Who Really Discovered Machu Picchu?

I began this blog with the intent of writing about the idea that Indiana Jones was based on Hiram Bingham III, the man responsible for bringing Machu Picchu into the public eye.  In the process, I came across an interesting BBC article discussing Bingham’s legacy and who really “discovered” Machu Picchu.  While Bingham is largely remembered as the scholar who discovered the site, there are records that others were there before him.  The site is also described in documents dated well before Bingham visited it.  It turns out, therefore, that the site may not have been truly “forgotten” or “lost,” as it has been described.  A debate over whether Bingham had a right to remove artifacts from the site has also arisen in recent years.

The perception of Bingham has soured somewhat over the years, especially among Peruvians.  In 2011, the country was able to secure the return of Bingham’s collection of artifacts from Yale University.  One Peruvian professor, Jorge Flores, went as far as saying that the artifacts were “stolen.”  Flores and other professors in the country also believe that Bingham didn’t give fair credit to Peruvians who helped him in his exploration, like the locals who told him of and guided him to the site.  Flores believes that Bingham “took advantage of the situation for his own personal ends.”  On the other hand, while Machu Picchu may not have been truly lost, and Bingham may not have been its true discoverer, it can be argued that Bingham was responsible for bringing the site into the public eye.  Writer Hugh Thomson claims that if not for him, the world may have never known about Machu Picchu.

The debate over Bingham’s legacy is similar to controversies involving other historical “explorers” and “discoverers.”  An obvious example would be Christopher Columbus.  Columbus has been widely perceived as the man who discovered the Americas, even though he was not truly the first person, or even the first European, to explore the continent.  Why is it that some “discoverers” have gotten the credit that others deserved?  In Bingham’s case, it was simply that he was the first to widely publish his findings.  The issue of National Geographic magazine that detailed Bingham’s work at Machu Picchu made him famous, and shows that those who write the history books control the story.  While Bingham may be responsible for telling the world about Machu Picchu, the debate over Bingham’s legacy is an important reminder to consider all sides of the story when it comes to historical discoveries.