to get you class thinking and theorizing.