Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1945, the Incan ruins were still pristine and peaceful, not yet threatened by throngs of eager tourists.

Eliza Berman / Time
July 27, 2016

This story originally appeared on Time.com.

To say that Machu Picchu was “discovered” on July 24, 1911, is to forget that ruins cannot truly be found for the first time, since someone had to build them first. Still, when Yale historian Hiram Bingham ascended to the ancient site on that day—led by a local farmer, Melchor Arteaga, and a young boy named Pablito—many reacted as if Machu Picchu had suddenly appeared out of thin air.

The ruins Bingham saw that day—and he saw only a fraction of them, as so many were obscured by centuries of lush overgrowth—had been there since the 15th century, when the Incas built a city for purposes still debated today. Many believe it was a royal retreat for the emperor Pachacuti and his entourage, while others maintain it was a temple honoring the divine landscape on which it sits.

Whatever Machu Picchu’s origins, Bingham’s announcement of its existence to the world brought with it mixed outcomes: On the one hand, fascinating history and breathtaking scenery for generations to discover. On the other, that very attention—to the tune of more than 1 million visitors a year—has posed to a grave danger its existence.

When LIFE’s Frank Scherschel trained his lens on Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas in 1945, the erosion and degradation that tourism has brought to the site were still decades away. The photographs he made are quiet and majestic, devoid of people and imbued with a sense of awe at the remains of a once magnificent city.

The sundial at Machu Picchu.
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

An doorway at Macchu Picchu, showing an Incan ring stone.
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The temple and altar.
Photo by Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

An aerial view showing Incan ruins.
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Terraced fields in the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

A banana plant growing in front of the hotel at Machu Picchu.
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Incan pottery found at Machu Picchu.

Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

(L) Trapezoidal entry doors at the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. (R) View of the terraced ruins of the ancient Incan city.

Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The auto-carrill leading into the village of Machu Picchu, where the railroad ends.
Frank Scherschel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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