Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Immersion to Peru

Inca Astronomy, Ruins, and Culture in Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

(IN 350 & PY 160)

(The whole gang!)

What could be more exciting than traveling halfway across the globe to see one of the forgotten wonders of the world while learning about an ancient civilization under incredibly dark skies? From May 31st to June 8th, Dr. Dan Miller, chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, and Professor John Werner, Physics Adjunct teamed up with the Maya Exploration Center (MEC) and took a group of 9 students to Peru to learn about the Inca culture. 

Once everyone met up in Cuzco, Peru, the adventure started. After a introduction to professors from the MEC, in an effort to acclimatize to the 11,000+ feet elevation, the first day in Cuzco involved two lectures. The first one was about Inca Quipus, ropes knotted in a specify way in order to keep track of events, transactions, and history. While researchers have been studying these devices for several years, the full translation of over 1/3 of the remaining 600+ known quipus is still unknown. If these can be translated, a greater understanding of the Inca culture can be known.

(The hotel restaurant served as the classroom)

The second lecture was a fascinating talk on Inca cosmology (and astronomy).The Inca culture based their faith around the stars and heavens. Most of their temples and structures are positioned in alignment with the sun or other stars on given days of the year. Also included in the lecture was how the Milky Way (the galaxy we are currently living in) was perceived by the Incas. From the latitude Cuczo is located at, it is possible to see the galactic center. Within the galactic center, the Inca people made constellations within the dark parts (or dark nebulae). The professors from MEC pointed out different Inca constellations with a powerpoint that accompanied their lecture. But as they say, nothing beats hands-on experience, or in this case, eyes-on experience.

(Milky Way Galactic Center Photo Credit: Robert Arn)

Dr. Miller and Professor Werner took the students outside of Cuzco that night with telescopes and astronomical cameras to view and image what the Incas saw in the night sky. Students were entertained once more about Inca cosmology and views of the Milky Way. Being underneath the stars, students got a much deeper appreciation of what is in the night sky, not only ancient views, but current scientific knowledge. Through telescopes, views of globular clusters, nebulae, galaxies, and open clusters were magnified to produce a sight not visible with the naked eye.

"The knowledge and equipment the professors brought made this night an incredible experience"

- a Millikin Student.

The following day brought a tour around the city of Cuzco, exploring various museums, temples, cathedrals, and then various ruins outside the city.  Wandering around the Coricancha Temple, it was evident of the alignment of the facility to the summer and winter solstice, two of the most important holidays in the Incan, and now Peruvian culture. A visit to the Sacsayhuaman Ruins above the city gave an introduction to the architecture the Incas used in building towns and fortresses. The stones that comprised the ruins were huge. Some individual stones have been measured to weigh over 120 tons! And all the stones fit together so tightly, not even water could get through. An amazing feat for a civilization 500 years ago!

           (Left: Inside the Coricancha Temple)                        (Right: Ruins at Sacsayhuaman)

The next stop on this adventure was Aguas Caliente, a small city at the base of Machu Picchu. This city would serve as a place to stay over nights while day trips were organized to Machu Picchu. From the city, a 30 minute bus ride up many switch backs took the group up to see and explore the ruins of Machu Picchu. The city's purpose, still unknown to scholars took two days to explore. The first day in Machu Picchu involved exploring the city, while the second day proved to be more interesting.

There are several structures within the city that the purpose is unknown. It is thought that such objects named, the hitching post, or the windows, had something to do with the solstice and the shadows cast at sunrise. One of the professors from the MEC is currently doing research on this event, and since we were there only a week before the winter solstice, the position of the sun was only 1.6 degrees from its position on the solstice. On the second day we were at Machu Picchu, we got there before sunrise to help collect data for his research. Students were split into teams and sent to various locations thought to be of significance and recorded the sunrise, shadows cast by the rising sun striking artifacts, and other details about the place.

(Left: Machu Picchu)                                  (Right: Hitching Post of the Sun)

After recording the various sites, the students and professors split up to explore Machu Picchu on an individual basis. Some took the trail to visit Winu Picchu, the temple of the Moon, others took the Sun trail, the path that the Inca King would enter the city from Aguas Caliente, while others explored their artistic talent by making drawings and painting of the ruins.

The fun and excitement of the day did not end with Machu Picchu. Later that night, after sunset, we hosted a Public Observation Night (PON) for the town of Agues Caliente. Setting up two telescopes, a pair of binoculars, and a green laser pointer in the middle of a soccer field was enough to bring 700+ people from the town of under 1,500 to view the night sky and learn about Inca star lore. People stayed for several hours to experience this community event.

(Pointing a telescope during the Public Observation Night)

The following day, Millikin travelers moved to yet another part of the country to see the ruins of Ollantaytambo, one of the last standing fortresses during the Spanish invasion. This heavily fortified installation, is, for the most part, still intact. Here, another history lesson was given about the Spanish invasion and Inca military tactics.

(Ruins of Ollantaytambo)

That night, we stopped at a hotel outside the (small) city of Pisca, where the sky was unbelievable dark and the hotel staff made it possible for really good astronomy and astrophotography by turning off the lights. Since this was the last night the Millikin group would have to do this sort of work in Peru, the most was made out of it. Students and faculty remained under the sky until four in the morning when the last of the batteries died out "a tragedy indeed".

The last day (not counting the day of traveling back to the states) was spent back in the city of Cuzco. During the time that was previously spent there, students and faculty found things they wanted to check out in more detail. This was the time to do that. Groups split up and explored different parts of the city, checking out museums, temples, cathedrals, and more fascinating sites before meeting back up in the hotel for a final farewell dinner. Faculty and students sat around sharing thoughts and opinions about the trip. A great way to end the trip!

"This immersion was awesome. The professors were very informative, organized, and excited. The sights were amazing. I loved learning about Inca culture. And the nights we spent under the stars learning about ancient cosmology and different objects in the night sky made this trip an event that I will cherish for the rest of my life!" - Peru Immersion Student

Immersion trips are great ways to experience the world and meet new people. They can be great adventures that you will remember for the rest of your life!!!

For more information visit the Center for International Education or:


Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL