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Who Discovered it? And What Is It?

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Machu Picchu, Peru – Thanks to Hiram Bingham, an adventure-seeking, self-promoting  scholar from Yale with an appreciation for the power of publicity, we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the “discovery” of the Lost City of the Incas.

A century ago, The New York Times called Machu Picchu, “the Greatest Archaeological Discovery of the Age.”

However, controversy still rages over whether Bingham was the one who actually discovered Machu Picchu and theories still abound as to exactly what it was that he “discovered.” In addition, there has been controversy for decades between Peru and Yale over who owns crates of artifacts that Bingham found and shipped home to Connecticut.  

The spectacular pre-Columbian, 15th century citadel of Machu Picchu was known locally, but the Spanish conquerors never were able to find it and loot it.  In July 1911, a local Peruvian led Bingham up to ruins overgrown by the Andean jungle.  

Bingham milked his discovery for all it was worth. Throughout his life, he wrote numerous books and articles about it. Bingham enlisted the powerful National Geographic Society, which funded his subsequent missions there. In 1913, an entire issue of National Geographic magazine was devoted to Bingham’s discovery.   

Bingham’s Machu Picchu-fueled fame propelled him into legend and then into the United States Senate.  Many feel Bingham was the inspiration for the fictional movie hero Indiana Jones. 

Of course, since it was a local Peruvian who actually led Bingham to the site, it is obvious Hiram didn’t actually discover it. Supposedly, Bingham found graffiti on the walls from others who had been there in 1901, a fact he neglected to mention in his reports. The family of an English Christian missionary, Thomas Payne, claims he and another missionary climbed up to the ruins in 1906. The site also may have been discovered and plundered in 1867 by a German businessman. There also is some evidence that a German engineer arrived earlier. Maps found by historians show references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874.

So we don’t know who really discovered Machu Picchu. Hiram clearly was the first to bring news of it to the outside world, hence this centennial anniversary.  With a nod to the controversy, some now refer to him as, “the scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu.”

And we still don’t really know what it is that Hiram actually “discovered.”

Bingham theorized that the complex was the traditional birthplace of the Incan “Virgins of the Suns.” Most current thinking speculates that Machu Picchu was built in the 1400s as the estate of an Incan emperor. The mountains surrounding it were considered sacred by those civilizations and there is additional evidence to suggest that it was some sort of religious site. Another theory suggests that Machu Picchu was an Incan settlement designed to control the economy of the conquered region. Some have suggested it was a maximum security prison or even an agricultural testing station.  Finally, some suggest that the city was built as a place for the deities or for the coronation of kings.

Shockingly, I haven’t seen any theories involving space aliens, although they are probably out there.  I mean the theories are probably out there, not the aliens, necessarily.

The fact is, we just don’t know. And that unknown – combined with its remote, inaccessible location and the mists that shroud the sacred mountains – adds to the mystery and allure of this spectacular place.

In a letter to his wife, Bingham wrote, “My new Inca City, Machu Picchu . . . is unknown and will make a fine story.” 

A fine story indeed.