December 1, 2011 The Return of a Lost City: The Legacy of Hiram Bingham and Machu Picchu

Bingham in vest

Hiram Bingham in Peru during the 1911 Expedition

The world was abuzz with the excitement of discovery in the early 20th century: adventurers were racing to the North and South poles, excavators were scouring Egypt for King Tut’s tomb, and explorers were uncovering ancient ruins all across Peru.  Rumors of a “lost” Inca city swirled as more and more explorers set their sights on this South American gem, with its rich cultural heritage, its ancient legacies and its diverse terrain.  Driven by the prospect of discovering this lost city, Hiram Bingham, a South American History Professor at Yale, organized a seven-man team for an adventure of a lifetime. His exploration team, known as The Yale Peruvian Expedition, left American shores on June 8, 1911, full of excitement and anticipation for what they would discover in Peru.

Following the advice of several locals around Cusco, Bingham’s team headed deep into the mountainous region of Urubamba, along the very trail Manco Inca is believed to have taken 350 years before as he fled from the Spanish invaders.   Clearing swift river rapids, crossing through dense jungle terrain and climbing treacherous slopes, Bingham became a “real-life Indian Jones” as he searched for this ancient “lost city.”   When the Expedition reached the sandy plain of Mandor Pampa on the evening of July 23rd, Bingham asked a local merchant, Melchor Arteaga, if he knew where to find any ruins.  As Christopher Heaney details in Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, A Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu, Arteaga, “pointed straight up to the top of the mountains, to a ridge that connected a high, thin peak to a much larger, more solid mountain.” Apparently drunk and slurring, he explained to Bingham that the peak was Huayna Picchu, and the ruins were on the ridge.  The larger mountain’s name was Machu Picchu, meaning “Old Peak.”

Huayna Picchu trail

A view of the trail to Machu Picchu (which of course did not exist when Bingham climbed it)

The following morning, July 24th, Bingham embarked on a hike that would lead him to his destiny.  Climbing towards the ridge with one other crew member and the local merchant Arteaga, who was hired as a guide, Bingham recalled that for “a good part of the distance we went on all fours, sometimes holding on by our fingernails.”  After an hour and a half, they reached a clearing where a single hut stood.  It belonged to a family of Indian farmers, the Richartes, who found refuge from their oppressive landlord on this rich soil four years before.  Along with two other families, they successfully harvested potatoes, maize, peppers, sugar cane, tomatoes and berries high up in the peaks of the Andes.  As it turns out, the surprised family was acquainted with Arteaga and agreed to show Bingham the way to the ruins.

1st Machu Picchu

A view of the ruins at Machu Picchu

Richarte’s barefoot son, who was no older than eight, guided them through thick thorn-ridden vines and branches.  Nearing one of the peaks, Bingham suddenly saw his treasure:  “a jungle-covered maze of small and large walls, the ruins of buildings made of blocks of white granite, most carefully cut and beautifully fitted together without cement. Surprise followed surprise until there came the realization that we were in the midst of as wonderful ruins as any ever found in Peru.”  And so Bingham “discovered” the now-famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu today

Without surprise, Bingham’s designation as the “discoverer” of these ruins is wrought with difficulties and controversies.  Not only were indigenous people living in the ruins, but, once made public, many people came forward claiming to have visited the ruins earlier.  Defending his “discovery”, Bingham later wrote, “I suppose that in the same sense of the word as it is used in the expression ‘Columbus discovered America’ it is fair to say that I discovered Machu Picchu.” Nonetheless, he did shine the public spotlight on the ruins of Machu Picchu, which are now a major source of tourism in Peru.  As Heaney explains, “no one had yet described Machu Picchu, photographed the ruins, or tried to understand them as a historical site.”

Machu Picchu by Bingham

One of the original photos of Machu Picchu taken by Hiram Bingham

Upon Bingham’s rediscovery, The Yale Peruvian Expedition immediately set to work uncovering  and documenting the ruins.  With the help of the indigenous families, they cleared the overgrown vegetation to fully reveal the stunning stone buildings, captured forever in Bingham’s breath-taking photographs of the ruins.  When he returned to Connecticut, these photos helped him garner support from both Yale and the National Geographic Society for his return excavation trip the following year, 1912.

