Hiram Bingham III and the Forgotten Inca City of Machu Picchu | History Hit

Hiram Bingham III and the Forgotten Inca City of Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu whilst leader of the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition.
Image Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Machu Picchu has become one of the most renowned sites of the Inca civilisation and is often revered as one of the 7 wonders of the world: half-hidden by clouds, perched in the Andes, the sheer feat of its construction, let alone its sophistication, has awed people for centuries.

In 1911, the American explorer and academic Hiram Bingham III ‘rediscovered’ the largely forgotten Machu Picchu, bringing the site to the attention of the world and transforming it from a remote mountain citadel to one of the most unsustainably popular tourist sites in the world.

Here is the story of one man’s quest to discover the mysterious ‘lost city of the Incas’.

Cities of gold; sun worship; virgin sacrifice. The stuff of legend. Legends that for the most part remain hidden in the impenetrable no-man’s land of Peru’s high country. For the better part of 400 years people have searched the deep canyons & towering ice peaks of these mist-covered cloud forests trying to locate the lost cities of the Inca.
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The era of exploration

Europeans and North Americans had begun exploring Latin America in earnest in the mid-19th century. Spurred on by myths, legends and curiosity (and sometimes promises of untold wealth), gentlemen explorers began to search the jungles of the region, looking for remnants of the sophisticated civilizations which had existed in inhospitable terrains long before Europeans arrived.

Explorers like Désiré Charnay and Alfred Maudslay uncovered and publicised some of the most remarkable Maya and Aztec ruins in existence, uncovering crucial evidence of the ways in which these societies operated.

Hiram Bingham III

Hiram Bingham III was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, the son of a Protestant missionary. After studying at Yale, he subsequently attended the University of California, Berkeley, which had one of the first courses on Latin American history ever offered in the United States. Fascinated by what he learnt, Bingham went on to pursue a PhD in Latin American history at Harvard.

Given there were less than a handful of specialists on Latin America in the United States at the time, Bingham quickly earned appointments as a lecturer at some of the United States’ top universities.

Though he was an academic rather than an archaeologist, Bingham was nonetheless convinced of the merits of further research and exploration across Latin America, actively encouraging and fundraising expeditions which would enable just that.

A 1917 photograph of Hiram Bingham at his desk.

Image Credit: Public Domain

The Lost City of the Incas

The Inca were known for their ability to build in inhospitable places, often at high altitudes. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s, the Inca began to retreat further into the Andes in order to avoid bloodshed, illness and violence brought by the Spanish.

Vilcabamba was one of the most remote of the Inca cities, and it became the last refuge of the Inca Empire after it became apparent the Spanish would struggle to gain access through the rugged surrounding territory. It took the Spanish over 30 years to finally capture Vilcabamba: during that time, it provided a home for up to 1000 Inca people.

The Spanish finally captured Vilcabamba in 1572, taking its inhabitants and raiding the city. Its existence and location were largely forgotten in the subsequent years, except by those living in the immediate vicinity, and it was left to ruin.

Fernando Cervantes joined me on the podcast to reframe the story of the Spanish conquest of the New World, set against the political and intellectual landscape from which its main actors emerged.
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1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition

After a trip to Santiago, Chile, in 1908, Bingham became more excited about the existence of undiscovered Inca cities (meaning undiscovered by Westerners). In 1911, he organised the Yale Peruvian Expedition, which aimed at least in part to search for the lost final capital of the Incas.

With the help of local guides, Bingham and his party ‘discovered’ the cities of Vitcos and Vilcabamba in the Andes before going on to the forgotten site of Machu Picchu in July 1911. Exactly how ‘forgotten’ the city was remains unclear: it’s thought several people may well have arrived at the site earlier in the 20th century.

Given its extremely remote location, it’s easy to understand how Bingham believed that Machu Picchu was the lost final stronghold of the Incas rather than Vilcabamba, which he had already visited. Bingham’s theory that Machu Picchu was actually the lost capital of the Incas went unchallenged for nearly half a century.

A 1912 photograph of Machu Picchu after significant clearing had been done by Hiram Bingham and his party.

Image Credit: National Geographic / Public Domain

Machu Picchu

When Bingham arrived at Machu Picchu in 1911, the ruins were largely covered with vegetation. Local farmers had cleared the agricultural terraces to use to grow vegetables, but it would have been hard to discern much else. Bingham took preliminary notes and some photos but did not have the time or funds to investigate further on the expedition.

However, he returned in 1912, and again in 1914 and 1915, having secured funds from Yale University and National Geographic. Over a period of 4 months, the site was cleared, revealing fine, well-preserved stonework which had been untouched for centuries. During this time, Bingham and his archaeologists took various artefacts with them back to Yale.

Cordial relations between the party and the Peruvian government quickly deteriorated. Bingham was accused of legal and cultural malpractice: he claimed he was abiding by the Civil Code of Peru but many locals felt otherwise, and they began to form coalitions to defend Machu Picchu and their sense of ownership of the ruins.

After Bingham’s rediscovery and excavations, news of Machu Picchu’s existence began to make the news. Tourists began to flock to the site in ever-increasing numbers as excavations uncovered more and more of the former royal estate which had been there.

Sarah Roller