Who Found Machu Picchu?


2011100520191104 (BBC7)
20191105 (BBC7)
The story of Machu Picchu's discovery is one of myth, court cases and controversy. The popular account involves the central character, the prototype for Indiana Jones, Hiram Bingham, who in 1911 stumbled upon the ancient ruins of an Inca city lost in the jungle. As Peru celebrates the centenary of it being found, writer and explorer Hugh Thomson follows Bingham's footsteps into the Andes to unearth the truth and the controversies about its discovery.

So, was Bingham the first person to see Machu Picchu? A re-examination of his classic book, Lost City of the Incas, which describes the expedition and subsequent archaeological studies of the site, says otherwise. Behind the words is a determined and ambitious Yale professor who saw Machu Picchu as his ticket to world renown. In his quest, Bingham all too often blurred fact with fiction.

As a historian, he was ill equipped to interpret the artefacts he'd brought back to Yale but nevertheless put forward suppositions about why the Incas built Machu Picchu and what they used it for. Inflating its importance and hence his own, these myths - for example, that it was a spiritual retreat for the Virgins of the Sun - are still perpetuated today. So what was its real purpose?

The thousands of Inca artefacts Bingham took out of Peru have been cause for controversy as well, culminating in a fiercely fought court case. The Peruvian government sued Yale University for breaking the contract to return the Machu Picchu artefacts. Finally, the case has been settled and many of the artefacts have been returned - just in time for Peru's centenary celebrations, which are as much about reclaiming national pride and identity as world heritage.

Producer: Dom Byrne

A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4 first broadcast in October 2011.

Hugh Thomson travels to Peru's ancient wonder to unearth the truth behind its discovery.