- 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
The most misleading impression given by my father’s accounts was that the ruins were all but hidden in the dense vegetation. Photographs he took on that first day but never published tell a different story. From the highest point in the ruins he took a series of pictures giving a panoramic view of the site to the east and south. It shows that a large part of the city had been cleared by the Indian families: they had removed the overgrowth from the terraces on which the buildings stood in order to obtain level land for corn and other crops. The trunks of felled trees lay where they had fallen on top of many of the buildings, but few of the ruins were hidden.
One of the most striking of the thirty photographs Bingham took that day depicted the carved outcrop of a ledge at the culminating point of the city, the sacred Inti-huatana stone, to which the Incas believed the sun was tied. The stone and two human figures next to it —Bingham’s military escort and a little boy, son of a local farmer—appear in the middle of a planting of corn.
Not only the photographs he took that day but entries in his pocket notebook tend to raise questions about the accounts he later gave of his discovery. On one page of the notebook appears a rough map of the central part of the city, a confirmation that much of it was exposed to view. Other entries indicate that he did not appreciate the importance of what he had found and that it did not occur to him that it was the “lost city” he was looking for. For one thing he did not think of it as lost. “This place discovered in 1902 by Lizarraga,” he wrote on one page. He had seen the name and date scrawled on some of the walls. Apparently he did not think it worthwhile to spend any length of time in the ruins.
He did make a sketch of the layout of a group of buildings that he identified as “temples” around a “sacred plaza,” meticulously measuring and jotting down the dimensions, even to the height, width, and depth of the windows of one building. He listed the subject matter of a few more pictures—making a total of thirty for the day—and then noted his return to the Indians’ hut. He had rested there on reaching the top of the ridge and been given a drink of springwater and some sweet potatoes, and he now wrote in his notebook that he had paid thirty centavos for his “lunch.” A final entry for the day indicated simply that his descent of the ridge took just twenty-seven minutes.
What he told his tentmates is not known, but one of them, the naturalist Harry Foote, who had spent the day collecting insects, was so little impressed that his diary entry for July 24 reads only: “No special things to note.”
The next day’s entries in Bingham’s diary offer further clues to what he thought of his discovery. Obviously he was anxious to get on with his search, not thinking he had found what he was looking for. Unfortunately two of the pack animals had escaped during the night, and he had to wait the whole morning while the muleteer went in search of them. He used the time to jot down what his guide, Arteaga, had told him about the man whose name he had seen scrawled on some of the walls: “Agustin Lizarraga is the discoverer of Machu Picchu,” he wrote, “and he lives at the Ponte San Miguel.” The San Miguel bridge was three or four miles down the road.
He then began writing a letter to my mother, describing the beauties of the canyon and reporting that he had “climbed a couple of thousand feet to a wonderful old Inca city called Machu Picchu.” At this point the muleteer arrived with the mules that had been lost, and Bingham got his mule train under way without finishing the letter.
The Indian families had removed much of the overgrowth and planted corn.
He soon came to the San Miguel bridge, a modern steel-and-concrete structure. Agustin Lizarraga was not at home. He too was a mule driver and was presumably off with a packtrain on the Cuzco road. A picture Bingham took of Lizarraga’s hut with the Machu Picchu ridge in the background shows the tiny silhouette of a structure against the sky. Many travelers must have seen it before Lizarraga had enough curiosity to investigate.
Bingham had spent only one afternoon at Machu Picchu and had continued the next day with his search. How could he have so underrated the importance of what he had found? Part of the explanation may lie in his background. His academic specialty was history, not archeology. His interest in the Incas focused on what had happened to their empire at the time of the Spanish Conquest. The last of the Inca rulers had fled into the mountains and maintained a semblance of independent authority over a rump empire for more than thirty years. Their last capital was the “lost city” Bingham was looking for, and the clues he was relying on were references in the writings of contemporary Spanish chroniclers. What he had seen on Machu Picchu Mountain did not fit his clues.