What single archaeological site has garnered colossal historic and symbolic importance, not just for a nation but for the whole world? The answer: Machu Picchu. A sacred place that was inaccessible to outsiders for centuries, but totally accessible to local natives who for many years lived around this ruin and who may or may not have known about its universal significance and transcendence.
Among the many people who have been named as Machu Picchu discoverers, one stands out from the rest due to his connections to his Alma Mater, Yale University. This person is Hiram Bingham. Many things have been said about the teacher with a conqueror’s soul, however there’s an untold story behind the discovery of Machu Picchu.
1909 is the year that Bingham first came to Perú. He arrived at Choquequirao, also known as the sister of Machu Picchu. He arrived like an intuitive explorer, following his instincts and reading the chroniclers for clues, and started to scour the entire settlement.
1910 is another important year, the year that Alberto Giesecke PhD assumed the responsibility of leading San Antonio Abad del Cusco University. Like Bingham, Giesecke was North American. In his 14 years as Rector, he advanced many archaeological projects and excavations.
The following year, 1911, Braulio Polo y la Borda, owner of the Echarati estate in the Convencion Valley, had as his guest Dr. Giesecke, and told him that the place was littered with archaeological sites, among them Machu Picchu.
On his way back from the Convencion, Giesecke wrote to Bingham about the details of his conversation with Polo y la Borda, and that is the reason why Bingham came to the archaeological site.
Bingham had also read many chroniclers and traveler diaries, including one written by Charles Wiener, who was the first to talk about Machu Picchu in his description of Perú and the indigenous populations. Weiner’s diary is dated 1880.
Wiener was in the zone around the year 1876, compiling the information that the locals gave to him including the names of Machu and Huayna Picchu. He made around 20 maps and wrote 30 letters.
With enough information to track down the archaeological sites, Bingham obtained a scientific commission, sponsored by Yale University.
On July 1911, Bingham trekked into the Vilcabamba valley, lead by Melchor Arteaga, who took Bingham through San Miguel to Machu Picchu, arriving in a thick and wooded jungle with some buildings that couldn’t be seen. With a machete in his hand, Bingham walked through the entire place and concluded that this was where Manco Inca lived and fought against the Spanish conquers.
Now, we have to go back to the year 1902. July 14th of 1902 to be exact, which is when the real discoverer of Machu Picchu, Agustín Lizárraga, formed an expedition with his cousin, Enrique Palma Ruíz, who at the time was administrator of the Collpani Estate; as well as Gabino Sánchez and his agricultural laborer Toribio Recharte. The expedition was in search of new land for agriculture.
When Lizárraga arrived, he observed the whole Machu Picchu Sanctuary and was aware that he found an amazing and breathtaking site. On a wall in the Temple of the Three Windows, he carved an an inscription that said: Agustín Lizárraga, July 14th 1902. Years later, Bingham found the inscription and recorded it in his field notes.
In 1903, Lizárraga started planting corn and other vegetables on the site’s terraces. He left the laborer, Toribio Recharte, to tend the plantation with his family, and 4 years later, in 1907, another laborer came to the place: Anacleto Álvarez, also with his family.
1904 was the year that Lizárraga began to travel with another family, the Ochoas, from the Collpani Estate, along with his estate workers.
Why is it that Hiram Bingham became the so called discoverer of Machu Picchu and gained notoriety in all newspapers and scientific reviews? The French explorer Simone Waisbard, in her book called “Machu Picchu Mysteries” said that Lizárraga was a well-versed connoisseur of the zone. It was he who spread all the information about Machu Picchu.
Alfred Bingham, Bingham´s son, in his book called “Portrait of an Explorer,” mentioned that his father omitted all references to Lizárraga. Many photographs taken by Bingham during the initial investigation of the site showed that many of the constructions were not covered in thick vegetation and these were also not included in his annotations and final conclusions.
One of the things that caught the attention of many people who studied the site, even Bingham’s son, is a line in one of Hiram Bingham’s notebooks which reads “Agustín Lizárraga was the real discoverer of Machu Picchu; he lives on the San Miguel Bridge.”
In subsequent years, the mass media played an important role in elevating Bingham as the only discoverer of Machu Picchu, especially National Geographic which published articles by and about Bingham. In the eyes of the world, he remains as the only and real discoverer. It is true that Bingham was well-positioned and systematically studied Machu Picchu. It is because of him that Machu Picchu is known by the entire world. But it is equally true that he wasn’t the real discoverer of Machu Picchu.
These 2 people, Agustín Lizárraga and Hiram Bingham, who had nothing in common; the first, a simple farmer with an incipient knowledge of History and Archaeology; and the second, a well-respected teacher who had everything to be able to organize an expedition and surround himself with the best professionals; their paths converged in this amazing discovery that changed their lives and changed the course of everything that we know about one of the most and important civilizations of all time: the Incas and the Tahuantinsuyo Empire.