- Historic Sites
Raiders Of The Lost City
In July 1911 the author’s father climbed a remote ridge in Peru to discover, amid an almost impenetrable jungle, the fabled lost city of Machu Picchu, last capital of the Inca Empire. Or so the story goes.
July/August 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 5
During the seventy-five years since Hiram Bingham first climbed the knifelike ridge above the Urubamba canyon, in Peru, and set foot in the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu, thousands following his trail have felt their spirits lifted by the grandeur of the setting and the splendor of the granite ruins. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was inspired to make Machu Picchu the focus of an epic poem on human suffering and aspiration. Scholars, unable to find a written record of its building or its builders, have puzzled over the mystery of its origin. Inevitably the ruined city, often half hidden by the vapors that drift up from the chasms below, has been the subject of myth.
Not least of the mythmakers was Bingham himself. His mythmaking concerned not only the history of what he had found but also the circumstances of its finding. As a small boy I had heard my father tell of his Peruvian adventures, but with little comprehension. I was, of course, too young to understand how he had come to be an explorer or the significance of what he had found. But some years ago I came upon a collection of letters he had written my mother from Peru during his 1911 expedition. They made me question some of the impressions I had gathered from him and his books. I began a search of the voluminous files of his Yale Peruvian expeditions at the Yale library and the thousands of his photographs preserved at the National Geographic Society.
What I found differed in important respects from the story of the discovery of Machu Picchu that had taken shape over the years. The accepted version, which had evolved not without my father’s encouragement, was that he had set out to find a lost city, the last capital of the Inca Empire, and that after long and arduous search he had found it, buried in an impenetrable tropical jungle on an almost inaccessible ridge of Machu Picchu Mountain. Much of this story turned out to be myth.
He had indeed been looking for the last Inca capital, and he did find it; but it was not Machu Picchu, nor was it the chief objective of his 1911 expedition. He stumbled on Machu Picchu not after a long search but within forty-eight hours of beginning his first field trip. The ruins were not in an impenetrable wilderness but just off a road that served a thickly populated region. It was not hidden in the jungle but largely exposed by local farmers who had cleared the ruins to grow crops. And with barely a hundred houses it could be called a city only by courtesy.
The mythology includes his explanations of what he had found. In Lost City of the Incas, he identified the ruined city as Vilcabamba, the refuge to which the last Incas had fled from the Spanish conquistadors. He also identified it with Tampu-tocco, the original home of the first Incas, from which they had emerged to establish their great empire. None of these ideas are accepted by any of the leading historical scholars and archeologists of today.
Yet no one who visits Machu Picchu today can fail to be impressed by the grandeur of its setting. The unspoiled magnificence of its great granite walls seems to demand some romantic history such as Bingham imagined for it. To question his mythmaking, moreover, is in no way to diminish his extraordinary achievements as an explorer. The Yale Peruvian Expedition of 1911, which he organized and led, was a great scientific expedition. The discovery of Machu Picchu was only one of its accomplishments and not, he believed at the time, its most significant.
In 1911 Bingham was thirty-five years old. He had recently been appointed an assistant professor of Latin American history at Yale. His annual salary, for part-time teaching, was only a thousand dollars. His field of interest was the countries of South America that had emerged from Spanish colonization. He was not an authority on the continent’s pre-Columbian history, nor was he an archeologist. How did it come about that such a man, at the beginning of his academic career, should have led an expedition of such importance? How did he happen to make the most spectacular, if not the most important, archeological find of the New World?
Part of the answer is that although reared in poverty as the son of retired missionaries, he had married a granddaughter of the founder and president of Tiffany & Company, who had made a fortune in jewelry and silverware and left it to his descendants. Hiram Bingham did not have to support his large family. He could accept a nominal salary and heed the call in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Explorer“: