A Hundred Years of Machu Picchu

7 July 2011


Hiram Bingham, 19 November 1875 – 06 June 1956

Today, the 7th of July, is the day that the rediscovery of Machu Picchu is celebrated, and this year is the 100th anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition that brought him to Machu Picchu. I read that there was an official celebration held at Machu Picchu for the centenary.

Inevitably, revisionists have stolen the thunder of the traditional narratives, and there are few if any traditional narrative histories that tell the epic or heroic story of scientific discovery in the way that these stories were told during the era of colonialism and Orientalism. Good bye to all that. And it is not difficult to understand how we came to say good bye to all that.

As attractive as the traditional swashbuckling narrative is, especially for children, I can remember, even as a child, hearing stories about exotic ancient things being “discovered” and wondering about the people who had been living in the area for generations, and who often had a minor role in these narratives as guides who led the white explorers to the object of “discovery.” Had these peoples not known of it all along? Had they not their own, local names for the sites?

Perhaps I was an unconscious Marxist as a child, since I had something like the perspective that we find in Bertolt Brecht’s “Questions From a Worker Who Reads” (1935), which includes the following lines:

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone ?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him ?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep ?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it ?

Well, we’ve come a long way since the Spanish triumphantly erected a church over the top of the Inca Coricancha. Bingham came to document and photograph, not to conquer and to destroy. and for that reason I would like to defend the now-quaint notion that Bingham discovered Machu Picchu for science.

We scarcely ever hear this idiom any more of something being discovered “for science,” but it is a legitimate idea. There are looters aplenty who continue to find ancient remnants of civilization only to tear them from context and sell them on the international antiquities market. Bingham and Yale have been criticized for their souvenir hunting at Machu Picchu, but this was no looting. No one disagrees that it was Hiram Bingham who brought Machu Picchu to the attention to Western scientists and historians, and he did so by documenting the site.

Did Bingham make claims for himself like Caesar conquering Gaul without even a cook to help him? Well, in the preface to his classic account of the discovery, Lost City of the Incas: The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders, he does explicitly state that previous explorers in Peru, Raimondi and Paz Soldan, were unaware of Machu Picchu and made no mention of the site in their works.

However, in his account Bingham is quite up front about led to the site by local guides who were aware of the ruins, though perhaps not fully aware of their extent. The extent of the ruins could only be appreciated by the clearing of nearly five hundred years of foliage, and this didn’t happen until Bingham’s expedition.

Here is part of Bingham’s account:

“We had camped at a place near the river, called Mandor Pampa. Melchor Arteaga, proprietor of the neighboring farm, had told us of ruins at Machu Picchu, as was related in Chapter X.

“The morning of July 24th dawned in a cold drizzle. Arteaga shivered and seemed inclined to stay in his hut. I offered to pay him well if he would show me the ruins. He demurred and said it was too hard a climb for such a wet day. When he found that we were willing to pay him a sol, three or four times the ordinary daily wage in this vicinity, he finally agreed to guide us to the ruins. No one supposed that they would be particularly interesting. Accompanied by Sergeant Carrasco I left camp at ten o’clock and went some distance upstream. On the road we passed a venomous snake which recently had been killed. This region has an unpleasant notoriety for being the favorite haunt of “vipers.” The lance-headed or yellow viper, commonly known as the fer-de-lance, a very venomous serpent capable of making considerable springs when in pursuit of its prey, is common hereabouts. Later two of our mules died from snake-bite.

“After a walk of three quarters of an hour the guide left the main road and plunged down through the jungle to the bank of the river. Here there was a primitive “bridge” which crossed the roaring rapids at its narrowest part, where the stream was forced to flow between two great boulders. The bridge was made of half a dozen very slender logs, some of which were not long enough to span the distance between the boulders. They had been spliced and lashed together with vines. Arteaga and Carrasco took off their shoes and crept gingerly across, using their somewhat prehensile toes to keep from slipping. It was obvious that no one could have lived for an instant in the rapids, but would immediately have been dashed to pieces against granite boulders. I am frank to confess that I got down on hands and knees and crawled across, six inches at a time. Even after we reached the other side I could not help wondering what would happen to the “bridge” if a particularly heavy shower should fall in the valley above. A light rain had fallen during the night. The river had risen so that the bridge was already threatened by the foaming rapids. It would not take much more rain to wash away the bridge entirely. If this should happen during the day it might be very awkward. As a matter of fact, it did happen a few days later and the next explorers to attempt to cross the river at this point found only one slender log remaining.

“Leaving the stream, we struggled up the bank through a dense jungle, and in a few minutes reached the bottom of a precipitous slope. For an hour and twenty minutes we had a hard climb. A good part of the distance we went on all fours, sometimes hanging on by the tips of our fingers. Here and there, a primitive ladder made from the roughly hewn trunk of a small tree was placed in such a way as to help one over what might otherwise have proved to be an impassable cliff. In another place the slope was covered with slippery grass where it was hard to find either handholds or footholds. The guide said that there were lots of snakes here. The humidity was great, the heat was excessive, and we were not in training.

“Shortly after noon we reached a little grass-covered hut where several good-natured Indians, pleasantly surprised at our unexpected arrival, welcomed us with dripping gourds full of cool, delicious water. Then they set before us a few cooked sweet potatoes, called here cumara, a Quichua word identical with the Polynesian kumala, as has been pointed out by Mr. Cook.

“Apart from the wonderful view of the canyon, all we could see from our cool shelter was a couple of small grass huts and a few ancient stone-faced terraces. Two pleasant Indian farmers, Richarte and Alvarez, had chosen this eagle’s nest for their home. They said they had found plenty of terraces here on which to grow their crops and they were usually free from undesirable visitors. They did not speak Spanish, but through Sergeant Carrasco I learned that there were more ruins “a little farther along.” In this country one never can tell whether such a report is worthy of credence. “He may have been lying” is a good footnote to affix to all hearsay evidence. Accordingly, I was not unduly excited, nor in a great hurry to move. The heat was still great, the water from the Indian’s spring was cool and delicious, and the rustic wooden bench, hospitably covered immediately after my arrival with a soft, woolen poncho, seemed most comfortable. Furthermore, the view was simply enchanting. Tremendous green precipices fell away to the white rapids of the Urubamba below. Immediately in front, on the north side of the valley, was a great granite cliff rising 2000 feet sheer. To the left was the solitary peak of Huayna Picchu, surrounded by seemingly inaccessible precipices. On all sides were rocky cliffs. Beyond them cloud-capped mountains rose thousands of feet above us.

“The Indians said there were two paths to the outside world. Of one we had already had a taste; the other, they said, was more difficult—a perilous path down the face of a rocky precipice on the other side of the ridge. It was their only means of egress in the wet season, when the bridge over which we had come could not be maintained. I was not surprised to learn that they went away from home only “about once a month”.”

Whatever your politics of exploration, I hope you’ll join me in wishing Machu Picchu a happy hundred years in the limelight.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “A Hundred Years of Machu Picchu”

  1. […] A Hundred Years of Machu Picchu (geopolicraticus.wordpress.com) […]

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