It was on this day in 1911 that Michu Picchu, a lost mountain city of the Incas, was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham. Bingham, son of a Protestant missionary to Hawaii, was a professor at Yale University. In 1908 Bingham had traveled to South America as a delegate to a scientific convention to study South American history. While there, he visited some old Inca ruins. Hearing tales of undiscovered cities out in the jungle, he was inspired to search for them. He returned three years later, leading an expedition from Yale. He traveled through the countryside, asking the local people if they knew of any old ruins. For many days they searched through the rugged countryside, the ruins they discovered that the natives led them to being nothing more than a few houses.
They unexpectedly found what they had been looking for on July 24th, 1911. It was a rainy day and it was not expected that the day’s exploring would bear any fruit, so Bingham was the only one of the expedition to go, led by a guide and an interpreter. Crossing a raging stream by a few slippery logs, they headed up the mountain. Bingham told of the trip in his best seller, Lost City of the Incas:
For an hour and twenty minutes we had a hard climb. A good part of the distance we went on all fours, sometimes holding on by our fingernails. Here and there, a primitive ladder made from the roughly notched trunk of a small tree was placed in such a way as to help one over what might otherwise have proved to be an impassable cliff. … The heat was excessive; and I was not in training! There were no ruins or andenes of any kind in sight. I began to think my companions had chosen the better part.
Shortly after noon, just as we were completely exhausted, we reached a little grass-covered hut two thousand feed above the river where several good-natured Indians, pleasantly surprised at our unexpected arrival, welcomed us with dripping gourds full of coll, delicious water. … I was not … in a great hurry to move. … Tremendous green precipices fell away to the white rapids of the Urubamba below. Immediately in front, on the north side of the valley, was a great granite cliff rising two thousand feed sheer. To the left was the solitary peak of Huayna Picchu, surrounded by seemingly inaccessible precipices. On all sides were rocky cliffs. Beyond them cloud-capped snow covered mountains rose thousands of feet below us.
We continued to enjoy the wonderful view of the canyon, but all the ruins we could see from our cool shelter were a few terraces.
Without the slightest expectation of finding anything more interesting than the ruins of two or three stone houses … I finally left the cool shade of the pleasant little hut and climbed farther up the ridge and around a slight promontory. …
Hardly had we left the hut and rounded the promontory, than we were confronted by an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone-faced terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and ten feet high. Suddenly, I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality 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 carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together. …
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. We scrambled along through the dense undergrowth, climbing over terrace walls and in bamboo thickets where our guide found it easier going than I did. Suddenly without any warning, under a huge overhanging ledge the boy showed me a cave beautifully lined with the finest cut stone. It had evidently been a Royal Mausoleum. On top of this particular ledge was a semi-circular building whose outer wall, gently sloping and slightly curved bore a striking resemblance to the famous Temple of the Sun in Cusco. This might also be a Temple of the Sun.
… It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be? Why had no one given us any idea of it?
Bingham had found the best preserved Inca city ever to be discovered. Although he had not found Machu Picchu in the most technical sense, as there were natives living near it and some other explorers many have previously visited it, it was he who recognized its significance and caught the imagination of the world. He would make several more journeys to the sight, excavating it and studying its artifacts. Today it is one of the greatest historical sites in South America.
To learn more about the history of the Incas and the discovery of Machu Picchu, we would recommend Hiram Bingham’s interesting book, Lost City of the Incas. You may also enjoy the Into the Amazon video series from Vision Forum.