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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Possible Final Refuge of Incas Unearthed

LIMA, Peru -- In the first major Inca find in four decades, Peruvian and British explorers say they have discovered a hidden city, perched on an Andean hilltop, that may have sheltered stalwarts of South America's legendary empire as they made a last stand against Spanish conquerors.

Located on a narrow ridge around 3,300 meters up in Peru's windswept, southern Andes, the Inca citadel of Corihuayrachina is a mysterious gathering of religious platforms, funeral towers, and food storehouses.

British scholar and guide Peter Frost told a news conference Monday he first spotted the ruins in the rugged, isolated Vilcabamba region some 500 kilometers southeast of Lima three years ago.

Frost said the site was the biggest of its kind found since 1964 and could have been occupied by the Inca when they took to the hills after the Spanish conquest. It is about 35 kilometers southwest of the famous Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.

The Incas once ruled a vast swath of South America stretching from Colombia to Chile, but Spain's Francisco Pizarro and his band of 160 treasure-hunters, using cannons and horses, brought that empire to a bloody end in 1533.

Some Inca, moving with an army of 50,000 to the more remote Vilcabamba area, held out against the invaders for nearly 40 years.

"It's a jigsaw puzzle. What we're finding are more pieces ... to get a better sense of what was happening in that area," said Frost, who has lived for 30 years in the Inca's imperial capital Cusco in southern Peru, gateway to Machu Picchu.

European diseases like measles ravaged the empire, cutting its population from an estimated 32 million people in 1520 to 5 million in 1548.

Frost said he found Corihuayrachina -- eyeing it from afar but not able to actually reach it -- when he was leading a group of tourists through the region in 1999.

Funded by the Washington-based National Geographic Society, Frost was finally able to set foot on the cloud-shrouded site two years later in June 2001, trekking four days along winding mountain paths with a team of scientists and excavators.

"This was an area totally untouched by science," said Peruvian archeologist and expedition co-leader Alfredo Valencia, who along with local workers hacked away at the thick leaves and vines covering squat buildings and murky tombs.

But Frost said the scientists were still in the early stages of puzzling out who inhabited Corihuayrachina, how they lived, and why they chose to live in such an inhospitable place.

Like most of the scores of native shrines, tombs and temples across this Andean nation, the explorers said the site had been looted over the years by local grave-robbers and now the graves were only filled with pottery fragments and bones. But unlike the Machu Picchu site, discovered in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, Frost said the recent find was not home to the Inca elite.