Hiram Bingham and his Discovery of Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham wrote in his book Lost City of the Incas, ìIt will be remembered that it was in July 1911, that I began the search for the last Inca capital.î

The place he was referring to was not called Machu Picchu, but Vilcabamba. There, the last Inca ruler Manco built a fortress to rebel against the invading Spaniards. He chose a location deep in the jungle of the Andes, inaccessible by Spanish horses. Mancoís men shot arrows through any Spaniard trying to attack Vilcabamba by foot.

The Inca’s √ɬ¨Great Rebellion√É¬Æ lasted until 1572, when the Spaniards captured Manco√ɬ≠s third ruling son, Tupac Amaru. They brought him to the main square of Cusco, the great Inca city besieged by Spaniards, and beheaded him. Don Francisco de Toledo, the Viceroy of Peru ordered that Tupac Amaru√ɬ≠s body be dismembered to bring fear to the remaining Incas and to suppress any future uprisings. Thus ended the Inca civilization in Peru.

Bingham searched for Vilcabamba because it was believed that the Incas brought their treasures there for final safekeeping. He had heard about the site while tracing Spanish colonial routes in the Andes. Local farmers tried to convince Bingham that another Inca site called Choqquequirau (ìCradle of Goldî) was indeed Vilcabamba. But the meager findings at the site did not convince him. Bingham returned to Yale University, where he was professor, and planned his search for Vilcabamba.

In 1911, with financial support from Yale, Bingham traveled to southern Peru with two colleagues. They hired local guides in Cusco and set out to find the last Inca capital. They ventured through the Inca sacred valley, along the banks of the sacred river Urubumba, and up into the Andes Mountains.

Inca ruins pepper the Andes Mountains of southern Peru. Agricultural terraces, houses and watchtowers are commonplace, and over a thousand Inca trails are said to lead to Cusco. But many sites were still ëundiscoveredí during Binghamís time. That is, only Indians living in the mountains knew of their locations. Bingham described the sensation of discovering ruins as follows:

ìAbove all, there is a fascination of finding here and there under swaying vines, or perched on top of a beetling crag, the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who, ages ago, sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently given expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty.î

But discovering new Inca sites was not so easy. Perilous winding paths, if visible at all, hugged the sides of cliffs and broke off at steep drops once covered by Inca wooden bridges. Many paths were partly destroyed by rain, earthquake tremors, and mudslides. If the journey itself didnít get you, poisonous snakes, thick thorn bushes and collapsing cliffs might. But despite the dangers, the heavenly beauty of the mountainous landscape radiated mystery and seduction. In a single panoramic view one could see deep shadows cascading over snow-covered peaks, enormous glaciers, eternal waterfalls and the mysterious changing hues of Mother Nature.

Near the sacred river Urubamba, a local Indian named Melchor Arteaga encountered Bingham and his expedition and told him that impressive ruins lay at the top of Machu Picchu (old mountain). Binghamís colleagues declined to venture up through the thick bush, as it seemed very likely that the man was exaggerating. They could see no ruins from where they were standing below. So, on the morning of July 24, 1911, Bingham paid Arteaga a Peruvian silver dollar to take him and a Cusco local guide up to Machu Picchu. At 2,000 feet they encountered a hut with two farmers. The farmers reassured Bingham that great ruins lay at the top. In fact, the farmers were cultivating old Inca terraces at the base of Machu Picchu.

The farmers ordered a small boy to show Bingham the way while Arteaga stayed at the hut, having seen the ruins before. They tread through bamboo thickets, tangled vines, dense jungle and up steep precipices. Then suddenly, Bingham found himself looking at ìwalls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stone work.î The walls led to a cave, then a semicircular temple that displayed spectacular stone work. Bingham hacked through four hundred years of jungle growth to uncover staircases, temples made of cyclopean stones, houses, conduits and fountains. He saw colossal stone windows looking over the canyon and concluded in ecstasy that this site must have been where Manco established Vilcabamba.

Today, most experts do not believe Machu Picchu and Vilcabamba are the same place. In fact, another Inca site discovered by Bingham, called Espiritu Pampa, located about 60 miles east of Machu Picchu, is thought to be Vilcabamba.

