Machu Picchu Discovery: Finding the Old Incan City

Ever since its re-discovery in 1911, Machu Picchu has been a true and unsolvable archaeological enigma. The ruins that had lied untouched for years became exposed to the modern world, leaving many scholars, archaeologists and historians with the task of uncovering the details of its purpose, creation and how such a construction was even possible at that time. Nowadays, scholars continue to be intrigued by its history and function, and it is possible that these mysteries may never be totally explained.

The constructions of Machu Picchu were built on the narrow and uneven surface of a cliff surrounded by the precipices of the imposing Urubamba Canyon, where 400 meters below, the river roars and meanders.

Machu Picchu is located at 2.400 masl (7.874 fasl), on the top of a plateau located between two peaks. Of these two peaks, the smallest, the Huayna Picchu is the one that most defines the topography of the site.

As centuries have gone by the original name of the ruins fell into oblivion. In fact, Machu Picchu is just a topographic denomination that means “Old Mountain”, while Huayna Picchu means “Young Mountain” in Quechua, and thus what has led to its current name: Machu Picchu.

The Discovery

Hiram Bingham, an American scholar who was leading an expedition from Yale University, “discovered” Machu Picchu on July 24th 1911. However, at the time, Hiram Bingham was mainly focused on finding Vilcabamba, the legendary capital of inca descendants, and bastion of the resistance against the Spanish from 1536 to 1572.

While exploring the Urubamba Canyon, Bingham reached Mandorbamba, a desolated town where Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer, told him that there were many ruins on the Machu Picchu Mountain. Yet reaching them meant climbing a steep slope covered with thick vegetation. Though skeptical -he knew very well all the myths about lost cities- Bingham insisted on being guided to the site. Once they reached the summit, one of the children of the two families that lived there led him to the site, where Bingham confirmed the myth as he saw many archaeological constructions covered by a green mantle of tropical vegetation, and in an evident state of abandon. While he inspected the ruins, an astonished Bingham wrote in his diary: “Would anyone believe what I have found…?”

Bingham also recognized other important archaeological sites in the surrounding areas. Among these were, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, the fortress of Vitcos, and important portions of Incan trails, all of them superb examples of Incan architecture.

After this transcendent finding of Machu Picchu, Bingham returned to the site in 1912 and in the following years (1914 and 1915), many explorers made maps and explored in detail both the site and its surroundings.

Their excavations, though not very orthodox, in many different places of Machu Picchu allowed them to gather 555 vases, close to 220 bronze, copper and silver objects. The pottery found shows fine expressions of Incan art; this also applies for the metal objects found: bracelets, earrings, decorated brooches, and knives and axes. Even though no gold was found, the material identified by Bingham was enough to infer that Machu Picchu dates back to the times of Inca splendor, something that was already evidenced by its architectural style. (One hundred years later, however, Bingham and Yale University were required to hand over these archaeological findings back to their home of Peru after having taking them during the initial excavations).

Read more:Cusco: Short History and Travel Guide

Despite Hiram Bingham being widely credited with having discovered Machu Picchu, it’s vital to note that not only did multiple locals know of it at the time (some were even living on the site), but another man also “discovered” it several years before, without the widespread acknowledgement. Clearly inscribed on the site is the date July 14, 1901 and the names of three explorers, Augustin Lizarraga, Enrique Palma & Gabino Sanchez of which Augustin was the leader. Over time, others have come out claiming to have seen the site as early as 30 years earlier, so we may never know for sure who “discovered” the site. What we do know, is that it certaintly wasn’t the “lost” city of the Incas that Hiram first thought, and perhaps was never lost at all.

On top of understanding who discovered Machu Picchu, researchers are currently trying to understand simply the history of the site itself.

Both the remains found and the architectural evidence lead researchers to believe that the Machu Picchu Citadel was erected towards the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th, during Incan times. However, the site was uninhabited after the Spanish invasion, at least during the 16th century. With time, Machu Picchu was forgotten or just remembered in the midst of the legend, until its scientific discovery exactly 100 years ago. After its discovery it became the symbol of Peru, and the greatest patrimony inherited from our ancestors.

While we may never know for sure who should be crediting with discovering Machu Picchu first, or if it should even be called a discovery, we can clearly see how these events drastically added to our knowledge of the Incan Empire and the history of Peru as a whole.