Bingham Discovers Machu Picchu

Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu, a previously unknown Inca city in the Andean jungle, extended the known range of Inca settlement and fired the public’s imagination.

Summary of Event

The great Inca Empire conquered by Francisco Pizarro and the Spaniards was centered in the Andean highlands of Peru, but the edges of the empire extended as far north as southern Colombia and as far south as central Chile, from the Pacific Ocean to the edges of the Brazilian jungle. Although the jungle was largely peripheral to the empire, it held an intriguing role in the history of the Inca. First, legend held that Manco Capac, the first Inca ruler, had been born at Tampu Tocco (also known as Tambo-Toqo) in the jungles of the eastern slope of the Andes. Further, history told of Vitcos and Vilcabamba, the jungle towns where the postconquest Inca who rebelled against the Spaniards fled in 1539 and where they held out until 1572. These fabled places fired archaeologist Hiram Bingham’s imagination early in his career; his greatest triumph was accomplished during his attempts to locate these places. Archaeology;Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Incan civilization
[kw]Bingham Discovers Machu Picchu (July 24, 1911)
[kw]Machu Picchu, Bingham Discovers (July 24, 1911)
Archaeology;Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Incan civilization
[g]Latin America;July 24, 1911: Bingham Discovers Machu Picchu[02830]
[g]Peru;July 24, 1911: Bingham Discovers Machu Picchu[02830]
[c]Archaeology;July 24, 1911: Bingham Discovers Machu Picchu[02830]
[c]Prehistory and ancient cultures;July 24, 1911: Bingham Discovers Machu Picchu[02830]
Bingham, Hiram
Arteaga, Melchor
Carrasco, Sergeant
Richarte, Toribio
Alvarez, Anacleto

Bingham was born in Hawaii, the son of a missionary and the third generation of his family there. He received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, but he had virtually no archaeological training when he began his series of South American explorations. Initially, he was lured to South America in 1907 by a historical interest in retracing the route of Simón Bolívar, the nineteenth century revolutionary hero of South America; it was during this trip that he became interested in further explorations. He returned the following year and visited his first archaeological ruins.

From the beginning, Bingham was more of an explorer in the nineteenth century mold than a scientist of the twentieth century type. He spent most of his efforts organizing teams and leading expeditions, leaving others to perform the detailed collection, analysis, and interpretation. In fact, his published works on Peru are almost all popular, rather than technical.

By 1911, Bingham had become interested in finding Vilcabamba, the last capital of the Incas, the jungle capital. His expedition consisted initially of Professor Harry Foote (a naturalist) and Dr. William Erving (a surgeon); they were joined later by Sergeant Carrasco, a military policeman assigned to them as an escort by the Peruvian president. In early July, this group set off, heading down the lush valley of the Urubamba River as it rushed from the high Andes into the jungle below, a drop of more than 3,000 meters (about 9,843 feet) in a distance of somewhat less than 100 kilometers (about 62 miles). The deep, winding gorge flanked by dense, tropical vegetation made direct observation and search for ruins difficult; Bingham relied primarily on informants for information on where there were ruins worthy of his attention.

By the evening of July 23, the party had reached an open plain called Mandor Pampa, where, while pitching camp, they encountered a local Indian named Melchor Arteaga. Arteaga told of ruins on the tops of twin mountains nearby, Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. He praised those on Huayna Picchu highly but noted that those on Machu Picchu also were at least worth visiting. Bingham decided to visit these sites the following day.

The next morning broke with a dreary, cold drizzle that was to last all day, and only Bingham retained his interest in pressing on to the ruins Arteaga mentioned. In fact, Foote and Erving decided to stay in camp, and Arteaga had to be bribed with triple wages to guide Bingham to the ruins. Finally, Bingham, Arteaga, and Carrasco set out on a several-hour journey that forced them to scale cliffs, cross primitive bridges over the cascading Urubamba, and carve their way through dense jungle vegetation. Ultimately, they found their way to the farm of Toribio Richarte and Anacleto Alvarez, two Quechuan Indians who were using ancient Incan terraced slopes for their plantings. After a rest, the party forged on a short distance to the site of Machu Picchu.