On his return trip, he first had to secure the Peruvian government’s approval, which had strict laws against the exportation of any Peruvian artifact.  Although highly contested and debated, Bingham finally won the assent of the law, but only under two conditions: 1) that his crew finish by the first of December that year (shortening excavation from 10-20 years to less than a year); and 2) that Peru had the right to request the return of all excavated materials.  In other words, Peru had agreed to loan these artifacts to Yale for the sake of research.

Bingham at ruins

Hiram Bingham and a local man at Machu Picchu during the excavation

On July 24, 1912, one year to the day that he rediscovered the ruins, Bingham’s crew opened the first of several machays, or burial sites. In this first grave, they found only some broken pots and a few human remains, “sitting upright with the knees pulled up to the chest in the manner of most Andean burials” (137).  Again with the help of the local Peruvian farmers, Bingham’s crew managed to excavate 107 graves, ultimately yielding 173 human remains and thousands of potsherds, stone carvings and bronze and silver artifacts.  This massive collection was sent back to Yale in 93 of the expedition’s food boxes, which, as Heaney explains, represented the “only intact collection of human and artistic remains from an Inca royal estate that escaped the torches of the Spanish conquest” (150).

With this tremendous collection, Bingham set to work theorizing the historical significance of this ancient civilization: Who were these people?  How did they fit in the timeline of Inca history?  Why were they located in such a remote location?  As Bingham asked his readers in the February issue of National Geographic, “Is it possible that at Machu Picchu we have the ruins of Tampu-tocco (the legendary birthplace of the Incas) and also the ruins of Vilcabamba the Old, the sacred city of one of the last Incas and the home of his women and priests?”  To his death, Bingham believed Machu Picchu was both the cradle and the grave of Inca civilization.


Ruins at Espiritu Pampa

But, time has proven both theories to be wrong.  Tampu Tocco, that legendary cave from which the first Inca was “born,” is now understood to be south of Cuzco in Pacariqtambo.  Vilcabamba, the last city established by Manco Inca as he fled from the Spanish, is now associated with Espiritu Pampa.  Machu Picchu is now believed to be a royal estate that was built for Pachacutec, an early Inca emperor who greatly expanded the empire from the Cuzco valley to nearly the entire civilized South America.  Heaney explains that Machu Picchu is hailed as “the best of all Inca sites,” representing the realization of their architectural and religious ideals: “to worship the sun by building toward it, aligning altars along its path; to honor mountains by building out of them, quarrying stone from the site itself; to glorify water with acequias, canals of waters that fed burbling baths” (214).  Bingham’s vast excavation has yielded a wealth of knowledge about the Inca people, from their daily habits to their overarching beliefs about life and death.


An Inca relic bottle, one of the thousands of pieces excavated from Machu Picchu that are to return to Peru this year. Image courtesy of Yale Peabody Museum

The year 2011 marks the hundredth anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s epic scientific discovery of Machu Picchu.  This year also marks the rightful return of all the objects excavated in 1912 by the Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition.  In celebration of these landmarks, a new museum and research center is being jointly inaugurated by Cuzco University and Yale University in the Casa Concha, the former palace of the emperor Topa Inca.  The museum in the center of Cuzco will house the artifacts excavated in 1912.  The adjacent research center will conserve and investigate the collections, serving as the home of an academic collaboration between the two universities.  This new museum and research center embodies one of Bingham’s last wishes concerning the excavated objects and the ongoing partnership between Peruvian and American researchers.  In support of this monumental collaboration, Peruvian Connection will donate all proceeds from the sale of our Expedition Vest to this new establishment.  Designed after the original vest Hiram Bingham wore on the 1911 discovery expedition to Machu Picchu (which you can see at the top of this blog), our Expedition Vest packs a remarkable story in every stitch.

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November 29, 2011 Scenes from the Stores

Our latest store is now open in San Francisco, the perfect climate for a warm and woolly alpaca sweater.  The San Francisco Chronicle took notice with a very nice article: see Window Shopping in the November 20 style section.


