When was Machu Picchu Discovered? - History & Facts

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

Hiram Bingham III is credited with rediscovering the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu. This lesson details Bingham's 1911 expedition, as well as the controversies surrounding his discovery.

Machu Picchu

Imagine you are taking a train down Peru's Urubamba River, the river's lush waters being contained on either side by steep, terraced hillsides in the Andes Mountains. High above you, the tops of the mountains are hidden by dense layers of clouds and vegetation. Without a map or any other prior knowledge, you could pass right below one of the world's most famous landmarks and not even know it. Although Machu Picchu is a popular tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site today, a visitor before 1911 to the ancient Incan capital Cuzco, Peru might have been completely unaware of the existence of the centuries-old ruins. Situated roughly 80 miles northwest of Cuzco, Machu Picchu had lain hidden from the outside world until Hiram Bingham III, an anthropologist from Yale, led an expedition there on July 24, 1911. While this is the commonly accepted story of Machu Picchu's discovery, there is some debate over who actually discovered Machu Picchu first and when.

The Incan ruler Pachacutec (r. 1438-1471) ordered the construction of Machu Picchu around 1450 in order to provide a retreat for the Incan aristocracy. As such, the lower classes of Incan society could not enter the site. Machu Picchu's construction took place during the height of the Incan Empire, but this Incan golden age was short-lived. Shortly after the arrival of the Spanish Empire a century later, Machu Picchu was mysteriously abandoned. Although the local population remained aware of Machu Picchu, the Spanish colonial elite and outside visitors had no knowledge of its existence until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Hiram Bingham took this picture of Machu Picchu in 1911.
Machu Picchu

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