Machu Picchu’s real-life Indiana Jones
From the page: “IN A SCENE straight out of a Hollywood matinee, an American explorer, his khaki jodhpurs ripped by thorns, scrambles through rainforest, trying to keep up with a local boy in a poncho.
Eventually they round a promontory and there it lies before them: a maze of jungle-clad buildings made of white granite set amid the grandeur of the Andes. “Surprise followed surprise,” wrote the explorer, “until there came the realisation that we were in the midst of as wonderful ruins as any ever found in Peru.”
Those ruins were the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu, and their discovery, 100 years ago tomorrow, made the explorer Hiram Bingham a household name. His accounts of his find were bestsellers â,” and they remain in print â,” and he would become the prototype for dashing on-screen archaeologists played by Charlton Heston and Harrison Ford.
Today, more than 800,000 people a year follow in his footsteps and visit the spectacular site. So popular has Bingham’s find become that if you have not already gone there yourself, you have probably received a postcard from someone who has.
But when Bingham first wandered among the ruins he was disconcerted to see graffiti left by a previous visitor, a detail he left out of later narratives, along with the fact that the family of his guide, Pablito Richarte, were growing vegetables in the sacred central plaza.
These are some of the ambiguities explored in Christopher Heaney’s gripping new biography of Bingham, who emerges from it as a deeply contradictory but fascinating character.
He was born into a lowly evangelical branch of the old US East Coast elite just as its ambitions started to expand from continental to global. He was expected to continue his family’s missionary work, but the Bingham alma mater of Yale cooled his religious ardour and filled him with more secular ambitions. He married an heiress to the Tiffany Co fortune and, financially secure, sought a role in his country’s gathering imperial project in Latin America.
Always alert to the subtle mechanics of power, Heaney skilfully details how the worlds of academia, espionage and government came together to pursue mutually beneficial goals in the great age of exploration and adventure at the start of the 20th century.
Bingham’s first visit to the region, which he made on the pretext of researching a life of Sim³n Bolvar, was little more than a macho strut through Venezuela and Colombia that may have involved some gentlemanly spying on the side. It was only during later trips to Peru that he began to hit his stride as an explorer, gathering rumours about the legendary lost cities of the Incas hidden in the jungle of the eastern Andes.
He found Machu Picchu while looking for the lost capital of the last Inca rulers to resist the Spanish conquistadores. Several weeks later, he found his original goal, but, besotted by the magic of Machu Picchu, he decided it must be the lost capital, and the Incas’ birthplace to boot.
Both claims were wrong. It is now believed to have been a frontier citadel built in the middle of the 15th century. Bingham’s errors are perhaps unsurprising from a scholar who plagiarised large parts of his thesis while at Berkeley and who always let his romantic imagination stomp all over his limited academic abilities.
Even more disreputably, Bingham smuggled looted Incan artefacts out of Peru after he fell out with its government over his archaeological work. His exposure marked a significant moment in the incipient struggle by poorer countries to contain the greed of western nations for the artefacts that made up their national patrimony.
The looted items ended up in Yale. For a century it refused to return them, dismissing Peru’s demands with Waspish disdain as “stale and meritless”…”