There they were greeted by abundant evidence of human activity. Nearly one hundred ancient agricultural terraces crawled up the slope toward the top of the lower of the two peaks, Machu Picchu, but such terraces were fairly common and not sufficient in themselves to impress Bingham. Above the terraces, however, near the top of the mountain, were dozens of stone buildings, some large and others more modest. The true impact of the discovery would be clear a year later, after a return expedition cleared the vegetation to reveal the buildings’ magnitude; however, Bingham immediately recognized their tremendous importance, even as overgrown as they were. Investigations the following year at the larger peak (Huayna Picchu) revealed a small but significant group of ruins at its top, but Bingham was far more impressed with Machu Picchu.

As he roamed over the ruins of Machu Picchu that first day, and even more so as the subsequent expedition cleared the vegetation and minutely recorded the findings, Bingham was convinced that he had located an ancient city of great importance. At the top of a steep stone stairway was a cluster of buildings of various styles. Some were temples, many of which had strangely carved rocks within, presumably shrines or representations of deities. One was a tower built of huge, carefully dressed stones (now usually interpreted as an observatory), the circular shape of which was most atypical of Incan architecture. Palaces, also made of these large, dressed stones, were in areas adjacent to the temples and observatory. In another area apart from these elite buildings were modest gabled houses with distinctive Incan trapezoidal doorways, minus their thatched roofs but otherwise largely intact. These buildings were substantial habitations to protect their occupants against the cool night air. There also were other gabled buildings, much like the houses but with walls on only three sides, resembling historic buildings where the Inca made chicha, a local corn beer. Complex water systems channeled artificial streams through the settlement and produced ornamental streams and fountains. Plazas were marked by open spaces between clusters of buildings. Interspersed through the site were various types of architecture, some familiar and some exotic, some impressive and some ordinary, but all documenting the complexity and importance of the site.

Many of the larger, more impressive structures were built of stones more than 2 meters (about 6.6 feet) in each dimension, fitted together with angled and irregular joints, but cut so accurately that the blade of a pocket knife could not be inserted between the stones. This trait, so distinctive of the Inca, as well as the trapezoidal doorways, proved that the site was indeed part of the Inca Empire, a fact confirmed by the artifacts later found there.

The following year, Bingham and a somewhat larger, better-funded team returned to Machu Picchu and carried out full-scale fieldwork. They cleared the area of vegetation, mapped everything carefully, and conducted excavations to collect artifacts. They also bribed local Indians to disclose the locations of burial caves below the main site, and they investigated the surrounding area to locate Inca roads and bridges that linked the region to the rest of the empire.

It had become obvious to Bingham—as it soon would to the archaeological world in general—that Machu Picchu was a site of major importance. Its significance lay not so much in its size as in its location and its well-preserved religion and elite architecture. Although many of Bingham’s specific interpretations of the site were disputed by others and have not stood the test of time, his basic insight that Machu Picchu was an extraordinary discovery has proven correct.


Bingham was convinced that he had discovered the last capital of the Incas, the site that he had set out to find. In some of his writings, he toyed with the possibility that it was the same place where the first Inca had been born; he became quite convinced of this by the time of some of his later writings. At the time when he was writing, there had been few other Inca sites found in the jungle; Machu Picchu remains to this day the largest and most opulent of the sites on the eastern slopes of the Andes. Further, Bingham interpreted some of the architecture at the site as part of major defensive works, something to be expected at the last Inca capital. Other archaeologists, however, have not agreed with this interpretation. Although it is clear that the site’s topography would have aided defenders in the event of attack, there is no clear evidence of defensive works on the scale that Bingham believed.

Bingham’s conclusion received a fatal blow from the dating of the site. Refinements in the dating of Inca artifacts and architecture on the basis of style or form and the introduction of the radiocarbon dating technique have conclusively documented that Machu Picchu existed neither early enough to have been the birthplace of the first Inca nor late enough to have been the final refuge. The Inca Empire was in existence only a brief time, from 1430 to shortly after the coming of the Spaniards in the sixteenth century; Machu Picchu was occupied in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Clearly, it was an important site, but it was neither the first nor the last.