Whatever its purpose, Machu Picchu was a spectacular feet of the Incas. Located 2,430 meters above sea level, in the middle of jungle, the site radiates natural opposition. Yet, it displays some of the finest examples of Inca polished masonry and exhibits numerous religious temples, each one meticulously created out of stone to suit the god being honored. Over a hundred agricultural terraces span along the peak of the mountain, along with an underground spring constructed at just the right degree of decline to carry water at a nice, steady, pace from a nearby mountain to Machu Picchu. To this day, Inca fountains bring forth water to the ceremonial and living quarters of the site. Walking through the lost city with houses still pointing in the air their A roof structures gives an overwhelming feeling of the Incasí high level of sophistication and intimate union with whom they called Pacha Mama (Mother Nature).

Bingham returned to Machu Picchu the following year with funding from Yale University and the National Geographic Society (NGS). He was to map the site in its entirety and conduct excavations in search of Inca treasures and artifacts. This was actually the first archeological expedition to be funded by NGS. Like many archaeologists such as Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Sr. Walter Evans at the Temple of Knossos in Crete, Bingham had an active imagination and rapidly recreated a royal history for the site. He labeled the siteís manifold structures, giving great historical meaning to them. His first account of the site is recorded in the April 1912 edition of National Geographic Magazine. Over two hundred pictures accompany the article and show in great detail how the site appeared to Bingham and his team as a graveyard of stone structures smothered by four hundred years of jungle growth.

Bingham uncovered a hundred and seventy three graves in mountain walls surrounding Machu Picchu. Preliminary studies concluded that a hundred and fifty of these graves belonged to women. From this, Bingham surmised that the last residents of the site must have been chosen women, the ëVirgins of the Sun.í The central position of the Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu, with its exquisite round stone wall, reaffirmed his hypothesis. Bingham also surmised that presentation nooks or ëholesí in the walls of the Temple of the Sun meant that the most prized relics of the Incas must have been brought there for display. Moreover, the most prized of all Inca relics, the great golden image of the sun, must have been displayed at Machu Picchu before being carried off to the Temple of the Sun in Cusco.

This would mean that Machu Picchu predated Cusco. Absorbing this idea into his grand hypothesis, Bingham concluded that Machu Picchu was both Vilcabamba and Tempu Tocco, the fabled very first city of the Incas. If this had indeed been true, Bingham would have discovered both the alpha and omega of Inca civilization.

Bingham insisted this was the case. However, future archeologists stressing science over imagination claim that Binghamís major conclusions were not true. Currently, two Yale archaeologists, Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar, claim that Machu Picchu served as a high-altitude retreat for elite Incas. They base their argument on the high quality articles found at the site, such as a tunic made of fine vicuÒa wool that was dedicated to royalty. They refute the idea that the site was inhabited by the ëVirgins of the Sun.í For one thing, further examination of the bodies found in the graves showed that the ratio between men and women was not out of proportion. What is even more interesting is that the number of bodies found remained low. This supports the hypothesis of the two Yale archeologists that the site was not used as a permanent habitation for many.

The Spaniards most likely never visited Machu Picchu. It was not visible from any roads or villages, and the site was never mentioned in the Spanish chronicles. The few post-Colombian artifacts found at Machu Picchu were most likely remnants of vagabond farmers, gravediggers or treasure hunters. A few hypotheses have emerged as to why Machu Picchu was abandoned before the Spanish invasion. One is that the location could not supply enough water to its visitors, despite its sophisticated system of conduits and fountains.

Bingham never discovered great treasures at Machu Picchu. Furthermore, the artifacts he uncovered were meager for such a large site of royal importance. As he began exporting his findings to Yale University, the question of ownership of the artifacts became an issue. At the time, Peruvian law forbade the export of cultural artifacts. However, Bingham negotiated special permissions with the government during his early explorations to export his findings to Yale. In his later excavations, however, the Peruvian administration grew more and more hostile to Bingham and his exportation of Peruvian artifacts. Bingham nearly escaped arrest in Cusco before he returned to Yale with the last boxes of his excavation findings.

The exhibit of Machu Picchu currently traveling around the US has sparked renewed interest and hope of the Peruvian government to recover the Inca artifacts of the Yale University collection. Representatives from Yale and the Peruvian government are currently in negotiations concerning proper ownership of the collection. The Peruvian government, along with insisting that it never gave Bingham permanent ownership of the collection, has referred to the United States’ “Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act” of 1990 which calls for museums, educational centers and other institutions to return human remains and sacred objects to Indian tribes. If the law holds for Native American tribes in the US, it also should hold for tribes in Peru, claims the Peruvian government.

Perhaps the Peruvians will soon see the return of their cultural artifacts to their native soil. Perhaps it will be in the same year that Greece receives the Parthenonís ëElgin Marblesí back from England.

October 26th, 2003 by