A llama on a hill over looking an ancient town in the mountains of Peru

One of the most famous ancient sites in the world, Machu Picchu is perched on a mountain in South America. It was likely a country retreat for Inca emperors.

Don Mammoser/Shutterstock.com


Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Culture • Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Global Connections


Direction & Distance

Secrets of an Ancient Empire

A teen in Argentina led researchers to a previously unknown Inca settlement. Now experts are studying the site for new clues about the ancient civilization.

When archaeologists in northwest Argentina held a field trip for local high school students, their goal was to teach the teens how to map ancient sites. Instead, the researchers walked away with one of the biggest discoveries of their careers—thanks to one of the students in the group.

During the activity on a hilltop in the town of Casa de Piedra, a student named Luis urged the experts to investigate another location nearby. The teen, who had visited that site often to collect firewood for his family, said it contained what appeared to be many unique archaeological structures.

As it turned out, Luis was right! The location he was referring to, which the scientists visited a few days later, is an Inca (ING-kuh) settlement previously unknown to experts.

The Inca were an ancient civilization that flourished in what is now South America from the early 1400s to 1532. They built what was once the largest and wealthiest empire in the Americas.

The newly discovered ruins in Argentina—called Cerro Quemado—are one of the southernmost Inca settlements ever found. Since Luis first pointed archaeologists to the site in 2017, the experts have identified the remains of several buildings, including kitchens and warehouses. They’ve also found corrals for llamas, animals the Inca used to transport goods over long distances. Researchers plan to continue studying the area to learn more about the ancient society, explains Alina Álvarez Larrain, one of the archaeologists who helped uncover the settlement.

“This discovery can provide us with much information about the Inca empire,” she says. “We hope to find out more about the deep history of local populations and their Inca ancestors.”

A Mighty Empire

The Inca empire likely began as several groups of people living in the Andes, a mountain range in South America. Starting in the early 1400s, one of the first Inca rulers began expanding his territory by conquering other cultures. 

At its height, the Inca empire included an estimated 12 million people. It stretched more than 2,500 miles along the west coast of South America, including parts of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina (see map, below). Inca emperors ruled over their people from the Inca capital of Cusco, in what is now Peru.

The Inca were skilled farmers and engineers. They built a network of roads and bridges that connected their vast empire. They were also master stonemasons who constructed Machu Picchu (MAH-choo PEE-choo), a famous Inca citadel made up of more than 200 stone buildings. 

But the Inca’s success may have been their downfall. Parts of the empire had more gold and silver than anywhere else in the Americas. When Spanish conquistadores reached the New World in the early 1500s and heard of the Inca’s fortune, they set out to seize it.

Armed with guns and other advanced weapons, the Spanish conquered the Inca empire in 1532, killing thousands. Millions more Inca were wiped out by smallpox and other diseases introduced by the invaders.

The Inca Legacy

Still, signs of the civilization remain today. Throughout the Andes region, many buildings are built out of stone and millions of people continue to speak Inca languages.  

Perhaps that’s why any new finding on the Inca—such as the Cerro Quemado settlement—continues to intrigue experts. 

As R. Alan Covey, an Inca expert and anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains: “People today find the Inca fascinating because they were the last—and greatest—Native civilization to develop in the Americas.”

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