Finding Machu Picchu: A Look at Explorer Hiram Bingham, A Real-Life Indiana Jones

Almost one hundred years ago, on July 24, 1911, a Yale University history lecturer named Hiram Bingham III climbed to the top of a mountain ridge in Peru and encountered one of the most extraordinary sets of ruins on Earth: Machu Picchu. In his new book Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu, the historian Christopher Heaney examines how Bingham got there, why he fooled himself into thinking he’d found the Lost City of the Incas, and what influence Bingham had on a certain whip-toting movie daredevil. Heaney spoke with Adventure contributing editor Mark Adams.

NGA: Hiram Bingham III wasn’t trained as an archaeologist or an anthropologist. His specialty was history. Was it a fluke that he ended up at Machu Picchu?

Christopher Heaney: It was a fluke in the sense that he didn’t set out to look for Machu Picchu. Bingham was really in Peru trying to find the last capitals of the Incas, Vitcos and Vilcabamba.

NGA: Explorers had been roaming the Peruvian countryside for years, searching for the legendary Lost City of the Incas, which they imagined was filled with gold. So how did Bingham end up as the one who made that famous climb on July 24, 1911?

CH: What’s amazing about Bingham is that he put himself in a position where he couldn’t not have reached Machu Picchu. He was really the first person to go into the region and gather up as much oral testimony as possible. Using the names of places mentioned in the Spanish chronicles and maps of past Peruvian geographers, he just went from point to point and never turned down an offer to go look for ruins. He was also working with the maps of at least one other explorer, a guy named Curtis Farabee who was at Harvard at the time.

NGA: Farabee had been down the Urubamba River valley, where Machu Picchu is located, just a few years before, where someone had mentioned to him that there were ruins nearby.

CH: Before he left for Peru in 1911, Bingham told a newspaper interviewer, “I have it on good authority from Prof. Farabee that there are lost cities above the Urubamba.” What’s amazing is that he only said that to the press one time. Once he got to Machu Picchu he never really mentioned Farabee again.

NGA: Bingham had a very busy summer in 1911. He actually did find Vitcos and Vilcabamba, the other cities he was searching for, but after he came across Machu Picchu.

CH: That summer of 1911, Bingham had what may be the best month in exploration ever. He leaves Cusco, marches down the Sacred Valley and has a very upsetting episode—one of his Peruvian employees drowns while helping carry stuff across the Urubamba River. But they keep going and in a few days reach Machu Picchu.

NGA: Thanks to the intelligence he’d picked up, he couldn’t have been surprised that he found something on that mountaintop. But he—and everyone else—was shocked that what he found was so extraordinary, and that no record of it existed is historical records. Did Bingham have any idea what it was that he’d located?

CH: In his letters to his wife you can see that he starts to think that maybe Machu Picchu is Vitcos, the last capital. But fortunately he kept going and met a second set of informants who told him that there were large ruins up the Vilcabamba River—which is in this really amazing valley with incredibly steep cliffs. Then it widens out and this beautiful ridge just appears in the middle of the valley. Bingham was able to say that this was Vitcos: the White Palace of [the rebel Inca king] Manco Inca, the place where Manco retreated in 1537 when he was chased by the Spaniards.

NGA: Finding Vitcos alone would have sealed Bingham’s reputation. But he wasn’t done.

CH: No. Juiced up by Vitcos he continued on over the ridge toward the Amazon, to Espiritu Pampa.

NGA: Espiritu Pampa is the modern name for the vanished city of Vilcabamba—the real Lost City of the Incas, where the last Inca emperor was captured by the Spaniards in 1572. You write that in terms of Bingham’s work as a historian, Espiritu Pampa might have been even more important than Machu Picchu. Why?

CH: Because Machu Picchu is so beautiful and so epic, but Espiritu Pampa is where Bingham found his contribution to the last chapter of the history of the Incas—the very last Inca city where [the last Inca king] Tupac Amaru was captured. It was really the hardest section of his exploring.

NGA: Why?

CH: One of the nice things about hiking the Andes, where Machu Picchu is located, is that you’re not going to get too wet. And in the area near Machu Picchu, Bingham was near towns all the time. He could just stay at someone’s house at night. The route to Espiritu Pampa is pretty grueling. They were camping in the rain, they were wet all the time, they were being bitten by all sorts of insects.

NGA: So Bingham gets to this jungle city, completely covered in vegetation. The stone buildings that his indigenous guides show him are mildly interesting, but pale in comparison to what he saw at Machu Picchu. He looks around for a couple of days, and never returns. Then years later, in his classic book Lost City of the Incas, he ignores all the geographical clues that led him Espiritu Pampa and twists the evidence to show that Machu Picchu is in fact the legendary city of Vilcabamba.

CH: Bingham wasn’t comfortable with things not being tied up in a bow. One of the most interesting things about him, and one of his most tragic failings, is that he found and made famous Machu Picchu, this immense and incredible monument of imperial and romantic statesmanship, this lost city in the most classic sense—up on a mountain in the clouds. But a city like Machu Picchu is what you build when you’re on top, when you’re at the height of your power. Vilcabamba, by contrast, was built by the Incas when they were trying to retreat and regroup and survive.

NGA: Everyone who visits Peru seems to go to Machu Picchu. Are Vitcos and Vilcabamba worth seeing, too?

CH: If you’re going to Peru for ten days its hard to argue against going to Machu Picchu first, because its so immediately understandable. But if you were to take a slightly longer trip, three or four more days, it’s so rewarding to go a little further out from the Inca Trail and the trekking system that’s close to Cusco. At Vitcos and Vilcabamba you’re actually entering into the history that Bingham was trying to find.

NGA: Would Machu Picchu be as big a deal as it is today had Bingham stayed home in Connecticut and some Peruvian archaeologist stumbled across the ruins a few years later?

CH: I think Machu Picchu really was a perfect storm. Beyond his being able to get all this help from Peruvians, it was definitely crucial that one, Bingham always carried a camera. And two, he had the National Geographic Society behind him on his second and third expeditions [in 1912 and 1915-16]. National Geographic devoted its entire April 1913 issue to Machu Picchu, and it planted the initial seed of a story that was extremely easy to repeat.

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NGA: Peru is suing Yale to get back some artifacts that Bingham brought back from those expeditions. What’s the latest on the Yale-Peru controversy?

CH: Peru dropped some of the more flamboyant charges from the lawsuit, but Yale still maintains that the suit is frivolous. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to resolve itself in any gentle or agreeable way.

NGA: Did Bingham’s work have anything to do with Machu Picchu’s fame as a hub for spiritual seekers?

CH: Bingham wasn’t really spiritual about Machu Picchu, though he could be romantic about it. But people in Cusco speak of Machu Picchu in very different terms, because they’re looking at it as symbol of Inca heritage and identity for themselves as Andean Peruvians.

NGA: The incredible natural setting—those incredible buildings, nestled in the mountains, overlooking the winding river—does have a sort of spiritual effect on you.

CH: That’s why the Incas went up there. It was built as part of [the Inca emperor] Pachacutec’s expansion of the empire, as a fortress. But if you look at the architecture and the sense of space, you realize that this was an absolutely crucial, spiritual place.

NGA: So was Indiana Jones really based on Hiram Bingham?

CH: If you talk to the LucasFilm people they will insist up and down that Indiana Jones was created from whole cloth, that he was inspired by the old action matinee serials. And that’s what I took at first to be the actual story. But what’s fascinating, and little known, is that Raiders of the Lost Ark costume designer has gone on the record as saying that one of the inspirations for the costume of Indiana Jones was this Charlton Heston film Secret of the Incas, which was released in 1953. Heston plays this American treasure hunter who’s come down to Peru looking to make a big score on Inca treasure. He’s got the fedora, the leather jacket, he’s wearing a white shirt. So if you’re talking image alone, there’s a connection between this Heston character and Indiana Jones. What’s interesting is that they made Secret of the Incas after reading a few articles in National Geographic about Hiram Bingham’s explorations. The technical advisor on the movie was Bingham’s friend Albert Giesecke, who was director of the Cusco University in the 1910s and actually helped Bingham in both his excavations and his explorations. So, Indiana Jones is not Hiram Bingham, but Hiram Bingham was used to create this set of characters and set of situations in Secret of the Incas that then influenced the creation of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s almost as if they put Hiram Bingham in the photocopier and hit the button once and copied him, then used him for a new character, then put that copy in the copier again.

Is there any chance of another Hiram Bingham coming across another Machu Picchu?

Well, there are certainly a lot of people out there hoping there is. I hope there is. We might not find a site that’s as architecturally magnificent. And it might not be the Incas. But we’re constantly finding sites that push back the dates of human settlement of the Americas, sites that point to 6000-year-old traditions of astronomy, that really suggest how dense and intricately populated the Americas really were.

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