The World's Most Photogenic Science Lab

The World's Most Photogenic Science Lab

The incredible experimental agricultural laboratory in Moray.

SourceCourtesy of Nick Dall

Why you should care

Because 3,800 varieties of potato didn’t happen by accident. 

After clattering for 30 minutes along a corrugated dirt road through one of the most splendid valleys in all of Peru, I finally clap eyes on it: the trippy concentric terraces of Moray. My first thought: Wow. A few minutes — and selfies — later, my next thought: Why. Turns out I’m not alone — Allison Monge, a tour guide based in nearby Cuzco, says scientists have been trying to unravel the mystery ever since the site was discovered “completely by accident” in 1936.

Moray, we’re now fairly certain, was an agricultural laboratory where Inca scientist-priests experimented with plant hybrids and produced seeds that were shipped on vast llama trains throughout the Inca empire. It’s one of the most important Inca sites in the Sacred Valley — the 45-mile-long archaeologists’ dream that connects Cuzco with the famous ruins at Machu Picchu — but its remote location means it’s often blissfully devoid of tourists.

If you thought GMO was a 21st-century thing, think again.

It’s easy to get blasé (and altitude sick) in the Sacred Valley, but standing on the cusp of the massive pudding bowl depressions, Moray grabs me by the collar and forces me to appreciate, yet again, the brilliance of the Incas. Soon after its discovery, Monge says, people thought it was “a giant paddling pool for the Inca elite,” but the terraces’ excellent drainage — barely a puddle gathers, even in the most torrential tropical downpours — quashed that one. Later, when scientists found ceramic shards and llama bones, they speculated that Moray might be a shrine to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. In some ways, says Monge, this second theory was correct: The goings-on in the agricultural lab “created food security” — a big deal in drought- and flood-prone Peru.

As the sun starts to creep behind the snowcapped Andes, I sit on a grassy slope and try to make sense of exactly how this whole agricultural lab thing really worked. “The design of the terraces created a temperature difference of between 5 degrees Fahrenheit and 15 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the season,” explains Monge. What’s more, each terrace was filled with soil from a different region. This meant that scientists could mimic the climates of the vast and varied empire and — over time, by planting seedlings on different terraces — create strains of plants that could grow at higher or lower altitudes than they usually would. “It was like evolution,” says Monge, “only faster.”

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Each terrace had its own temperature and soil, allowing scientists to experiment with the hardiness of plants.

Source Courtesy of Nick Dall

If you thought GMO was a 21st-century thing, think again. From one wizened, black and frankly uninspiring tuber that occurs naturally on the 13,000-foot-high altiplano around Lake Titicaca, the Incas were able to create 3,800 strains of potato. It didn’t always work, though: Their efforts to cultivate coca leaves at Moray failed because they could not re-create the balmy humidity that the plants need to thrive.

While I pause for yet another photo, Monge provides another nugget to chew on. There’s no way that this was the only lab of its kind, she says — “the Incas had to feed 10 million people. so there must have been other places like it” — then reminds me that studying the Incas is still a relatively new sport. “They’re still finding new Egyptian mummies,” she says, laughing, “and they’ve been looking for those for centuries.”

Maybe so, but Moray still feels pretty unique to me.

GO THERE: MORAY

  • Get There: Moray is 31 miles northwest of Cuzco on an 11,500-foot plateau. Take a tour, hire a driver for the day or use a combo of local bus and shared taxi. Map.
  • How Much: You’ll need either a full Cuzco tourist ticket ($40), which grants access to 16 sites (excluding Machu Picchu), or a partial ticket for Circuit 3 ($22). Get your ticket at the gate.
  • Pro Tip: Stay overnight in Urubamba or Ollantaytambo to ensure you see all four sites on the Circuit 3 ticket.

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