On July 24, 1911, a Yale lecturer of South American history stumbled through the dense jungle on the saddle of a steep-sided mountaintop in Peru. Cutting through the undergrowth, he began to see signs of a former settlement. Walls and archways, paths and structures, and monumental architecture that could only suggest a site of extreme historical importance.
Hiram Bingham had found Machu Picchu, an archaeological wonder hidden to the wider world for centuries. But Bingham wasn’t alone, nor was he the true “discoverer” of Machu Picchu: he had rediscovered the site, as locals had known about it for as long as anyone could remember.
Bingham wasn’t an archaeologist, but he was fascinated by Inca ruins. He had passed through Peru in 1909, and visited the Inca site of Choquequirao in the Cusco Region. After that experience, he became even more driven by the idea of finding Vilcabamba, the final stronghold and seat of Inca power after the Incas were forced to flee from the Spanish conquistadors. It was this quest that saw him lead the 1911 Yale Expedition to Peru.
The expedition first headed to Cusco, where Bingham began his exploration of the region. Along with his seven companions, including a Peruvian policeman called Sergeant Carrasco who served as an interpreter, he ventured out to the northwest of Cusco, along the Urubamba River valley. They traveled by mule and, where the terrain didn’t allow, by foot.
“Machu Picchu,” he said
On July 23, the expedition arrived at the small village of Mandor Pampa, not far from Aguas Calientes. Bingham talked to a local farmer named Melchor Arteaga. Arteaga told the American, through his policeman interpreter, of massive ruins up above them in the nearby mountains. He told them a name in his indigenous language: “Machu Picchu,” he said. Which, translated, meant the “Old Mountain.”
Arteaga agreed to take Bingham and his companions to Machu Picchu the following day. Rising early, the party began the ascent. It was the morning of July 24, 1911. Drizzle was falling from the cloudy sky.
The expedition labored on up the mountain, but soon tired. Bingham, however, was characteristically resolute and eager to continue the slow ascent. He forged on with Arteaga and Carrasco until they reached a small hut. Inside, peasant farmers were sheltering from the rain. After a friendly conversation, the locals agreed to let a young boy take the explorers to the nearby ruins.
In Lost City of the Incas, Bingham described what the boy showed them: “We were confronted with an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and 10 feet high.” But for Bingham, there was “nothing to be excited about.” He had seen similar terraces at Ollantaytambo and Pisac.
“As fine as the finest stonework in the world”
They continued on, following the boy. And then Bingham’s steely academic reserve began to falter, giving way to genuine excitement. “Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stone work.” He cut through the undergrowth and scrambled over moss-covered rocks, seeing “white granite ashlars carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together.” Then a cave of beautifully cut stone, which he assumed to be a royal mausoleum, and a semicircular temple, “as fine as the finest stonework in the world.”
Bingham was astounded. By his own admission, he was spellbound, and the more he explored, the more amazed he became. He knew, at this point, that he had discovered something of great importance. He believed this to be Vilcabamba, the legendary lost city of the Incas.
He was, as it turned out, wrong. Ironically, Bingham also rediscovered Vilcabamba, an archaeological site he called Espíritu Pampa. But Bingham never realized the full significance of Espíritu Pampa, instead focusing his attentions on the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that his assumptions were questioned, and the significance of Espíritu Pampa revealed.
Still, Bingham had made one of the greatest scientific rediscoveries of the century. He certainly wasn’t the first to “discover” Machu Picchu — the locals certainly knew it well, and other foreigners may also have reached it before him — but Bingham was the man who introduced Machu Picchu to the world.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.