Hiram Bingham

Hiram Bingham (1875-1956) was an American explorer who discovered the famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and other important Inca sites.

Hiram Bingham was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on November 19, 1875, the son of retired missionaries from an old Hawaiian family. He graduated from Yale University and then returned to Hawaii for a short time. He decided on an academic career and received his Master of Arts degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He completed his studies at Yale, earning a doctorate in Latin American history.

In 1905, Bingham made his first trip to South America, following the route of Simón Bolivar, from Caracas, Venezuela to Bogotá, Colombia. He wrote about his journey in The Journal of an Expedition Across Venezuela and Colombia. He returned in 1908 and retraced the Spanish trade route from Buenos Aires to Lima. While in Peru, in February, 1909, he visited Choqquequirau, a recently discovered Inca site that had once been thought to be the last refuge of the Inca rulers after they were defeated by the Spanish explorer, Francisco Pizarro. This visit inspired him with the desire to find the legendary "lost city of the Incas."

In 1911, Bingham went back to Peru with two goals: to climb Mount Coropuna to see whether it was higher than Mount Aconcagua and to seek out the last capital of the Incas, the almost mystical city of Vilcabamba. Arriving in Arequipa, in June 1911, he decided that it would not be wise to try to make the climb in winter and instead decided to look for ruins in the valley of the Rio Urubamba. According to legend, the last Inca ruler, Manco II, had established his capital, Vitcos, in the Vilcabamba range. Various stories of ruins circulated, but the best opinions fixed the capital somewhere in the valleys of the Vilcabamba and Urubamba rivers.

Setting out with a mule train, Bingham left Cuzco in July 1911. He traveled through the terraces of the valley of Yucay and past the gardens of Ollantaitambo. At Salapunco in the Urubamba valley he saw the ruins of a small fortress of pre-European origin. One night, Bingham camped between the road and the Urubamba River. The owner of a nearby hut, Melchor Arteaga, came out to see who the stranger was and told him about some nearby ruins called Machu Picchu. On the next morning, July 24, 1911, Bingham persuaded Arteaga to take him there. After a walk of 45 minutes, they left the main road, crossed the rapids of the Urubamba River on a rickety bridge, and climbed up a rough path through the forest. They ate lunch in the hut of some Native Americans who were farming on ancient Inca terraces.

Leaving the hut, Bingham spent an hour and twenty minutes climbing to the top of row upon row of terraces almost 1,000 feet high. He crossed the terraces, went through a nearby forest, and came upon a vast complex of granite houses constructed with extremely careful stonework. There he also saw a three-sided temple that rivaled any that had ever been found in Peru. This was Machu Picchu, the most famous of all the Inca ruins.

Bingham did not stay long at Machu Picchu because he felt that he could still find the capital city of Vitcos, which was supposed to be marked by a white boulder over a spring of water. At Huadquiña Bingham learned of "important ruins" a few days' journey down the Urubamba River. They turned out to be merely the ruins of a small Inca storehouse. He then traveled up the Vilcabamba River to the village of Lucma, where he consulted Evaristo Morovejo, the subprefect of the village. Morovejo's brother was supposed to have found some ruins while hunting for buried treasure in 1884.

Morovejo took Bingham to the small village of Puquiura, three miles from Lucma. The ruins they saw were of a Spanish mill. However, on a hill above Puquiura, called Rosaspata by the locals, there were more ruins that Bingham went to investigate. They turned out to be the remains of a fortress containing 14 rectangular Inca buildings, including a "long palace" that had 15 doors along one side. Bingham was convinced that this was Vitcos. On the second day, August 8, 1911, Morovejo showed him a white boulder and, some distance away, a spring. Bingham followed the stream to an open spot where he saw what he had been looking for—a gigantic white boulder with Inca carvings on its side overlooking a pool near the ruins of an Inca temple. Bingham had found Vitcos.

From Vitcos, Bingham went to the small Spanish town of Vilcabamba (named after, but not the same as, the Inca city of Vilcabamba). He traveled from there into the surrounding jungle lowlands and reached a remote sugar plantation on August 15, 1911. Its owner took him on a two-day trip into the forest to a spot called Espíritu Pampa (the Plain of the Spirits). Here they found more Inca ruins, which later were found to be those of a large town. Bingham's guides and porters were impatient, however, and he was not able to stay long at the site.

After these incredible discoveries within the space of a few weeks, Bingham's climb up Mount Coropuna was anticlimactic. He made the climb with an American mountaineer, H.L. Tucker, a British naturalist, an American astronomer, and a Peruvian guide. The astronomer was injured and forced to return to Arequipa. Since they were going to altitudes not previously scaled, their guide was not much help, and the muleteers demanded extra pay before they would climb past the snow line. The Native American guide went with Tucker and Bingham to the peak, which they reached from a base camp they had set up at 17,300 feet. They were clothed warmly enough that they did not have to worry about frostbite, but they did suffer from soroche, the illness caused by lack of oxygen. The three men reached the summit on October 14 after a climb of six and one-half hours. The mountain turned out to have three peaks, and it was only by chance that they had climbed the highest one. Once they got to the top and made their measurements, Bingham was disappointed to learn that it was not as high as Aconcagua. He left feeling that he had conquered the second highest peak in the Andes. In later years, however, it was established that Coropuna is only the nineteenth highest peak in the Andes.

Bingham led expeditions back to the Vilcabamba region in 1912 and 1915, to clear the ruins he had discovered and to make further explorations and scientific studies in the area. These expeditions found many small Inca ruins in the hills near Machu Picchu, and traces of Inca roads and buildings at various places along the mountain range. As a result of these expeditions, Bingham became more and more convinced that Machu Picchu was the lost city of Vilcabamba and supported this view until his death. More recent expeditions and interpretations make it seem more likely that Vilcabamba should be identified with Bingham's other great discovery at Espíritu Pampa.

Following the 1915 expedition, Bingham made no further trips to South America. He volunteered to serve in World War I and became the chief of air personnel in the air service after learning how to fly. He then entered Republican politics and was elected lieutenant governor of Connecticut in 1922. He ran for governor in 1924 and won that race as well. However, he served for only one day. During the election campaign, one of the Connecticut senators committed suicide, and a special election was held to replace him. Bingham entered the race and won once again. He served as United States senator from 1925 to 1933.

While in the Senate, Bingham became involved in a scandal when it was revealed that he was using a paid lobbyist to help him draft legislation and had taken him to closed committee meetings as a staff member. He was censured by the Senate and lost the next election. He spent the following years writing and serving on the boards of several large corporations. He was recalled to Washington by President Truman and put in charge of the Loyalty Review Board of the Civil Service Commission in 1951. This was during the anti-Communist "Red Scare" of the early 1950s, and the Board's job was to search out possibly disloyal employees. Bingham carried out his distasteful job with notable zeal. He left the board in 1953 and died three years later on June 6, 1956 in Washington, D.C.


Further Reading on Hiram Bingham

Bingham, Alfred M., Portrait of an Explorer: Hiram Bingham, Discoverer of Machu Picchu, Iowa State University Press, 1989.

Bingham, Hiram, Across South America, Houghton Mifflin, 1911.

Bingham, Hiram, Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1922

Bingham, Woodbridge, Hiram Bingham: A Personal History, Bin Lan Zhen Publishers, 1989.

Goodman, Edward J., The Explorers of South America, Macmillan, 1972.

Hemming, John, The Conquest of the Incas, Macmillan, 1970. Wilson, Carter, Treasures on Earth, Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.