Monday, February 22, 2010

Machu Picchu, photograph by Hiram Bingham, 1911

March 2010 issue - Photographers' Formulary newsletter

Hiram Bingham, Accidental Discoverer of Machu Picchu

The facts are well known. Born in Hawaii, son of a missionary minister, Hiram Bingham dreamed of escape and discovery. He longed to escape the sometimes harsh hand of an overbearing father and the confines of the small Pacific islands, at the beginning of the 20th century still isolated outposts of civilization. He dreamed of exploring and discovering things and places yet unknown.

He chafed under the rigid and hard discipline of his father and as he became a teenager began to plan his escape. There was only one way out then, and that was by sea. The sailing ships that had brought his father and others to the placid islands would carry Bingham away, or so he hoped. He and a friend saved their money to pay their passage to the mainland and on the night before the ship was to sail Bingham slipped out of the house and down to the wharf.

Bingham’s friend thought better of the scheme and backed out. The ship didn’t sail on time and Bingham’s father came to the docks to take his son home. Surprisingly, Hiram was not punished. it may have been one those moments in a boy’s life when a father realizes his son is coming of age and begins to back away to give the boy breathing room.

Hiram stayed in Hawaii to graduate from high school, then went to Yale to study and later to teach the history of South America. Realize that in the early 1900’s South America was a very large unknown quantity, unmapped and unexplored in countless square miles of its mountains and jungles. Little was known of the Incas of the Andes, though there had been occasional explorations in the previous century.

What was known about the Incas of Peru was based mostly on the writings about the Spanish Conquistadores who had conquered the Inca empire in the mid 16th century. Many of those writings were made long after events had taken place, inevitably based on reports gathered by others, and often by writers who had never even been to Peru!

Bingham finished his education at Yale and at a very young age became a member of the faculty. He married well, taking as his bride an heir to the Tiffany fortunes. Hard labor, in other words, was not a necessity in his existence. A healthy bank account and an indulgent wife gave him the freedom to explore, and explore he did.

In 1908 he made his first expedition to Peru. He had done his homework and was familiar with the writings of Spanish historians and religious. He knew a great deal about the Inca empire and its remarkable rise and fall in little over 100 years. He understood the politics of conquest and had read of Juan Pizzaro’s remarkable victory over an overwhelming Inca army in 1532.

Bingham’s 1908 expedition led to no breathtaking discoveries, but it whetted his appetite to return in 1911 for further exploration in the areas reputed to have been the “last stand” of the Incas, and perhaps to contain the ruins of their final bastion against the Spaniards.

Bingham was not the first to visit Machu Picchu. He was not the first to report its existence, nor was he the first to leave his mark on what is widely regarded as the best preserved set of ruins of an ancient civilization in South America.

What sets Bingham apart is that he came to Peru prepared to systematically investigate, map and record what he saw. His expedition was well funded, and replete with resources to assure his success if he could only find the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last political capitol of the Inca’s fading empire.

In July 1911 he hit the jackpot. Bingham had heard about a place called Machu Picchu, known to indigenous mountain people, but because it was only one of many names of ruins to be found and explored it held no special appeal to him, or to any others for that matter.

He and his party had worked their way north and west from the border of Peru and Bolivia at the fabled Lake Titicaca. They had already climbed what they had hoped was the highest peak in South America (they missed by several hundred feet,) and they had crossed the burning coast deserts bordering the Pacific Ocean.

Many ruins touted to be excellent examples of Inca architecture or construction turned out to be duds. The native Quechuan population had little interest in abandoned Inca cities; they were more interested in raising enough potatoes or corn to feed their families and their livestock.

But they did know about the Incas, and they often knew where to find this ruin or that one in the heavily overgrown jungle or on the high mountain tops. Early in July 1911 Bingham spoke with a Quechuan who claimed to know of a mountain redoubt called Machu Picchu. Mentioned nowhere in any writings of the Spanish conquerors, not shown on any maps, and totally ignored by Peruvian scholars in the city of Cuzco less than thirty miles away, Machu Picchu was just sitting there waiting to be discovered.

On July 24 1911 Bingham went for a hike with his local guide, Sr. Melchor Arteaga, and Sergeant Carrasco, a military escort provided by the Peruvian government. They climbed into the mountains and eventually came to the homes of two or three Quechuan families who made their living growing corn and other crops on small plots of land.

Bingham asked the families they knew of any Inca ruins. He was assured that they did. He offered to pay the stunning sum of something like a dollar if someone would lead him to the ruins. The adults stayed by their huts, but sent Bingham off with a young boy who told Bingham that the ruins were nearby.

The little group walked further up the path, around a bend and into the open view of the land below. Bingham was stunned by what he saw. There, hanging on the hillside, was what is now known as the fabled Machu Picchu. The Quechuan families had cleared a small portion of the ruins and had been using the stone walled terraces as growing plots for their meager crops. The remainder of the ruins remained engulfed and entwined in jungle growth.

Bingham photographed, or attempted to photograph the ruins that day. He and Sergeant Carrasco returned to their main camp and Bingham reported his findings to his fellow explorers. Bingham had documented his findings as well as he could in the short time he has been in the ruins, but it was enough to assure him a place in history.

In the days to follow Bingham returned to Machu Picchu to further explore, photograph and describe his discovery. In 1913 his copious notes and photographs became the basis of an entire issue of National Geographic Magazine. Though never trained as an archeologist or as a photographer, Hiram Bingham will always be known as the discoverer of Machu Picchu.

The photographs in this article were taken by Hiram Bingham. With the passage of time they are no longer subject to copyright. But to give credit where credit is due, the work of Hiram Bingham, historian, explorer, discoverer and photographer, has given us what has become known as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

To read Bingham's words of discovery and to see some photographs of his several expeditions, go to "Rediscover Machu Picchu!". Read a chapter of Bingham's writings about Machu Picchu and see photographs of his expeditions in the highlands of Peru and see more of his photographs here. . . .

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