July 24: Hiram Bingham III “Finds” Machu Picchu


Hiram Bingham III was, without a doubt, one of the most colorful people to grace the annals of Connecticut history.  Born in 1875, over the course of his lifetime he became an Ivy League-educated scholar of Latin America, pilot, amateur archaeologist, Yale professor, United States senator, best-selling author, and Governor of Connecticut (although only for one day).

Hiram Bingham in 1917.

Bingham’s most well-known contribution to history, however, was his 1911 “discovery” of the ancient city of Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains of Peru.   A sprawling complex of intricate stonework buildings and astrologically-aligned architectural features, Machu Picchu was built by the Incans in the 15th century but had laid abandoned and virtually unknown to the outside world following the Spanish conquistadors’ defeat of the Incan Empire in the 16th century.  In 1911, as Yale’s only instructor in South American history, Bingham organized the Yale Peruvian Expedition under scientific and anthropological pretenses with hopes of finding the lost capital of the Incan Empire.  Relying extensively on local Peruvian guides, Bingham and his group of explorers trekked through thick jungle and treacherously steep mountain passes before finally getting their first glimpse of the ruins of Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911.

Realizing that he had stumbled upon an incredibly significant archeological site, Bingham took extensive notes, plenty of photographs, and hundreds of artifacts found on-site back to Yale University.  Over the course of the next four years, Bingham would organize two additional expeditions to Machu Picchu with support from Yale, the National Geographic Society, and scores of private donors.  By the end of his third expedition in 1915, his teams had brought over 5,000 Incan artifacts back to Connecticut, where they were extensively studied, catalogued, and displayed at Yale’s Peabody Museum.  (After decades of increasingly heated demands by the Peruvian government, Yale finally agreed to return the entirety of its Machu Picchu artifact collection to Peru in 2012, over a hundred years after Bingham first laid eyes on the site.)

Although Bingham soon turned his energies to other pursuits after 1915, he published his field notes from the Yale Peruvian Expeditions as a book titled Lost City of the Incas, which became an international bestseller and the basis for the 1954 movie “Secrets of the Incas,” starring Charlton Heston.  Thanks to Bingham’s well-publicized archeological expedition, Machu Picchu remains one of the most popular attractions in all of South America today, and enjoys protected status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Further Reading

Walter W. Woodward, “Discovering the Explorer Hiram Bingham,” Connecticut Explored

Hiram Bingham III, “In the Wonderland of Peru: Rediscovering Machu Picchu,” National Geographic

Hiram Bingham III: Machu Picchu Explorer and Politician,” connecticuthistory.org

Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre