- 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 next evening, however, at the home of a wealthy plantation owner several miles downriver, he learned that none of the nearby planters, even the owner of the vast tract of land that included Machu Picchu, knew of its existence. He began to have second thoughts. In the letter to my mother, which he finished the next day, he wrote: “It is unknown and will make a fine story. I expect to return there shortly for a stay of a week or more.”
Actually, he did not return, though he sent two of his party back to enlarge the clearing begun by the Indians and make a map of the entire city. For a while, as he considered that he might have underrated Machu Picchu’s importance, he toyed with the idea that it might have been the last Inca capital after all. “Yesterday,” he wrote his wife on August 3, “I came to the conclusion that my new ruins (the fine ones at Machu Picchu) must be those referred to in the Chronicles by the name of Vitcos or Pitcos. Pitcos is an easy transition from Pichu or Pitchu. Machu simply means ‘old’ in Quechua. The description given by Ocampo in the XVIIth century fits very well, and so does that of the Augustinian monk, Father Calancha. It is really most exciting, for Vitcos (or Pitcos) was the actual residence of the last three Incas who lived over here in Vilcabamba after the Spanish Conquest. In fact it was, as you know, with the hope of making this discovery that I came.”
His new theory did not last long, however. For within the next couple of weeks he had found two other sites. One of them was much more clearly identifiable as Vitcos, the last Inca rulers’ principal residence and capital. It was located on a hill overlooking the Vilcabamba River valley some thirty miles northwest of Machu Picchu. There Bingham found what appeared to have been a military stronghold and the remains of a royal palace, which he paced out as having been well over two hundred feet in length, much larger than any of the buildings at Machu Picchu. An enormous carved boulder and the remains of several stone structures clinched his identification. This was indeed Vitcos, and the farfetched “transition” of Picchu into Pitcos and Vitcos was forgotten.
The area around Vitcos had been continuously inhabited for more than three hundred years, and most of the stonework had long ago been pulled down to make enclosures for cattle or for housing in the nearby villages, so even though the mountain setting is fine, the ruins lack the unspoiled beauty of Machu Picchu. The site, moreover, was until recently not nearly as accessible, so it has attracted little tourist interest, although it can now be reached by automobile.
The other notable site was the real “lost city” of Vilcabamba, the largest city of the rump empire. It was destroyed by the Spaniards when they finally captured the last Inca ruler. A new provincial capital was then established at the head of the Vilcabamba valley. This small town has been called Vilcabamba ever since, while old Vilcabamba was abandoned and forgotten.
All Bingham was able to see there, in a hasty descent into the rain forest of the Pampaconas River valley, were the remains of a few buildings thickly overgrown with jungle. Another explorer, Gene Savoy, followed his trail some fifty years later and found that these buildings were at the edge of what had been an extensive Inca city. It must have been far more populous than Machu Picchu, but it seems to have lacked any striking architecture. Its setting in a lowland valley cannot be compared to Machu Picchu’s and has discouraged excavation.
The name given to the site when my father visited it was Espfritu Pampa, the Plain of Ghosts. The leading Inca historian today, John Hemming, in his book The Conquest of the Incas, cites documents that have clearly established it as the site of the city of Vilcabamba.
My father was correct in his first identification of these ruins. In his first published report of the Yale Peruvian Expedition’s work, he named the site “ViIcapampa or Espiritu Parhpa.” But he was never quite sure. Understandably, having seen so little of the extensive city later described by Savoy, he found it small and unimpressive compared with Machu Picchu. A year later Bingham developed the theory that Machu Picchu was the real Vilcabamba, though he still clung to his identification of Espiritu Pampa as another Vilcabamba. No wonder a careful reader of his Lost City of the Incas is likely to be confused.
Then, to add to the romantic history that he felt Machu Picchu deserved, he developed the story of how the Virgins of the Sun had been sheltered there after the conquest until eventually they all died and the city was deserted. Early studies of the bones found in burial caves at Machu Picchu in 1912 suggested that they were mostly those of women. But current osteological studies throw doubt on that finding and, therefore, on the appealing legend.