The fights of Machu Picchu: Who got there first?
From the postcards bearing his swashbuckling, fedora-topped image to the luxury train emblazoned with his name that runs to the foot of the mountain redoubt of Machu Picchu, reminders are ubiquitous here of Hiram Bingham, the Yale explorer long credited with revealing the so-called Lost City of the Incas to the outside world almost a century ago.
But in recent months, a confluence of contrary events has threatened to upend the legacy of Bingham, the ostensible model for the fictional Indiana Jones. Peru has threatened legal action against Yale to recover thousands of artifacts Bingham removed. Evidence has emerged suggesting that a German adventurer may have arrived there first. And a dispute has been grinding on over who owned the site when Bingham supposedly discovered it.
Scholarly circles in Peru have been abuzz with revisionist debate.
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Daniel J. Buck - 12/13/2008
In reference to the news squib about Machu Picchu, some context:
Hiram Bingham is justifiably honored as the "scientific discoverer" of Machu Picchu for having found, cleared, photographed, studied, and made known to the world the ruins.
Even at the time of his discovery, he acknowledged that the ruins had been previously visited by others. But no one had paid any serious attention to them, until Bingham's 1911 - 1915 expeditions.
Below is my essay, published last August in the Lima daily, La Republic, with more information about the discovery dispute.
Also, some 15 years ago, I wrote an article, "Fights of Machu Picchu," for South
American Explorer (January 1993, no. 32) about the squabbling over who first discovered Machu Picchu, squabbling that has been erupting for many decades, almost since Bingham first announced his findings. The article is online at lastdaysoftheincas.com
Lima, 31 August 2008
Machu Picchu: Known and Unknown, There and Not There
By Daniel Buck
Mention the phrase “Lost City of the Incas” or “Inca treasure” and normally skeptical journalists drop their guard and credulously report the most unfounded speculations.
Earlier this year, the media worldwide reported that Machu Picchu had been discovered by Augusto R. Berns decades before Hiram Bingham III arrived there in 1911. Some of the stories even suggested that Berns, a German engineer and adventurer who had lived in Peru periodically during the second half of the 19th century, had looted the Inca site. One account said that “Berns se había cargado en peso la mayoría de los vestigios arqueológicos de Machu Picchu.”
The media reports were sparked by speculations from Paolo Greer, a researcher and explorer from Alaska who visits Peru frequently.
There are only two problems with Greer’s announcements and the news stories. First, there has been no evidence presented to date that Berns even knew of Machu Picchu’s existence, let alone that he visited or looted the site. Second, even if he had visited Machu Picchu in the late 1880s, countless others had preceded him. In any event, since he left no record of any such visit, he discovered nothing.
What Bingham accomplished was entirely distinct. During three expeditions between 1911 and 1915, Bingham excavated, photographed, studied, and made known to the world Machu Picchu. There can be no doubt that Bingham is the site’s “scientific discoverer,” an honorific bestowed on the Yale professor by José Gabriel Cosío, a Cuzco academic and official delegate to Bingham’s second expedition.
It is also true that others had known of the ruins long before Bingham. One can make the case that Machu Picchu was never totally lost. It was periodically known and unknown, there and not there -- visited, lived in, farmed, and even bought and sold – from the 16th century until Bingham permanently removed it from obscurity.
In Urubamba: Benemérita Ciudad y Provincia Arqueológica del Perú (2007), Leandro Zans Candia summarizes colonial and republican era citations to Machu Picchu compiled by several Peruvian historians. But the site’s archaeological importance was long ignored, its natural beauty unappreciated. Cosío, writing in the Boletin de la Sociedad Geográfica de Lima in 1912, put it succinctly: ”No es verdad que el doctor Bingham haya sido el descubridor de los restos; él les ha dado la vida de la fama y del interés arqueológico.”
Bingham was, if anything, a determined explorer. He combed archives, interviewed scholars, collected maps, and queried locals. He already knew about Machu Picchu before he headed down the Urubamba Valley. Yes, it’s true that he was not always generous in crediting those who had assisted him. Like many explorers, Bingham had a large ego, a desire for fame, and sharp elbows.
So who was Augusto R. Berns and what does he have to do with Machu Picchu? He apparently – almost everything said about Berns has to be preceded by the word “apparently” because he was a congenital liar, a Baron Munchausen, a fantastist with an engineering degree, which is to say, apparently with an engineering degree. He said that he was born in Germany in 1842 and first came to Peru in the 1860s, and that he had worked on the Southern Peruvian Railway, and later for the Peruvian military. In the late 1870s and early 1880s he said he was outside Peru, chiefly in the United States.
In 1881, while living in Michigan, he organized the first of two enterprises that could more accurately be called swindles, “The Torontoy or Cercada-de-San Antonio Estate in Southern Peru.” Berns mailed potential investors a letter, map, and prospectus, claiming that his property in the Urubamba Valley (across the river from the as yet undiscovered Machu Picchu) was in an area that, if developed, would be “universally recognized as the greatest gold and silver producing centre in the world.” He declared that there was gold everywhere at Torontoy, loose in the ground and the sand, and in veins in the rocks, clay, and slate. He said that there was an ‘ancient gold-washing apparatus” cut out of solid rock, called “Llamajcansha,” which “in the ancient Indian language, means ‘Gold Yard.’” It is unlikely the readers of his prospectus in the United States spoke Quechua, otherwise they would have figured out that Llamajcansha meant “llama yard.” Berns was selling a load of llama dung.
Also on his property, near Llamajcansha, there was “said to be,” Berns hinted, a tunnel, which, he further hinted, “there is reason to believe” was “used as a tomb to receive embalmed bodies of the Incas,” as well as their ornaments. On his map, he marked the tunnel “Huacas del Inca.”
In a letter to investors, written from Detroit, Michigan, Berns said that anything “less than $5,000,000 actual cash [dollars] would be inadequate” to develop Torontoy. Five million dollars in today’s currency would be more than 100 million dollars. It is not known what became of his swindle, or if he raised a single penny.
At some point Berns returned to Peru, and in 1887 organized another scheme, a stock company called, coincidentally, “Huacas del Inca.” The company’s 48-page prospectus is Indiana Jones mumbo-jumbo, suggesting that there are unimaginable treasures waiting to be plundered: “las riquísimas y valiosísimas obras de arte” that “adoraban los templos y edifícios públicos y reales de la metrópoli imperio Incasio.” Specifically, the “Huacas del Inca” would be launching expeditions to search for the fabled lost treasure of the Incas, that portion of the Atahualpa ransom that had evaded the Spaniards. Berns told his investors that the “mitad por lo ménos, fué levada consigo por los indios, segun lo consigna la historia, á las montañas inmediatas al Cuzco, ó sea las de Paucartambo, Lares y Santa Ana.”
If Atahualpa’s ransom was not sufficient to impress gullible investors, the company’s organizers compared themselves to Columbus and Galileo.
What ultimately happened to “Huacas del Inca” is not known, but in 1888 its vice-president publicly resigned, accusing Berns of having misappropriated funds for personal use and, worse, of failing to launch a single expedition.
Nowhere in any of the materials made public to date about Augusto R. Berns is there any evidence that he knew about, visited, intended to loot, or did loot Machu Picchu. In a recent post on the science history blog, Archaeorama, blogs.discovery.com, even Paolo Greer conceded that there is no real evidence that Berns ever set foot on Machu Picchu. Even if he did, he’s in a long line of visitors that started centuries ago.
Daniel Buck is writer residing in Washington, D.C. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Department of Puno, Peru, 1965-67.
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