Hiram Bingham and the Secrets of Peru’s Machu Picchu

On this day in 1911, American archeologist Hiram Bingham gets his first look at Machu Picchu, an ancient Inca settlement in Peru that is now one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Located about 50 miles northwest of Cuzco, in the Cordillera de Vilcabamba of the Andes Mountains, Machu Picchu is perched above the Urubamba River valley in a narrow saddle between two sharp peaks; Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”) and Huayna Picchu (“New Peak”), at an elevation of 7,710 feet. One of the few major pre-Columbian ruins found nearly intact, Machu Picchu was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.

Machu Picchu is believed to have been a summer retreat for Inca leaders, whose civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century. For hundreds of years afterwards, its location was a secret known only to the peasants living in the region. That all changed in the summer of 1911, when Bingham arrived with a small team of explorers to search for the famous “lost” cities of the Incas.

Although the site escaped detection by the Spaniards, it may have been visited by the German adventurer Augusto Berns in 1867. However, Machu Picchu’s existence was not widely known in the West until 1911, with the Yale University professor Bingham pulled ever upward in tow by Melchor Arteaga, a local Quechua-speaking resident. Bingham had been seeking Vilcabamba (Vilcapampa), the “lost city of the Incas,” from which the last Inca rulers led a rebellion against Spanish rule until 1572. He cited evidence from his 1912 excavations at Machu Picchu, which were sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society, in his labeling of the site as Vilcabamba. That interpretation is no longer widely accepted.

The high level of preservation and the general layout of the ruin are remarkable. Its southern, eastern, and western portions are surrounded by dozens of stepped agricultural terraces formerly watered by an aqueduct system. Some of those terraces were still being used by local Indians when Bingham arrived in 1911. Walkways and thousands of steps, consisting of stone blocks as well as footholds carved into underlying rock, connect the plazas, the residential areas, the terraces, the cemetery, and the major buildings. The Main Plaza, partly divided by wide terraces, is at the north-central end of the site. At the southeastern end is the only formal entrance, which leads to the Inca Trail.

The dwellings at Machu Picchu were probably built and occupied from the mid-15th to the early or mid-16th century. Machu Picchu’s construction style and other evidence suggest that it was a palace complex of the ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, reigning c. 1438–71. Several dozen skeletons were excavated there in 1912, and, because most of those were initially identified as female, Bingham suggested that Machu Picchu was a sanctuary for the Virgins of the Sun (the Chosen Women), an elite Inca group. Technology at the turn of the 21st-century, however, identified a significant proportion of males and a great diversity in physical types. Both skeletal and material remains now suggest to scholars that Machu Picchu served as a royal retreat. The reason for the site’s abandonment is also unknown, but lack of water may have been a factor.

Machu Picchu is the most economically important tourist attraction in Peru, bringing in visitors from around the world. For this reason the Peruvian government wishes to repatriate the materials taken by Bingham to Yale. The ruins are commonly reached in a day trip from Cuzco by first taking a narrow-gauge railway and then ascending nearly 1,640 feet from the Urubamba River valley on a serpentine road. Smaller numbers of visitors arrive by hiking the Inca Trail. The portion of the trail from the “km 88” train stop to Machu Picchu is normally hiked in three to six days, and is composed of several thousand stone-cut steps, numerous high retaining walls, tunnels, and other feats of classical engineering; the route traverses a wide range of elevations between about 8,530 and 13,780 feet, lined with Inca ruins of various types and sizes.

Moving at last to the spiritual realm, one of the many more “Zennish” tour operators suggests “In the Andes it is believed that you are born with the Seed of the Universe, a seed of personal potential that is waiting to be awakened. An initiatory experience, such as making a pilgrimage like this, provides the catalyst for the awakening and growth of this seed, an opportunity for your spirituality to become more real and alive in your daily life.”

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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