Bingham consistently called Machu Picchu a “lost city,” and it is often termed a city in modern descriptions. Nevertheless, it is small in comparison with most conceptions of cities, probably never housing more than a thousand people. It is widely believed that a small force of workers and maintenance population lived there year-round, and that nobles or other elites visited the site seasonally for recreation. Another likely function of the settlement was to consolidate the Inca’s tenuous hold in the jungle, giving the empire easier access to the feathers and other resources found in that zone.

Bingham’s discovery, although he apparently misinterpreted its significance, pointed out to archaeologists the importance of the eastern side of the Andes to the Inca, a point not previously recognized. Studies since Bingham’s discovery have examined the role of trade between the highlands and the jungle, the political system that permitted the integration of such far-flung and diverse parts of the Inca Empire, and the possible impact of jungle cultures on the culture of the Incas and their highland predecessors. It is fair to say that none of these ideas would have been scrutinized so thoroughly if Machu Picchu had never been found.

Probably the greatest impact of Bingham’s work went beyond archaeology. His discovery of Machu Picchu was destined to have a profound effect on the public. Bingham’s expedition was like something out of a Jules Verne novel, with archaeological treasures and primitive splendor being discovered in the jungle. Bingham was willing to write for the public, and his engaging style and his association with the National Geographic Society assured that his story would appear in the premier popular outlet of its day. In an era of literacy, readily available books, and photography, he brought his story before the public with a vividness that sparked the imagination in a way that would not be equaled until the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt some ten years later. Machu Picchu became a popular cultural site for tour groups and ecotourists. By the early twenty-first century, it was attracting as many as twenty-five hundred visitors a day during the peak season, leading preservationists to worry about the impact of unregulated tourism on a site vulnerable to degradation. Archaeology;Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Incan civilization

Further Reading

  • Bingham, Alfred M. Portrait of an Explorer: Hiram Bingham, Discoverer of Machu Picchu. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989. Fond and thorough documentation of Bingham’s life by his son features the discovery of Machu Picchu prominently. Illustrated with photographs from the expedition and the family archives.
  • Bingham, Hiram. Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru. Boston: Houghton Muffin, 1922. Primarily chronicles the Machu Picchu expedition for the nontechnical reader. Much of Bingham’s account of the discovery of Machu Picchu in this book appears verbatim in his later works. Includes a few illustrations.
  • _______. Lost City of the Incas: The Story of Machu Picchu and Its Builders. 1948. Reprint. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002. Book for the popular reader attempts to put Bingham’s work into perspective in the light of research by other scholars. Maintains much of the firsthand quality of Bingham’s other works and provides a description of the events surrounding the discovery and examination of Machu Picchu. Includes illustrations and a bibliography.
  • _______. Machu Picchu: A Citadel of the Incas. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1930. Focuses on the 1912 expedition that examined Machu Picchu in detail. Includes several illustrations.
  • Brundage, Burr Cartwright. Empire of the Inca. 1963. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Readable account of the history of the Inca, written for specialists but accessible to lay readers. Examines both legendary and documentary history.
  • Burger, Richard L., and Lucy C. Salazar, eds. Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. Illustrated volume published in connection with a museum exhibition of Inca artifacts. Essays on various topics include Bingham’s “The Discovery of Machu Picchu.”
  • Davies, Nigel. The Ancient Kingdoms of Peru. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. Examines the civilization of the Inca as well as the civilizations that preceded it in Peru. Includes maps, illustrations, select bibliography, and index.
  • Hemming, John. Machu Picchu. New York: Newsweek, 1981. Traces the history and prehistory of Peru with an emphasis on Machu Picchu. Includes many excellent color illustrations.
  • Kendall, Ann. Everyday Life of the Incas. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973. Brief, well-illustrated account of the lifestyle of the ancient Inca.
  • Lumbreras, Luis G. The Peoples and Cultures of Ancient Peru. Translated by Betty J. Meggers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974. Provides a basic summary of ancient cultures in Peru and adjacent areas. Focuses on the overall pattern of Peruvian prehistory, not on Machu Picchu itself. Authoritative work is intended for readers with some knowledge of the subject matter.

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