All our stores are getting ready for the holidays, with lots of beautiful merch arriving daily, and fabulous finds from Prize Antiques at our Kansas City and Washington DC locations.

dc store window 2
dc store window 3
dc store window copy
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November 8, 2011 Kuba Textiles: A Cloth in the Fabric of Life

Kuba Cloth

The Kuba people of Africa have a vital textile tradition pulsing through their deeply rooted history, their rituals, their culture and their art.  Known as People of the lightning, People of the king and People of the cloth, the Kuba people are actually eighteen different, but culturally related, ethnic groups living in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (although some say nineteen groups).  Their designation as “people of the lightning” derives from their exulted skill in throwing many-bladed ritualistic knives (shongo) that resemble lightning. In the language of their neighboring tribe, the Luba, Kuba literally means “lightning.”  The Kuba self-identify as “people of the king,” unified under one royal leader whose lineage has been preserved for over 400 years.  Their identification as “people of the cloth,” or Bambala, encapsulates their rich legacy as virtuosos of the textile arts.  On another level, it also refers to the Kuba’s astonishing bounty of status cloth and ceremonial costumes, marking this group as particularly wealthy and powerful.  These cloths are commonly used as a means of measuring wealth and, in fact, some cloths are used as a form of currency (“woven currency”).  Even the King’s palace is centered around cloth: it is always built within the “well-woven plains” and the name of the palace itself conjures the word mbal, used to refer to a panel of woven raffia cloth.

In her book Weaving Abstraction: Kuba Textiles and the Woven Art of Central Africa, Vanessa Drake Moraga argues that “what may be most distinctive about the Kuba tradition is that textile art ultimately represents its most versatile, dynamic and imaginative form of visual expression” (12).  Textiles, then, are a visual language used by the Kuba to communicate essential information about themselves as individuals and as a society.  “Getting dressed” is not simply a matter of personal preference, it is a matter of  concretely saying who you are, where you came from and where you are going.  Their textiles are important markers of social status, lineage and ethnicity.  Extremely subtle differences in color, pattern, texture, borders, embroidery, and even how the pieces are constructed and layered all play a tremendous role in identifying the different ethnic groups and the different individuals within these groups.  It is truly astounding the degree to which Kuba people are identified through their clothing.

Kuba face mask
The foundation of the Kuba textile tradition is raffia, a type of palm fiber.  Raffia is used to make almost everything—from woven fabric and mats to headwear, baskets, masks and even the walls of homes.  Raffia gains its significance not only as a valuable physical resource (out of which things can be made), but also as an invaluable spiritual resource.  It is believed to be the thread that connects life to death and the realm of the spirit to the realm of the ritual.  Raffia clothing plays an especially important role during ceremonies and rites of passage, with specific textiles associated with various rituals.  Since clothing is an exact marker of who someone is during their lifetime, the Kuba people believe it is crucial to arrive in the land of the dead dressed in their best attire. For the most prosperous, this would be the ornamental raffia skirts typically worn for ceremonies.

Kuba dress
With their distinctive artistry, cultural import and symbolic function, the spectacular Kuba textiles have long inspired our designers at Peruvian Connection.  We hope to help preserve these ancient traditions by bringing them to life on our wearable works of art.  Our Kuba Sheath Dress (shown at the left) is patterned after a ceremonial wrap-skirt, known as a Tcaka, made from woven raffia with patches and embroidery.  This particular skirt is thought to belong to the Ngeende group, the largest and most dominant ethnicities of the Kuba people.  Our Sunila Skirt and the Kuba Tank Top were also inspired by traditional Shibori-dyed Kuba cloths.

Peruvian Connection is proud to support The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., which currently houses an impressive collection of Kuba textiles.  This exhibit is the first major museum exhibition in the U.S. to spotlight such a wide-ranging survey of Kuba design.  For more information about this exhibit and The Textile Museum, please visit their website here.

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September 15, 2011 Peruvian cuisine: Peru’s next best export

Peruvian food is finally finding its place in the culinary spotlight. Top chefs from all over the world are gathering this week in Lima for the 4th annual Mistura Food Festival, the most important food event in all of Latin America. 

Peruvian food is a delicious fusion resulting from Spanish, Japanese, African, and Chinese influences, blended with flavors from the native Quechua culture.  Many of the cuisine’s key ingredients are as healthful as they are flavorful, featuring seafood, quinoa, and an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs. 

Peruvian cuisine has become a popular choice across the country, with the number of Peruvian restaurants in big cities quadrupling over the last decade.  Peru’s top celebrity chef, Gastón Acurio, opened his first restaurant in Lima in 1994. Chef Acurio is responsible for much of the rise in popularity, now with 32 Peruvian restaurants in 14 cities worldwide.  We’re happy to find that his restaurant, La Mar Cebicheria, is just a few blocks from our soon-to-open store in San Francisco, at Pier 1.5 on the Embarcadero!

