Although constructed around 1450, the spectacular city of Machu Picchu remained unknown to the outside world until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. But did he really discover Machu Picchu? Or did someone else beat him to it?
Hiram Bingham’s Expedition to Machu Picchu
Situated almost 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu towers over Peru’s Urubamba Valley. Its exact purpose remains unknown although modern researchers believe it was a royal estate for Pachacuti, the ninth Sapa Inca, or king, of the Kingdom of Cusco.
In 1911, historian/treasure hunter Hiram Bingham led the Yale Peruvian Expedition into the Andes. A few days later, on July 24, he “discovered” Machu Picchu thanks to a young local boy named Pablito Alvarez. At the time, other locals resided in the ruins. Bingham is rightly recognized as the explorer that brought world attention to Machu Picchu. But was he the first outsider to lay eyes on the ruins?
Other Claims to Machu Picchu’s “Discovery”?
As soon as Bingham’s discovery went public, other people came forward to dispute his claim. A missionary named Thomas Payne claimed to have found the ruins in 1906 with the help of Stuart McNairn. He even said that he told Bingham about Machu Picchu in the first place. Another early claimant was a German engineer named J.M. von Hassel.
More recently, Peruvian historians have gathered evidence pointing to a German adventurer named Augusto Berns. In the 1860’s, Berns purchased land near Machu Picchu and secured permission from Peru’s government to prospect it for gold and silver. In the process, he supposedly plundered a series of old Incan sites.
The question of who reached the site first is not just an academic one. The stakes are high and future revelations may impact the destination of 40,000 artifacts that currently reside at Yale University.
Who owns Yale’s Machu Picchu Artifacts?
An 1887 prospecting authorization given to Berns indicates that Peru held national sovereignty over the area prior to Bingham’s arrival. They are using this to help lay claim to Yale’s artifacts. Yale’s lawyers counter that if Berns reached the site first, it stands to reason that he removed the most important artifacts. Thus, they don’t feel that the artifacts in their possession are unique or important enough to require their return to Peru. Adding to the drama, property records show that local families owned Machu Picchu before Bingham arrived. Their descendants are seeking compensation for loss of property.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
I’d be surprised if Bingham was the first outsider to ever set eyes upon Machu Picchu. But as far as I can tell, there is no solid evidence to support any of the other claims. New evidence will continue to emerge however, so anything is possible. But regardless, Hiram Bingham will always be remembered as the man who shone public light on the fabulous ruins known as Machu Picchu.
“In the variety of its charms and the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only has it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead, gigantic precipices of many-colored granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids; it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle.” ~ Hiram Bingham, 1922