How did Hiram Bingham come across Machu Picchu and what did he find there?
Machu Picchu was discovered thanks to misunderstandings and luck.
Let’s take a deeper look at how the ruins were found and what the famous explorer saw there!
The discovery and the survey of Machu Picchu
Hiram Bingham was an American historian from the Yale University, who came across Machu Picchu rather accidentally when conducting expeditions in the Peruvian Andes, searching for Vitcos, one of the last Inca cities that resisted the Spanish invasion.
The historian was driven by the desire to find the last city of the Incas, he had also heard rumours from Cuzco University’s North American rector about the existence of uncovered ruins in the Urubamba Jungle.
Bingham conducted extensive research in the regions of the Urubamba and Vilcabamba, when he made the astonishing discovery of in 1911, July 24th, when he met a group of Quechuans who were actually living in Machu Picchu, also using the agricultural terraces there.
He was lead to the site of the ruins of a 6 centuries-old Inca city by a group of locals whom he met in the area. Bingham conducted a survey of the area and completed archeological studies. Photographs were made of the ruins still covered with dense vegetation.
The wild vegetation covered all of the buildings, many constructions were collapsed, however most of them were still intact. The roofs, of course, were gone because they were made of easily perishable materials, like wood and grass.
Even a while after he discovered Machu Picchu, Bingham thought that it was Vitcos.
The excavations started in the second half of 1911 went on for years until the city we see today in pictures was uncovered. Even so, specialists believe that there still are parts of the city hiding in the ground and vegetation.
An ancient Inca cemetery is believed to be hiding in the ground and vegetation, not far from the entrance to the site.
After discovering all 3 cities, Vitcos, Vilcabamba and Machu Picchu, Bingham understood that it was about 3 different sites and that Machu Picchu had the highest value to archaeology. He was so passionate about he “Old Peak” (meaning of Machu Picchu in Quechuan) that he almost completely forgot about any other archaeological site that he had come across.
Artifacts, precious objects found on site
Hiram Bingham removed many precious artifacts from Machu Picchu, reason for which Peru still makes legal efforts to get back many thousands of objects removed from its most important archaeological site and tourist attraction.
Most of the types objects taken by Bingham still remain unknown.
We do not know exactly what economic value they could have or if they are pure artistic and historic values.
After Bingham had discovered Machu Picchu, he had over 5.000 archaeological removed from the site and transported many of them to the Yale University. In late 2005, Peru said it would sue Yale in order to retrieve as many archaeological material as possible.
For hundreds of years, many have conducted searches in the Andes, to discover the “Lost City of the Incas”, otherwise known as Paititi. Some thought, as Bingham did at the beginning that Machu Picchu was it.
But, no gold, no silver was found here. The artifacts removed by Hiram Bingham came only found cooper, stone and other objects which didn’t have important material value.
However, it is important that Machu Picchu was isolated for centuries and such objects could be found. Archaeologically, culturally, artistically, these are priceless treasures.
Perhaps the most important “treasure” was the intact Intihuatana Stone. Proof that the conquistadores didn’t find the city (alls such stones were destroyed after they came across them).
Expeditions and further studies
Hiram Bingham conducted excavations, searches through the year 1915. His team cleared most of the ancient ruins, which were covered by plants and earth.
Many books and magazine articles were written in the 1910s and 1920s about this important discovery. Among them was the work called “The Lost City of the Incas” and the 1913 issue of the National Geographic magazine, which was entirely dedicated to Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu.
Today, there are plans to construct a cable-suspended cabin system which could transport visitors directly form Aguas Calientes to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Not only that this could destroy the landscape and affect the ancient image of Machu Picchu, but specialists say that there still are things left uncovered around the place. It is believed that there is an ancient cemetery exactly where they want to build the cable car station.
False stories about hidden treasures in Machu Picchu
For many years, people have been speculating that Machu Picchu could have been some sort of secret city of the Incas, where they hid their treasures from the Spaniards. It’s a false belief, a confusion with the Paititi myth and the El Dorado myth, both of which also differ significantly between each other.
Machu Picchu must have been a religious sanctuary or imperial residence. The presence of hidden treasures is excluded.
What if Hiram Bingham wasn’t first?
Some disagree with Hiram Bingham’s priority claim. Simone Waisbard claims Enrique Palma, Gabino Sánchez and Agustín Lizárraga were those who have discovered the ancient city, leaving their names on one of the rocks there on July 14, 1901.
The words “Machu Picchu” actually refer to the peak, not the city, who knows what its real name was? “Machu Picchu” appears in documents several centuries before, but it rather refers to the mountain not what we call today (the city).
It’s also important to remember that Machu Picchu wasn’t as remote as we think. It was the locals who were living there and lead Hiram Bingham to the site. It is likely that there were other visitors in the past, but either did not recognize/give importance to the site or have looted it and got away with precious objects.
Hiram Bingham certainly wasn’t the first, but he was the uncovered and the only specialists who has recognized the value and importance of Machu Picchu and let the World know about it.