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Rediscovering Machu Picchu
On the morning of July 24, 1911, in the Peruvian Andes, Hiram Bingham III, a young Yale professor of Latin American history, surveyed a mysterious mountain landscape drenched by a cold drizzle. Bingham, Class of 1898, was already known as a fearless explorer who had braved sheer cliffs, rickety footbridges, bandits, tropical diseases, and poisonous snakes in earlier journeys through South America. And on this chilly day, the Yale-sponsored expedition’s leader—a man who became the inspiration for Indiana Jones—was about to undertake a hazardous climb.
Bingham’s destination was a ridge rumored to contain interesting ruins built by the Inca, a native people whose rule over an empire that stretched from Colombia to Chile was ended in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors. While almost everything connected to the Inca, from fabulous hordes of gold to extraordinary buildings, had already been discovered by archeologists and treasure hunters, the researcher was following leads he hoped would bring him to Vilcabamba, a place that had been the last stronghold of these people.
Vilcabamba fell to the Spanish in 1573 and was soon swallowed by the jungle. But when Bingham finished his ascent and scanned a broad plateau spread out before him, he thought he’d found that fabled “lost city.” Although much of the area was hidden underneath nearly four centuries worth of trees and vines, the explorer soon spotted stonework “as fine as the finest . in the world,” he said. “It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be? Why had no one given us any idea of it?”
Bingham had discovered—rediscovered, actually—an Inca site now known as Machu Picchu. As a result of subsequent expeditions in 1912 and 1914, the Yale professor and a team of scientists put together a compelling portrait of a place they believed marked both the birthplace and the end of the Inca, as well as a critical religious shrine.
“As an explorer, Bingham was the real thing—what he accomplished was remarkably courageous and risky,” says Richard Burger, director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History and an expert on Peruvian anthropology and archeology. “And he tells a wonderful story.”
Nine decades later, Bingham’s tale remains the one that most of us associate with these haunting ruins. “His strategy for analyzing the site was way ahead of his time,” says Burger. “Unfortunately, when it came to interpreting what he found, Bingham got most of it seriously wrong.”
On January 26, 2003, at the Peabody, Burger and fellow Inca researcher Lucy Salazar (they are also husband and wife) are presenting a major exhibition, “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas,” that, they say, finally gets the story right. The exhibit, which will later travel to museums in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Chicago, was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Connecticut Humanities Council, and other private sources. It features more than 400 artifacts, from large ceramic pots used for brewing Andean beer to delicate silver pins that fastened burial shawls. Much of the material was collected by Bingham at Machu Picchu or nearby sites and deposited at the Peabody; other artifacts in the exhibit come from different U.S. museums, as well as those in Peru and France. In addition, the catalog features essays by Burger, Salazar, and other researchers that provide a “new vision” of this site.
“Machu Picchu was simply a royal estate,” Burger explains. “You can think of it as the Inca equivalent of Camp David.”
Casting it as something less than a spiritual center of the universe will, no doubt, sit less than well with New Age gurus, who have created in Machu Picchu a curious amalgam of Eastern and Andean mysticism—“Orientalism wearing a poncho,” as one wag put it. But even if the site was merely a summer retreat for Inca royalty that had more in common with the Hamptons than with Jerusalem, Machu Picchu will lose none of its perennial allure.
“It’s truly a remarkable place,” says Burger, noting that in 1983, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization placed the site on its World Heritage list of the planet’s most important cultural and natural areas. “And as a result of modern research, we can for the first time appreciate it for what it is.”
The real story of Machu Picchu has emerged gradually over the past 20 years as Burger, Salazar, and a number of colleagues conducted extensive excavations at the site and in surrounding areas and also used modern technology to reanalyze the material at the Peabody. “We’ve presented our findings in scientific journals and at professional meetings, but with this exhibit, the consensus notions about the site can finally move out of academic circles,” says Burger.
Changing the public’s perception of Machu Picchu, however, will take considerable time. Tourist brochures and guides—the site is one of the most popular destinations in South America—routinely play up its spiritual significance, and Machu Picchu is widely hailed as a place that is perfect for tapping into energy fields, communing with past lives, healing present ills, even talking to extraterrestrials.
Bingham, of course, can’t be blamed for these interpretations. A talented writer whose initial account of the discovery appeared in Harper’s Monthly magazine in 1913, Bingham simply captured the popular imagination.
