Machu Picchu Not Lost?

Legendary explorer might not have been first discoverer of Machu Picchu
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Legendary explorer might not have been first discoverer of Machu Picchu

If Indiana Jones were real, he wouldn't be a lauded scientist and explorer—he'd probably be rotting in a foreign jail (and he definitely wouldn't make tenure). It turns out the inspiration for Indiana Jones might not have been so great, either: the fedora-wearing Hiram Bingham, famous for discovering the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu, might not have "discovered" anything at all.

A New York Times story presents new evidence alleging that Bingham was beaten to the site by, among others, a British missionary and a German engineer who hoped to excavate and hawk nearby Incan riches with the blessing of the Peruvian government. The controversy has stirred debate in the Peruvian historical community—so much so that the government plans to sue Yale University to reclaim Incan artifacts Bingham brought to Yale. 

“All I know is that anything was possible in the turbulent years before Bingham made it to Machu Picchu, with others probably arriving even before this German,” said David Ugarte Vega, an anthropologist at the National University of San Antonio Abad in Cusco.

“What is certain is that the image of Bingham is at last being challenged,” Mr. Ugarte Vega said, “while the descendants of those great builders who assembled Machu Picchu are working as porters for the newest wave of travelers who come to see the site from afar.”

BACKPACKER Online Editor Anthony Cerretani recently returned from Peru, where he scaled the heights of the Super Inca Trail and made an honest-to-God adventure movie with Serac Adventure Films. You can look out for footage in early 2009 right here on BACKPACKER.com. He didn't discover any lost cities, but he didn't end up in a moldy jail cell, either, so I guess he came out ahead.

Looking for an archaeological adventure closer to home? Learn how you can become a weekend Indiana Jones through the National Park Service's Passport in Time program.

—Ted Alvarez

Debate rages in Peru: Was a city ever lost? (NY Times)