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Lost City of the Incas

Hiram Bingham (2003) 

In 1948, Senator Hiram Bingham published the best-selling Lost City of the Incas, chronicling his accidental discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911.  For hundreds of years, Machu Picchu (which means "Old Mountain" in the local Quechua language) had sat undisturbed high in the Andes, hidden beneath moss and tangled vines. It had not been discovered by the Spanish conquistadors who defeated the Incas. No one knew of its existence other than a few indigenous families who farmed amidst the ruins.

In 1909, the young explorer Hiram Bingham decided to retrace the steps of Simon Bolivar and follow the old Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima. During the course of his travels, in Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca Empire, Bingham heard about Vilcabamba, "last resting place of the Incas.”  Intrigued by stories of Vilcabamba, Bingham returned to the United States to fund an expedition to find the city. He returned to Peru in 1911 with a seven-man expedition sponsored by Yale University and the National Geographic Society. Using 17th-century writings, Bingham set out from Cusco on foot and by mule, with a local policeman for his guide and interpreter.  While encamped by a place called Mandor Pampa, a local farmer named Melchor Arteaga informed the group that there were extensive ruins high up on a nearby mountaintop.   

 “The morning of July 24th dawned in a cold drizzle.  Arteaga shivered and seemed inclined to stay in his hut. I offered to pay him well if he showed me the ruins. He demurred and said it was too hard a climb for such a wet day [but] he finally agreed to go.  When asked just where the ruins were, he pointed straight up to the top of the mountain.”  

After a hard two-hour climb up a steep mountain path, BIngham finally reached the site and was amazed by what he saw: “Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stone work. It was hard to see them for they were partly covered with trees and moss, the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, appeared here and there walls of white granite ashlars carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together. . . .  Dimly I began to realize that this wall and its adjoining semicircular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world. It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be?"

Bingham had discovered the well-preserved ruins of Machu Picchu, which are thought to be the summer retreat of the Inca rulers, abandoned when the empire fell to the Spanish. Today Machu Picchu is a Historic National Sanctuary, protected by the Peruvian Government, and given the status of a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1983.  It is considered one of the archaeological wonders of the world and is visited by tourists from every part of the globe.

When the road from Cusco to Machu Picchu was opened in 1948, it was named the Hiram Bingham Highway, and at the entrance to Machu Picchu today is an engraved marker dedicated to the American explorer. The hundreds of objects Bingham excavated at Machu Pichhu are the subject of a traveling exhibit sponsored by Yale University’s Peabody Museum.  

Hiram Bingham, explorer, professor, and archaeologist (who bears a resemblance to the fictional Indiana Jones), went on to become an aviator during World War I. His career in public service began as lieutenant governor of Connecticut in 1922.  He was elected governor in 1924, and immediately afterward ran in a special election for the seat of Senator Frank Brandegee, who had committed suicide.  This made Bingham the only person to serve as lieutenant  governor, governor, and Senator within twelve hours. Bingham, who was elected to a full Senate term in 1926, championed legislation concerning the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, and aviation. The accomplished Bingham appeared destined for a distinguished Senate career, but then he made a poor decision. In 1929, the Senate censured Bingham for allowing a lobbyist to sit in on a closed committee meeting.  After leaving the Senate following the 1932 Democratic landslide, he explored new careers, including that of lobbyist.