“It seems to me highly probable that the story of Machu Picchu covers many, many centuries,” he noted in a bestselling memoir, The Lost City of the Incas. This synthesis was published in 1948, long after his last expedition to the site and well after he’d abandoned academia for a stint as a trainer of World War I fighter pilots, followed by a lengthy career in politics, during which he served as lieutenant governor and governor of Connecticut and as one of the state’s U.S. senators. (Bingham died in 1957 at the age of 82.)
In the book, Bingham explained how he came to believe that the site housed the “University of Idolatry”—a training and practice center for Inca religious leaders—that was alluded to by Spanish priests and also contained a variety of temples to Inca gods. In addition, the investigator suggested that within the walls of Machu Picchu resided the “Chosen Women,” the Virgins of the Sun, who found “a refuge from the animosity and lust of the conquistadors.”
Bingham’s interpretation was not, at the time, far-fetched. When the vegetation was peeled off the matchless stone buildings, he encountered structures that resembled those mentioned in Inca creation myths. “And fully half of the site is devoted to buildings with religious and spiritual significance,” says Burger.
However, a foundation of the Bingham thesis rested on the contents of numerous tombs surrounding Machu Picchu. One member of the researcher’s team—a “remarkably interdisciplinary” group, says Burger—was Yale professor George Eaton, an expert on the study of bones. The osteologist examined the remains of 174 individuals and concluded that the sex ratio of the deceased favored women to men by more than four to one. Thus was born the idea that the site housed an Inca nunnery.
“Bingham’s stories were still heard when I was a teenager growing up in Lima: that there was a lost city of the Inca where women were worshipping day and night, weaving for the sun and cooking for the sun,” says Salazar, adding that when she went to college in Peru, there was also not much interest in the Inca.
Scholars dismissed them as imperialists, which was a reasonable assertion. In 1531 when Francisco Pizarro and his ragtag army began their invasion, Tahuantinsuyu, as the Inca called their realm, was the largest nation the world had ever seen. Centered in the Andean city of Cuzco, the empire reached its maximum extent following military successes in the 1400s by Pachacuti—“the transformer of the world”—who cobbled together a realm of disparate people and geography that was interconnected by roads and a string of regularly spaced administrative stations. The Inca (the word stands for both the ruling elite and their ethnic group) also made their presence known throughout the realm by periodically taking up residence in a series of royal estates.
The notion that Machu Picchu was one of these was confirmed in 1987 when John Howland Rowe, a University of California at Berkeley anthropologist (and Burger’s doctoral thesis supervisor), published an account of a document he discovered in the Spanish archives in Cuzco. The Inca left no written records—much of our knowledge of these people comes from Spanish chroniclers—but following the conquest, many of the surviving royal descendants brought land-claims lawsuits and attempted to recover property. The document Rowe found was written in 1568 and suggested that a place called “Picchu” was in fact built in the early 1400s by Pachacuti and belonged to his family.
Burger’s archeological studies lent credence to the idea that Machu Picchu was a relatively recent creation wrought by a conqueror as an ideal place for recreation, reflection, and conducting business during the Andean summer. And in 1982 when Burger and Salazar came to Yale, the pair set about reinvestigating Bingham’s Peabody collections.
A new study of the bones, conducted two years ago by Tulane University physical anthropologist John Verano when he was a visiting professor at Yale, demonstrates not only a relatively balanced sex ratio but also the presence of children, including newborns, and the elderly. In fact, some of the women showed signs of having given birth—so much for the “Virgins of the Sun” hypothesis.
Other analyses of everything from the architecture of the white granite buildings to the ceramics found with the dead pointed away from Bingham’s view of Machu Picchu and towards a vision of the site as a royal estate populated in season by the ruling Inca and several hundred servants. Most of these workers, it now appears, were potters, stone masons, silver and goldsmiths, weavers, and other craftspeople who, with their families, lived and occasionally died there. Salazar’s research shows that the servants came to Machu Picchu from every corner of the empire and were apparently well-fed and well-treated by their employers.
And for perhaps one hundred years, people arrived every summer to carry on the business of the estate and of the empire. “The Inca were connoisseurs of highland panoramas, and they had an aesthetic about stonework and mountain views,” says Burger. “Pachacuti may well have picked out the site simply because it was so beautiful.”
But Machu Picchu was so far off the beaten path that its existence depended on regular infusions of goods and services from Cuzco and other parts of the empire. In the early 1530s, Tahuantinsuyu collapsed and the royal estate, which was still under construction, was abandoned to encroaching vegetation and myth. Nearly 500 years later at the Peabody, Bingham’s “lost city” is coming back to life.
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