BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

The road to Machu Picchu ...

You know, I don't have a clue how I managed to have not read this book 30 years or so back. My guess is that the Inca (in particular, and South America in general) never got much on my radar when in school, and it was only after graduation that I got interested. My first trip to Peru was back in the early '80s, and I guess that most folks heading down that way were likely to have picked up a copy of Hiram Bingham's Lost City of the Incas in preparation for their journey. Despite Machu Picchu being the centerpiece of the itinerary (what had lured me in to signing up for an “Incan Shamanism” trip, aside from the opportunity to train with prominent Quechuan shamans), I hadn't dug into the literature up front … and this would have been handy to have had while wandering around the site.

Down around Machu Picchu you can hardly miss Bingham's traces … most notably, the (somewhat terrifying) switchback road from the river valley up to the level of the ruins is named for him. He was an interesting figure, having grown up in Hawaii (his father was a missionary to the Kingdom in the mid-1800's), and gotten one of the first degrees in Latin American history, earning his PhD at Harvard, with some cooperation from the faculty at Yale. He spent some time at Princeton, but ended up back at Yale teaching. One of the surprising things (in context of his discoveries in South America) was that he wasn't an archaeologist, or even particularly interested in the field other than how it informed history. It seemed that much of his interest in these expeditions was simply “adventure”, as well as a chance to climb rarely-attempted mountains. He managed to get in as a delegate to the First Pan American Scientific Congress in 1908, and made some key contacts there that helped him organize the Yale Peruvian Expedition in 1911, on which he discovered the late-period Inca cities of Vitcos, and Vilcabamba, key to the post-conquest history of the escaping native rulers, prior to their destruction in 1572, as well as Machu Picchu.

The latter stands out as having never been found/despoiled by the Spanish, and so was in rather remarkable shape, despite centuries of neglect. This, and the “hidden” nature of the site, is what makes it as popular as it has been from the get-go, and when Bingham brought back the first images, he got the National Geographic Society on board to partner with Yale for three more seasons of work. National Geographic in April 1913 published a remarkable review of the ruins, including a 3-page fold-out panorama, which took the world by storm.

Bingham was a professor of both history and politics, and he eventually followed this other path, becoming Lieutenant-Governor of Connecticut in 1923, and being elected more-or-less simultaneously to both the Governorship (where he served one day) and a Senate seat (to serve out the term of a Senator who had died in office) in 1925, being re-elected for a full term in 1926. Oddly, Lost City of the Incas didn't come out until 1952, when Bingham was in his 70's, and was working on firming up his legacy. This from Hugh Thompson's introduction:
Bingham's account also needs to be appreciated within a literary as well as an archaeological context. Conan Doyle published The Lost World in the same year that Bingham excavated at Machu Picchu, and Lost City of the Incas was written with a clear sense of what the public expected from a work of adventure, right down to the similarity in titles.
The book is divided into three roughly equal Parts, “The Builders”, “The Search”, and “Machu Picchu”. I was disappointed to find that I had very few of my little bookmarks in here, and nearly all of them were pointing me to other references that I might want to check out, rather than “key bits” to drop in here. However, we might as well start off as Bingham does, with the introductory lines to the Preface:
Few people realize how much they owe to the ancient Peruvians. Very few appreciate that they gave us the white potato, many varieties of Indian corn, and such useful drugs as quinine and cocaine. Their civilization, which took thousands of years to develop, was marked by inventive genius, artistic ability, and a knowledge of agriculture which has never been surpassed. In the making of beautiful pottery and the weaving of fine textiles they equalled the best that Egypt or Greece could offer.
Frankly, I'm amazed that this came out in the 1952 book (much of the material here was drawn in part from previous publications going back 40 years), aside from the cocaine reference, some of the historical context is a bit off, according to on-going scholarship. The first section of the book is about the history of the Incas, and here too there are some anachronisms. While he cites dates for the first Inca as being c. 1200ce, and “the great Inca Pachacutec” being c. 1450ce, he does posit a much more ancient lineage (the “thousands of years” in the above), based in large part on the development of crops which were unlikely to have been wrested from their native predecessors in just a few centuries, but it could be seen to veer uncomfortably close to the timelines suggested elsewhere. The first chapter looks at the architecture, engineering, irrigation, agriculture, livestock, language, pottery, metalwork, fabrics, as well as some conjecture regarding culture and religion … giving a nice overview of those aspects of the Inca world. The second chapter attempts to make a historic assay of the development of the Incas, a very difficult thing to do accurately due to the lack of written materials (he presents an interesting theory of why they abandoned writing in favor of the knotted-cord records of the quipos … his spelling, usually quipus these days), and the defining brutality of the Spanish/Catholic destruction of conquered people's histories. More detailed is the third chapter of the first section, “The Story of the Last Four Incas”, which is able to draw on materials that did survive via journals kept by the conquistadors and their ecclesiastical accomplices. This starts with Pizarro's execution of Atahualpa, then his son Manco II, his sons Sayri Tupac, Titu Cusi (who left behind a considerable amount of letters and records), and Tupac Amaru … whose family was butchered in front of him before Spanish Viceroy Francisco de Toledo had him decapitated and his head “placed on a pole in the great plaza at Cuzco”, thus ending the line of Incas in 1572.

