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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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