Published: April 2011

Inca Empire

Hiram Bingham Resting Peru

Finding Machu Picchu

The ghost town of Machu Picchu was “found” by Hiram Bingham and his Peruvian Expedition team a hundred years ago.

By Heather Pringle
Photograph by Elwood Erdis

On hands and knees, three men crawled up a slick and steep mountain slope in Peru. It was the morning of July 24, 1911. Hiram Bingham III, a 35-year-old assistant professor of Latin American history at Yale University, had set out from his expedition camp on the Urubamba River with two Peruvian companions to investigate reported ruins on a towering ridge known as Machu Picchu ("old mountain" in the Inca language). Nearly 2,000 feet above the valley floor, the climbers met two farmers who had moved up the mountain to avoid tax collectors. The men assured an increasingly skeptical Bingham that the rumored ruins lay close at hand and sent a young boy along to lead the way. When Bingham finally reached the site, he gaped in astonishment at the scene before him. Rising out of the thick tangle of undergrowth was a maze of terraces and walls, an Inca ghost town hidden from the outside world for nearly 400 years. "It seemed like an unbelievable dream," he later wrote. "What could this place be?"

Bingham later acknowledged that he was not the first to discover Machu Picchu—a Peruvian tenant farmer had inscribed his name on one of its walls nearly a decade earlier—but he was the first to study the site scientifically. With financial support from Yale University and the National Geographic Society, Bingham's crews cleared the vegetation that had reclaimed the peak, mapped and photographed the ruins, and shipped thousands of artifacts to Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History.

As news of the "lost city" spread, scholars tried to puzzle out just what kind of place Machu Picchu was. A fortress? A ceremonial site? For many decades no one really knew. A breakthrough came in the 1980s when historians found a dusty legal document from 1568, less than 40 years after the Spanish conquest of Peru. Descendants of the ruler Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, in a petition to the Spanish court, stated that their royal ancestor had owned lands at a place called Picchu, very close to where Machu Picchu sits today. Subsequent studies of the site's architecture and artifacts—from simple pots used by servants to bronze mirrors fit for a queen—suggest that Pachacutec lived in comfort at this mountaintop retreat, dining from silver plates, washing in a private stone bath, and relaxing in an orchid-scented pleasure garden.

In recent years the fate of the artifacts Bingham collected during his three expeditions became the source of a bitter dispute between the Peruvian government and Yale University. Last fall, as the hundredth anniversary of Bingham's discovery drew near, Yale yielded and announced that it would return all the artifacts to Peru.

Today this icon of the Inca world continues to beckon explorers and pilgrims. Each day nearly 2,000 people pour through the entrance and behold the sight that caused Bingham to exclaim, "It fairly took my breath away."

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