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On This Day: Hiram Bingham Discovers Lost Inca City of Machu Picchu

July 24, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 24, 1911, Yale University professor Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu, one of the most significant archaeological finds in the history of the Americas.

Approaching Machu Picchu

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In the summer of 1911, Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham led an expedition through the Andes Mountains in search of the lost cities of Vitcos and Vilcabamba, the last two capitals of the Inca Empire.

One day, a local farmer, Melchor Arteaga, told Bingham that there were ancient ruins nearby at a place called “Machu Picchu,” meaning “old peak.” On July 24, Arteaga led Bingham and a local police officer up into the mountains, a dangerous trek that included steep climbs and an unstable bridge.

They reached a point near the ruins where several families lived in small huts. A young Indian boy who lived there led Bingham the rest of the way to Machu Picchu.

“A few rods farther along we came to a little open space, on which were two splendid temples or palaces,” Bingham wrote in “In the Wonderland of Peru,” an article that appeared in National Geographic magazine in 1913. “The superior character of the stone work, the presence of these splendid edifices, and of what appeared to be an unusually large number of finely constructed stone dwellings, led me to believe that Machu Picchu might prove to be the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish conquest.”

Bingham believed that he might have discovered the mythical city of Tampu-tocco, the cradle of the Inca Empire from which three brothers left through three windows to conquer and found the Inca Empire. He based his theory on a temple with three large windows.

He returned to America with news of the lost city and received funding from the National Geographic Society to lead excavations of Machu Picchu in 1912 and 1915. In 1913, National Geographic magazine dedicated an entire issue to the discovery and excavation. That same year, The New York Times declared the discovery of Machu Picchu to be “the Greatest Archaeological Discovery of the Age.”

Machu Picchu and the Inca Empire

Inca civilization dates back to about 1200 in the area around Cuzco in southern Peru. In the early 1400s, under the leadership of Pachacuti, the Incas began to conquer other tribes in the area and build an empire stretching thousands of miles.

Terence D’Altroy, author of “The Incas,” told PBS’ NOVA that at its peak, the Inca Empire covered approximately 300,000 square miles and included six to 12 million people. “That would make it perhaps the biggest empire in all of the indigenous Americas before the Spanish arrival,” he said.

The Inca Empire fell in the 1530s, after it was severely weakened by a civil war between brothers Huascar and Atahualpa. Atahualpa won the war, but he was soon captured and executed by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and less than 200 men.

The Spanish took control of the Inca Empire, but it is likely that they never found Machu Picchu. Because there is no Spanish record of Machu Picchu, it is difficult for archaeologists and historians to determine the history and purpose of the site.

Bingham had several theories, including that it may have been Tampu-tocco or Vilcabamba, or that it was a place to keep women of the royal family. Others suggested that it could be a military retreat or a sacred shrine.

Many modern historians, according to National Geographic, believe that Machu Picchu was built around 1450 by Pachacuti as a retreat for himself and the elite of Inca society. There is also evidence that many non-Incas lived and died at Machu Picchu.

Dr. Johan Reinhard, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, theorizes it was “built in the center of a sacred landscape.” He says, “Machu Picchu formed a cosmological, hydrological, and sacred geographical center for a vast region.”

Who Really Discovered Machu Picchu?

Bingham is commonly credited as the discoverer of Machu Picchu, but many dispute that title. Not only did locals know about the site, but there is some evidence that other explorers may have found it decades before Bingham.

The Peruvian government has recently discovered records from the 1860s that documented a German man named Augusto Berns raided the city’s tombs in 1867. There was also a letter written to The New York Times in 1916 by a German who claimed that German engineer J.M. von Hassel discovered the site in 1909.

The Yale Artifact Dispute

Bingham excavated thousands of artifacts from Machu Picchu and brought them back to Yale to be displayed in the university’s Peabody Museum. In 2008, Peru sued Yale for the return of the artifacts. Yale agreed to return the artifacts in 2011.

Environmental Concerns With Tourism

More than 300,000 people a year visit Machu Picchu. The extensive tourism has put the city at risk of a devastating landslide and has increased pollution in the area, National Geographic reported in 2002.
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