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100 Years of Mystery: The Discovery of Machu Picchu

100 Years of Mystery: The Discovery of Machu Picchu

“Above all, there is the fascination of finding here and there under swaying vines… the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who, ages ago, sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently give expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty.” -Hiram Bingham

During Hiram Bingham´s fateful 1911 trip to Peru in search of Vilcabamba, local farmer Melcho Arteaga told him about the ruins on “Old Mountain” while he and his party camped riverside at Mandor Pampa.  Although bad weather made Arteaga reluctant to show Bingham the way, he was convinced by the offer of a 1-sol payment.  Bingham, Arteaga, and his interpreter crossed a precarious bridge and intimidating 2000ft slope to arrive at a small hut where a group of campesinos told Bingham they´d been living there for years and farming on an extensive system of terraces they´d found.  Bingham continued on with Pablito, an 11 year old boy who took him to the ruins.

What Bingham saw was more than a hundred ancient terraces fortified with fertile river valley soil carried up by the Incas, cleared of growth and in use.  Passing the terraces and entering the subtropical forest they beheld white granite walls and ancient structures which, though partially hidden by earth and five centuries of growth, appeared to Bingham to be the finest masonry he had ever seen.  The site had evaded the attention of the Spanish invaders probably because the long since deserted city had already been forgotten. Throughout the centuries of colonial rule it had lain relatively unmolested. Only those living nearest these ruins knew they were there.  At the time, aside from base materials (terraces on which to grow crops, stones to use for construction), the ruins were not considered to be of much interest or value.

When Bingham arrived there were already a couple families living at the ruins.  Treasure hunters searching the ruins for valuables had left their names and the date of their trip etched in rock a decade earlier. Both the treasure hunters and Bingham met Anacleto Alvarez, who lived there and grew his crops on the fertile soil that the Incas had brought up from the river valley to build the terraces.  And yet, while Hiram Bingham may not have discovered Machu Picchu, his academic interest and efforts to bring it to the attention of the world may well have saved it.  Over the next several years the historian conducted the first archaeological excavations and documented and mapped the site.  In 1913 National Geographic devoted an entire issue to Machu Picchu, and over the following decade Bingham wrote popular books dedicated to the site.

What became known as the Lost City of the Incas has inspired worldwide interest ever since it was brought to international attention.  The roughly 5,000 artifacts found there were transferred for study and have provided priceless information about the Incan Empire.  Also, it is in Machu Picchu that one can observe the only intact Intihuatana stone ever found, although in the time of the empire this was the main sacred object in all major cities.  Machu Picchu is unquestionably the greatest Inca site in the Americas to have escaped the colonial period unscathed.  A large part of its fame, however, is that it remains an enigma; scholars could not and cannot agree as to the purpose it served and why it was abandoned even before the Conquest.  Some believe it to have been a ceremonial center, royal resort, military citadel, or even the very birthplace of the empire.