The middle part of the book is more a telling of how the expedition came about, with a great deal of detail about people/places/events, from assembling his team, contacts made in various locations, materials researched in preparation, etc., and then descriptions of conditions on the trail, sites visited, procedures used, and (as seems to always be the case in travel diaries) bitching about the weather, bugs, and other inconveniences. This part is also in three chapters, one on the general project, and then one each for the pursuit of the lost cities of Vitcos and Vilcapampa. Again, there's a lot of detail here, from notes of connections made at a dinner at the Yale Club to the condition of bones excavated in assorted ruins (interspersed with descriptions of views, flora, geological formations, and locals encountered), in a running narrative that's hard to find anything pithy to extract for an example.

The last part of the book is about Machu Picchu. Frankly, the discovery of the site was about as close to being “by accident” as anything:
The morning of July 24th dawned in a cold drizzle. {The guide} shivered and seemed inclined to stay in his hut. I offered to pay him well if he would show me the ruins. He demurred and said it was too hard a climb for such a wet day. But when he found that I was willing to pay him a sol (a Peruvian silver dollar, 50 cents, gold), three or four times the ordinary daily wage in this vicinity, 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 go with me. … Anyhow it was my job to investigate all reports of ruins and try to find the Inca capital.
After describing the climb, they arrive at the top and are welcomed by a couple of locals who are living and farming up on the ridge (so much for actually “discovering” the site), who offer them cold water and baked sweet potato. Here again they almost don't press on along the ridge to the ruins, as:
… the view was simply enchanting. Tremendous green precipices fell away to the white rapids of the Urubamba below. Immediately in front, on the north side of the valley, was a great granite cliff rising 2,000 feet sheer. To the left was the solitary peak of Huayna Picchu, surrounded by seemingly inaccessible precipices. On all sides were rocky cliffs. Beyond them cloud-capped, snow-covered mountains rose thousands of feet above us.
His note about Huayna Picchu is quite apt, as I've passed on scaling the peak (and seeing the ruins at its top) when I've been there, given that the route up is a very narrow stairway hewn out of the living rock, with a slick wall of stone on one side and a 2-3 thousand foot drop on the other. They do continue, however, now being led by a local kid, eager to show the exotic visitors (Bingham stood 6'4" and many Peruvians are under 5' tall) the area sights:
Then the little boy urged us to climb up a steep hill over what seemed to be a flight of stone steps. Surprise followed surprise in bewildering succession. We came to a great stairway of large granite blocks. … Suddenly we found ourselves standing in front of the ruins of two of the finest and most interesting structures in ancient America. Made of beautiful white granite, the walls contained blocks of Cyclopean size, higher than a man. The sight held me spellbound.
There are a few chapters here that go into the clearing, exploring, and detailing of ruins, including a number of graphics of the lay-out of assorted parts of the site (and photographs – there are two inserts in the book with pictures from the original reports). There is also a chapter where Bingham tries to tie the site into his presupposition that this was “Vilcapampa the Old”, a capitol and/or home to the “Chosen Women of the Sun”, concepts that have been supplanted by the general theory that this was a “summer retreat” for the Incas, which only survived as well as it did due to its inaccessibility. I found the penultimate chapter “The Search for Inca Roads Leading to Machu Picchu” fascinating, as on my second visit to Machu Picchu we'd taken the “Inca Road” through the mountains to get there, and many of the minor sites he notes here are places that I'd been through or camped in on the way (including Runkuraqay where I nearly fell off the mountain looking for a place to relieve myself).

Now, needless to say, I probably was more enthusiastic about Lost City of the Incas, having a familiarity with much of what's described, than others might be, but it is a fascinating read, not only for the sheer adventure of Bingham's explorations, but also for the somewhat archaic setting of the age. Admittedly (as noted above), much of his vision of what these sites meant has been shown to be likely incorrect by later research, but the process of finding the ruins is a great tale.

The copy I have (yeah, I actually got this one “at retail”, or at least Amazon's discounted version thereof) is the “Centenary Edition”, which came out in 2011 (100 years after the discovery, and, obviously, not of the initial 1952 publication), and is still in print, so could well be found at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. However, the on-line big boys presently have it at very nearly half off, and you could maybe save another buck or two going with the new/used guys. Anybody with an interest in archaeology, the Incas, history, or adventure would no doubt get quite a lot out of reading this, so it's pretty much an “all and sundry” recommendation from me.

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Tags: book review
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