Machu Picchu Discovered (1911)

The outside world was introduced to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu when discovered by American historian Hiram Bingham on July 24, 1911.  Although several unsubstantiated claims of earlier discovery have been advanced, it remains clear and undebatable that Bingham was the “scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu.”

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu in 1912 (photo by Yale University Peabody Museum of Natural History)

            Bingham was born in 1875 in Hawaii and spent his youth learning mountaineering from his missionary father.  He pursued history as a university student, eventually becoming a professor of Latin American History at Yale, where he served from 1907 to 1924.  Although not a trained archeologist, his historical knowledge and his rugged childhood made him a perfect jungle explorer.  Hiram Bingham, it appears, was a real life Indian Jones.

            He mounted an expedition in 1911 to find the so-called “Lost City of the Incas.”  On July 24 of that year, he and his guides emerged onto a plateau high in the Andean mountains to find an amazing discovery.  He wrote of that day, “…suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of a jungle-covered maze of small and large walls….Surprise followed surprise until there came the realization that we were in the midst of as wonderful ruins as any ever found in Peru.”

Machu Picchu (photo by Diego Delso)

            Not only did he find the finest archeological site in Peru, but undoubtedly one of the finest in the world.  The ancient facility, constructed in the 15th Century, sits atop a mountain at 8,000 feet in elevation.  More than 200 structures comprise the site, divided among stone terraces running along the cliff side.  However, this is not the Lost City of the Incas, but rather a religious and ceremonial sanctuary built by the then Incan king for his personal use.

The biodiversity of the area is also a reason to protect Machu Picchu (photo by GuusSmid)

            UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1983.  Their declaration notes “the massive yet refined architecture of Machu Picchu blends exceptional well with the stunning natural environment, with which it is intricately linked.”  Along with the architecture, the site preserves exceptional biodiversity in the enormous range of micro-climates and ecosystems, from high-elevation grasslands to cloud forests and low-elevation lowland forests.

            More than one million visitors visit the site annually.  The 70,000-acre site is regulated by the Peruvian National Institute of Natural Resources.  As tourism has risen in recent decades, in 2015the government has instituted limits (2500 visitors per day) to protect both the site and the quality of the experience.  . 

Machu Picchu stands as a testament to the idea that nature can sustain humans in virtually any setting, as long as we work with, rather than against, the natural constraints of the place.

References:

Eisner, Peter. 2009.  Who Discovered Machu Picchu?  Smithsonian Magazine, March 2009.  Available at:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-discovered-machu-picchu-52654657/.  Accessed July 24, 2017.

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Hiram Bingham.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hiram-Bingham-American-archaeologist-and-United-States-senator.  Accessed July 24, 2017.

Romero, Simon.  2008.  The fights of Machu Picchu:  Who got there first?  New York Times, November 8, 2008.  Available at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/08/world/americas/08iht-journal.1.18479442.html. Accessed July 24, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

March 1
Yellowstone National Park Established (1872)
March 2
Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, Born (1904)
March 3
World Wildlife Day and Creation of CITES (1973)
March 3
Isle Royale National Park Authorized (1931)
March 4
Hot Springs National Park Established (1921)
March 5
Lynn Margulis, Evolutionary Biologist, Born (1938)
March 6
Martha Burton Williamson, Pioneering Malacologist, Born (1843)
March 7
Luther Burbank Born (1849)
March 8
Everett Horton Patents the Telescoping Fishing Rod (1887)
March 9
The Turbot War Begins (1995)
March 10
Cape Lookout National Seashore Established (1966)
March 11
Save the Redwoods League Founded (1918)
March 12
Charles Young, First African American National Park Superintendent, Born (1864)
March 12
Girl Scouts Founded (1912)
March 13
National Elephant Day, Thailand
March 14
First National Wildlife Refuge Created (1903)
March 15
Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, Born (1874)
March 16
Amoco Cadiz Runs Aground (1978)
March 17
St. Patrick and Ireland’s Snakes
March 18
Nation’s First Wildlife Refuge Created (1870)
March 19
When the Swallows Return to Capistrano
March 20
“Our Common Future” Published (1987)
March 21
International Day of Forests
March 22
World Water Day
March 23
Sitka National Historical Park Created (1910)
March 24
John Wesley Powell, Western Explorer, Born (1834)
March 25
Norman Borlaug, Father of the Green Revolution, Born (1914)
March 26
Marjorie Harris Carr, Pioneering Florida Conservationist, Born (1915)
March 27
Trans-Alaska Pipeline Begun (1975)
March 28
Joseph Bazalgette, London’s Sewer King, Born (1819)
March 29
Niagara Falls Stops Flowing (1848)
March 30
The United States Buys Alaska (1867)
March 31
Al Gore, Environmental Activist and U.S. Vice President, Born (1948)
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