If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? If an entire civilization, their culture and customs are erased, did they ever truly exist? What marks existence? Are the artifacts that are left behind, and the finder’s interpretation of their significance, the only landmarks we can point to when we map out the history of the human race?
I wish I had nice and neatly packaged answers to each of these mindbenders. The truth is I don’t. But, today, I can offer insights into one beautiful “tree” that fell in a forest years ago and wasn’t heard until one fateful day in 1911.
It was the 24th of July 1911 when Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled onto what the New York Times would later call “the Greatest Archaeological Discovery of the Age.” Bingham, who had embarked on a journey through the Peruvian Andean Mountains in search of the last two capitals of the Inca Empire: Vitcos and Vilcabamba, got a tip from a local farmer Melchor Arteaga that there were ruins high up on a mountain called “Machu Picchu” which, when translated from the ancient Incan language Quechua, means “old peak.”
In Bingham’s own words,
The morning of July 24th dawned in a cold drizzle. Arteaga shivered and seemed inclined to stay in his hut. I offered to pay him well if he showed me the ruins. He demurred and said it was too hard a climb for such a wet day. But when he found I was willing to pay him a sol, three or four times the ordinary daily wage, he finally agreed to go. When asked just where the ruins were, he pointed straight up to the top of the mountain. No one supposed that they would be particularly interesting, and no one cared to go with me.
Little did he know that this treacherous journey would lead him not to Vitcos or Vilcamba or the mythical city of Tampu-tocco as he supposed. It would lead him to an undiscovered place, built by a lost civilization, the purpose of which is still unknown today.
With Peruvian policeman Seargeant Carrasco and Arteaga by his side, Bingham left the wet camp around 10 am. After a short while the party crossed a small bridge spanning rushing water so unnerving that the intrepid explorer was reduced to crawling across it on his hands and knees. From the river they climbed a slippery slope finally reaching the ridge of Machu Picchu at around noon.
Bingham was rewarded by a vista unlike any he had ever experienced. He described it as best he could in the following words:
I had entered the marvellous canyon of the Urubamba below the Inca fortress. Here the river escapes from the cold plateau by tearing its way through gigantic mountains of granite. The road runs through a land of matchless charm. It has the majestic grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, as well as the startling beauty of the Nuuanu Pali near Honolulu, and the enchanting vistas of the Koolau Ditch Trail on Maui, in my native land. In the variety of its charms the power of its spell, I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only had it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead; gigantic precipices of many-coloured granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is drawn irresistibly onwards by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging cliffs of incredible height. Above all, there is the fascination of finding here and there under swaying vines, or perched on top of a beetling crag, the rugged masonry of a bygone race; and of trying to understand the bewildering romance of the ancient builders who, ages ago, sought refuge in a region which appears to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for the oppressed, a place where they might fearlessly and patiently give expression to their passion for walls of enduring beauty.
His eyes weren’t the first to see the wonders of Machu Picchu. But, he was the one who made the most noise, and his noise would silence the other whispers that had rippled out before him.
One year after Hiram Bingham’s quest to the top of the old peak, the monograph “Machupiceho,” was published by Jose Gabriel Cosio in the Boletin de la Sociedad Geografica de Lima (vol. 28, no. 22, 1912). Cosio, who was the official Peruvian delegate to Bingham’s follow-up expedition to Machu Picchu in 1912, wrote that:
It is not true that Dr. Bingham was the discoverer of the ruins, but he did give them fame and archaeological interest. Before he came there, they were frequently ascended, and many people even lived there, cultivating squash, yuca, sweet potato, sugar cane, and corn. A Mr. Lizirraga, now deceased, knew the site in all its details. On July 14,1902, by the same road that Dr. Bingham took, a Mr. Sanchez, of Caicai, and Messrs. Enrique Palma and Lizárraga came to Machupiccho. But, as always happens, they had no scientific or historical interest. They were only interested in hunting for lost treasures that they thought were rumored to be buried in such locations.
