Who Discovered Macchu Pichu?

I recently wrote about Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon, and the discovery of the Northwest Passage, I thought we may go somewhere a bit less cold this time! Why not in South America?

Where and What is Macchu Pichu?

Let’s start with some basics before going back to its discovery. Machu Picchu is located deep within the Peruvian Andes and is considered a stunning example of the Inca people’s incredible engineering and building skills.

Pachacuti, the Inca monarch, is responsible for the construction of Machu Picchu–which means “old peak” in Quechua. It was constructed in the 15th century. The complex stone structures, terraced fields, and sophisticated water management systems define the site. Due to the city’s highland location, which offers panoramic views of the nearby valleys and rivers, the area is both physically impressive and spiritually significant.

The city, also referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas,” is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site–and is a popular destination for tourists.

When Did Macchu Pichu Was Discover?

A lecturer in American history at Yale University, Hiram Bingham III is credited with starting the story of Machu Picchu’s modern rediscovery a bit more than a century ago.

In 1911, Bingham traveled to Peru as part of his research into Latin American history in an effort to find the extinct Incan cities of Vilcabamba–which was then called the “lost city of the Incas,” a covert mountain fortress utilized during the 16th-century uprising against Spanish domination. He had no idea that his search would bring him to one of the most important archaeological discoveries in recorded history.

Vilcabamba was believed to be situated somewhere near Cuzco. J.J. Nuez, Prefect of the Province of Apurimac, encouraged Hiram Bingham to visit the ‘Cradle of Gold’ in search of Incan riches. Bingham discovered three sets of buildings, mummified remains, and locations where dynamite was employed in the search for treasures. Count de Sartiges, Jose Maria Tejada, and Marcelino Leon visited in 1834, Jose Benigno Samanez, Juan Manuel Rivas Plata, and Mariana Cisneros in 1861, and three Almanzas, Pio Mogrovejo, and his treasure hunting collaborators in 1885. Bingham, on the other hand, felt it was only a frontier castle, and it inspired him to look further for the city he was seeking.

Photo of Hiram Bingham III at his tent door near Machu Picchu in 1912 (source).

On July 24, 1911, guided by Melchor Arteaga, a Quechua-speaking local, Bingham discovered himself amidst the thick Andean foliage, surrounded by a complex maze of walls and structures, after days of hiking–guided by local farmers. He had stumbled upon the city of Machu Picchu, which would forever change how we thought of the Inca civilization. Bingham described his shock at the ruinous scene in front of him in an article that was printed in Harper’s Monthly in April 1913.

Widespread praise followed Bingham’s account of the find, which the New York Times hailed as “the greatest archaeological discovery of the age.” His later writings, such as the well-known book “Lost City of the Incas” in 1948, cemented his reputation as a major contributor to the discovery of Machu Picchu and secured his place in history.

Controversies and Contradictions

Despite all of this, there have been disagreements and questions surrounding his claim to be the “discoverer” of Machu Picchu. Scholars and historians provide evidence that suggests the ruins had been discovered by other explorers before Bingham, including German, British, and American individuals. For example, although he provided no proof of such a voyage, German mining engineer Carl Haenel claimed to have accompanied the explorer J.M. von Hassel to the region in 1910. Some of these explorers made the claim that they had created maps of the region.

Even though Bingham may not have been the first outsider to visit the site, Peruvian anthropologist Jorge Flores Ochoa asserts that his knowledge and educational background set him apart from the other explorers. It’s also important to note that Bingham himself expressed his surprise at how long a city so close to Cuzco had remained unknown.

Between 1912 and 1916, Hiram Bingham sent to the United States various artifacts excavated at the Machu Picchu site with permission from the Peruvian government–about 4,000 artifacts including mummies and bones, but also jewelry and ceramics. In 1918 and 1920, Peru decided to legally ask for the restitution of those objects, but it was denied both times. And it will not be the last time as the Peruvian government try to negotiate in 2001 with Yale University, the guardian of the collection, seeking the restoration of the collection as well as damages. But Yale refused and even launched a new touring exhibition of the collection.

An agreement was finally reached in 2007, but it was not finalized and more suits were filed. In November 2010, an agreement to repatriate the Machu Picchu collection to Peru was concluded. As part of that agreement, Yale University and the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco (UNSAAC) founded the UNSAAC-Yale University International Centre for the Study of the Incas.

Hiram Bingham wrote about his discovery in the book Lost City of the Incas.

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