- 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
My father’s discovery of the three sites, Machu Picchu, Vitcos, and Espiritu Pampa, all in the course of one month, was a remarkable feat. Yet this was only one of the achievements of his expedition. He went on to climb Coropuna and then investigated and mapped the previously almost unknown great Lake Parinacocha, one of the largest lakes in Peru. Nearby he noted the remains of pre-Inca civilizations, but with time running out he did not investigate.
Meanwhile, other members of his expedition contributed to its scientific character. Anthropological studies of Indian types were made by the expedition’s surgeon. Thousands of specimens of the flora and fauna of the area were made by the expedition’s naturalist, Professor Harry Ward Foote. Over the years more articles about Foote’s collections have appeared in learned publications than have resulted from the work of all the other members of the Yale Peruvian expeditions combined.
After one afternoon at Machu Picchu, he continued his search.
The survey of the seventy-third meridian of longitude, the project that my father had thought up to tie together his two principal objectives in 1911, was carried through in the face of enormous difficulties by Professor Isaiah Bowman and a Danish topographer, Kai Hendrikson. The maps they made widened geographic knowledge of a strip of land extending all the way from the Amazon basin to the Pacific.
My father was, I think, envious of Dr. Bowman and mentioned little of his contribution to the expedition in his own writings. Long before Bingham found time to write a book about Machu Picchu, Dr. Bowman published his own account of the findings he made on the expedition, a solid work entitled The Andes of Southern Peru, in which are inserted the maps of the seventy-third-meridian traverse. Later Bowman had a distinguished career as head of the American Geographical Society and president of Johns Hopkins University. He helped redraw the map of Europe after World War I as an adviser to President Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference. Some of the unease between him and my father may have derived from the difference in their height: Dr. Bowman hardly came up to my father’s shoulder.
Another member of the 1911, expedition whom my father tended to slight was the Yale undergraduate, Paul Baxter Lanius. At a critical point in Bowman’s survey of the lower Urubamba, Lanius fought his way over a hazardous mountain trail to bring a mule train of essential supplies to Bowman’s aid. Later, during the period when my father was completing preparations for the Coropuna climb, Lanius organized the first excavations at Machu Picchu.
Within six months of Bingham’s return from Peru at the end of 1911, he was off on a second Peruvian expedition, sponsored this time by both Yale and the National Geographic Society. Its objective was described as a continuation of the work of the 1911 expedition, with no particular emphasis on Machu Picchu, but a complete clearing of the ruined buildings and the terraces revealed the entire city for the first time. The result was such a remarkable collection of photographs that the National Geographic magazine devoted its entire April 1913 issue to 250 of them, accompanied by an article by Bingham entitled “In the Wonderland of Peru.” This in effect made Machu Picchu known to the world. When Bingham’s claim to be its discoverer was later challenged, he cited Columbus, who, though not the first European to set foot in America, made it known to the world and so is credited with having discovered it.
The principal discoveries Bingham made on a third expedition, in 1915, were of the old Inca roads connecting Machu Picchu with the rest of the Inca Empire. Trekkers by the thousands now go over these roads, causing major peril to fragile archeological remains.
Some of the myths he invented or believed have had a life of their own.
My father returned to Machu Picchu only once thereafter. That was in 1948, after a notable career in politics that included eight years as a United States senator from Connecticut. He had only recently finished writing his last book, Lost City of the Incas. The occasion for his visit was the dedication of the Carretera Hiram Bingham—the Hiram Bingham Highway.
Some of the myths he invented or came to believe in have had a life of their own since his death in 1956. But his attribution of great significance to Machu Picchu as a place of major importance in Inca history, either as Tampu-tocco or Vilcabamba, has not stood the test of modern scholarship.