Almost one hundred years ago, on July 24, 1911, a Yale University history lecturer named Hiram Bingham III climbed to the top of a mountain ridge in Peru and encountered one of the most extraordinary sets of ruins on Earth: Machu Picchu. In his new book Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu, the historian Christopher Heaney examines how Bingham got there, why he fooled himself into thinking he’d found the Lost City of the Incas, and what influence Bingham had on a certain whip-toting movie daredevil. Heaney spoke with Adventure contributing editor Mark Adams.
NGA: Hiram Bingham III wasn’t trained as an archaeologist or an anthropologist. His specialty was history. Was it a fluke that he ended up at Machu Picchu?
Christopher Heaney: It was a fluke in the sense that he didn’t set out to look for Machu Picchu. Bingham was really in Peru trying to find the last capitals of the Incas, Vitcos and Vilcabamba.
NGA: Explorers had been roaming the Peruvian countryside for years, searching for the legendary Lost City of the Incas, which they imagined was filled with gold. So how did Bingham end up as the one who made that famous climb on July 24, 1911?
CH: What’s amazing about Bingham is that he put himself in a position where he couldn’t not have reached Machu Picchu. He was really the first person to go into the region and gather up as much oral testimony as possible. Using the names of places mentioned in the Spanish chronicles and maps of past Peruvian geographers, he just went from point to point and never turned down an offer to go look for ruins. He was also working with the maps of at least one other explorer, a guy named Curtis Farabee who was at Harvard at the time.