Reading the 1913 report on the discovery of Machu Picchu

It is coincidence that I am going on assignment to Peru for the first time in this year of fevered celebration of the 100th anniversary of the expedition in which a young Yale professor named Hiram Bingham discovered the great Inca sanctuary of Machu Picchu.  As with all such anniversaries of ‘discoveries’ in which foreigners came, excavated some part of the local cultural patrimony and then took home with them as much of it as they could haul away, there is some ambivalence in Peru about this occasion.  But the anniversary moved Yale University, which co-sponsored Bingham’s expedition with the National Geographic Society, to agree earlier this year to the Peruvian government’s long-standing demand that the Inca artifacts that Bingham brought back to the university be repatriated to Peru.

In that spirit, National Geographic Magazine has re-published Hiram Bingham’s original essay and photographs from his return 1912 Peruvian Expedition, which followed his Machu Picchu discovery a year earlier.  It makes for fascinating reading.  Bingham recounts how he had first found the Lost City of the Incas the prior year:

On the sixth day out from Cuzco we arrived at a little plantation called Mandorpampa. We camped a few rods away from the owner’s grass-thatched hut, and it was not long before he came to visit us and to inquire our business. He turned out to be an Indian rather better than the average, but overfond of “fire-water.” His occupation consisted in selling grass and pasturage to passing travelers and in occasionally providing them with ardent spirits. He said that on top of the magnificent precipices nearby there were some ruins at a place called Machu Picchu, and that there were others still more inaccessible at Huayna Picchu, on a peak not far distant from our camp. He offered to show me the ruins, which he had once visited, if I would pay him well for his services. His idea of proper payment was 50 cents for his day’s labor. This did not seem unreasonable, although it was two and one-half times his usual day’s wage.

Almost everything about this reads badly today: the better than average Indian with his inevitable taste for fire-water, to say nothing of the smirking indulgence that accompanies the hefty wage Bingham paid his guide for his knowledge which in tone and insinuation is so much like the risible $24 of trinkets that American schoolchildren have been taught was the price at which the island of Manhattan was sold by the Native Americans.  But the aspect of the story most characteristic of its era is this: if the Indian had already visited Machu Picchu, then it could hardly be said to be lost.  True, young American academics might not have known about Machu Picchu — and they, uniquely, had the power to transmit that knowledge to the wider world — but that is not the same thing as saying the place was not known at all.


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