Read more in the Wall Street Journal article, including a recipe for Sea Bass Ceviche with Leche de Tigre.  For more recipes, see our newsletters: Peruvian Markets (recipe for Choclo San Antonio), Potatoes: from the Andes to Ireland (recipe for Papas Rellenas), and our blogs with recipes for Pisco Sours, Quinoa Salad, and Suspiro de Limeña.

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September 1, 2011 Color Me Natural

Every day we’re flooded with alarming warnings about the modern lifestyle and its impact on the environment, from dyes and pesticides to plastics.  As eco-awareness increasingly sweeps across the world, it’s refreshing to remember the natural, sustainable practices in places such as Peru.  Natural dyes and fabrics are not simply a trend in Peru; they are a way of life.  Peruvian textile methods are a time-honored tradition, with roots that extend back hundreds of years, well before the advent of chemicals and synthetic dyes. 

Although Peru was not immune to the spread of synthetic dyes in the late 19th/early 20th century, many Peruvians have continued to produce eco-friendly dyes from insect, plant and mineral sources.  What’s more, Peru has seen a resurgence in natural dye production over the past few decades, as demand has steadily increased.

The bold red hues that characterize many Andean textiles often start with a bug: the Cochineal.  As early as the 15th century, the Aztecs and Mayans were extracting red carmine dyes from the cochineal, a scale insect that resembles a beetle. Cochineal feed on the prickly pear cactus, which thrives in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

To extract the deep purplish-red carmine pigment, the dried insect is simply ground, usually with a stone, and then boiled into a concentrated source of dye.  Once extracted, mixtures of lemon and salt can be added to create a stunning array of reds, purples and oranges for use in textiles, cosmetics and even foods.  In fact, cochineal is the only natural red dye approved for consumption by the FDA.  Although cochineal dye is the most widely available, Peruvians will also extract red dye from an indigenous red flower, the achancaray, or from the madder root, which is one of the earliest known red dyes in mankind.

Foraged wild flowers are used at length in the production of yellow and orange dyes.  The most commonly used are the flowers of the Qolle tree or Quico flowers, both indigenous plants of Peru.  By simply boiling the flowers with the yarns (most often alpaca) for various lengths of time, Peruvians are able to achieve an impressive spectrum of oranges and yellows.  Orange dyes can also be extracted from a type of lichen that grows on rocks, known as Qaqa Sunka, which translates from Quechua to mean “beard lichen.”

Probably the easiest of all dyes to find in nature is the color green, which can be derived from a gamut of plant and mineral sources. In Peru, Ch’illca, a green leafy shrub with white flowers, is one of the most common sources for green pigment, especially around Cuzco. 

The essential oil found in Ch’illca also has many medicinal purposes, and can be used to help protect and heal Alpaca skin.  To intensify green hues, collpa, a mineral found in the Amazonian jungle, can be added to the Ch’illca dye mixture and boiled for about an hour before adding the yarns.

Indigo is one of the oldest and most coveted dyes in the world.  It was used extensively throughout ancient India to create gorgeous textiles and for centuries blue clothing was seen as a status symbol, being worn only by royalty. 

Indigo is still used as a natural dye source, but it can be hard to come across in Peru.  It can sometimes be found in Peruvian markets, but it does not grow in the region and can be very expensive.  Instead, Peruvians tend to rely on a combination of Tara, a native pod, and Colpa, an iron sulfate, to create natural blue dyes.  The Tara is first boiled with the yarn until the desired shade of blue is achieved and then Colpa is added near the end to “fix” this shade.

Of course, there are many beautiful textiles and garments produced without any dyes at all.  Alpaca fleece is available in a beautiful range of natural colors, including black, grey, white and caramel.

Over the years, we have offered numerous undyed pieces that are not only fashionable, but environmentally sound.  I can’t get enough of them!  My favorites right now are the Boho Hoodie (can you believe that’s undyed?) and the Sullivan Minidress.  Our Coca bags are a true cultural gem too, embodying the textile genius of the Peruvians: hand-woven in the ancient tradition and hand-dyed from natural sources.  You can also look forward to a gorgeous rug coming up in our Gift book, artisan made by hand with sustainable fibers and natural dyes.  Here’s to being naturally fabulous!

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