Cosio also mentioned that, when he visited Machu Picchu in 1912, he learned that Anacieto Alvares, one of the campesinos farming in the ruins, had lived there for eight years (BSGL, vol. 28., no. 22, 1912).
As was the case with aviation pioneer Gustav Weisskopf, and his successful flight two years before the Wright brothers’, the people who make history are often standing on the heads and shoulders of people who were there before. There are innumerable reasons why one person is credited with discovery over another. It is safe to say that Hiram Bingham’s story was heard around the globe making him and his discovery world famous.
While others before him had charted maps of the region, photos of the ruins, so far as we know, did not exist before Hiram Bingham’s exploration of the ruins of Machu Picchu. What he caught on camera would capture the attention of the world. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Because the Inca had no written language, his photos bear record that the Inca existed and that their civilization was incredibly sophisticated. But no word in any language can accurately describe witnessing the majesty of Machu Picchu in person. As Bingham stated:
The beautiful blue of the tropical sky, the varying shades of green that clothe the magnificent mountains, and the mysterious charm of the roaring rapids thousands of feet below cannot be portrayed and can with difficulty be imagined… A stupendous canyon where the principle rock is granite and where the precipices are frequently over 1,000 feet sheer, presents difficulties of attack and facilities for defense second to none. Here on a narrow ridge, flanked on all sides by precipitous or nearly precipitous slopes, a highly civilized people—artistic, inventive, and capable of sustained endeavor—at some time in the remote past built themselves a city of refuge.
Since they had no iron or steel tools—only stone hammers—its construction must have cost many generations, if not centuries, of effort.
The difficulties of life for several centuries in the Vilcabamba region would have been likely to have developed this ingenious and extremely capable race and given them strength of character. The influence of geographical environment is no small factor in developing characteristics. I hope at no distant future to prepare an exhaustive report of this wonderful city, whose charm can only dimly be realized from these pictures.”
Bingham captured the ‘what’ of Machu Picchu: the physical evidence that existed in 1911. But, he would spend the 50 remaining years of his life trying to conclusively prove the ‘why’ of Machu Picchu. He proposed two theories, neither of which is accepted today. One of his theories was that Machu Picchu was a convent of sorts training women to serve the Inca elite. He developed the theory based on the fact that he thought 75% of the 100 bones he found on the site belonged to women. Modern science showed that this was not the case, and that the bones were actually closer to a 50/50 male to female ratio.
His other theory was that he had found the mythical city Tampu-tocco, which legend has it was the cradle of the Incan Empire and the birthplace of the 3 fabled brothers who founded the civilization. He supported his theory based on the three windowed temple that was discovered at Machu Picchu.
Today, other theories exist. Contemporary research conducted by archeologists John Rowe, Richard Burger, and Lucy Salazar-Burger indicates that rather than being a defensive stronghold, Machu Picchu was the Meso-American Martha’s Vineyard—a retreat built by and for the Inca ruler Pachacuti and other elite guests.
National Geographic published the following fascinating findings by Professor Brian Bauer:
Brian Bauer, an expert in Andean civilization at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a National Geographic grantee, says Machu Picchu—which was built around A.D. 1450—was, in fact, relatively small by Inca standards and maintained only about 500 to 750 people. One thing is certain, says Bauer, archaeological evidence makes it clear that the Inca weren’t the only people to live at Machu Picchu. The evidence shows, for instance, varying kinds of head modeling, a practice associated with peoples from coastal regions as well as in some areas of the highlands. Additionally, ceramics crafted by a variety of peoples, even some from as far as Lake Titicaca, have been found at the site. ‘All this suggests that many of the people who lived and died at Machu Picchu may have been from different areas of the empire,’ Bauer says.
While the purpose of Machu Picchu is shrouded in much mystery, ultimately it can be said with certainty that the discovery of Machu Picchu proves that there are silent fallen trees in the forests of this world just waiting for a bohemian explorer like Hiram Bingham to hear them and make some noise. So, dear reader, the real question is: are you listening?
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