The real-life Indiana Jones who put Machu Picchu on the world map

December 18th, 2021
The real-life Indiana Jones who put Machu Picchu on the world map

Here’s a scene you won’t struggle to imagine.

It’s early morning, just before sunrise. The trunks and leaves of the trees glisten with recent rainfall, never far in this jungle-covered part of the world. The explorer strides into the open, forming an unmistakable silhouette against the brightening sky: khaki cotton shirt and pants, a dark leather jacket, and his signature wide-brimmed hat. 

(The students to whom he was recently teaching history at a prestigious American University would be astonished to see him like this.)

His guide gestures excitedly ahead. 

“There! You see?”

Mist over the magical Machu Picchu

Mist over the magical Machu Picchu

Rubbing the three-day stubble on his lantern jaw, the American steps forward to where the trees give way to the edge of a mountainside - and there, just ahead, lit by the first rays of sunlight piercing the gloom, he sees a broad complex of ruined buildings where none should exist. There’s nothing on the map. This mountain is thousands of metres high. Yet - here it is. 

Has he found the Lost City at last - and maybe so much more? Are the legends true? If this is truly the fabled capital of the Incas (and it must be, surely?) what hidden treasures - and dangers - await him over there?

It’s hard not to roll your eyes at this point. If the alpha-male-explorer cliche wasn’t hokey enough, we’ve also had 40 years of being thoroughly brainwashed by the fictional exploits of one Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr, nicknamed “Indiana” by his father, after the family dog. The hat (I bet you imagined a fedora) was a dead giveaway. Throw in a pursuing band of troops from the Third Reich and a supernatural horror or two, and you could have the plot of the upcoming fifth Indiana Jones film that’s been filming in England, Scotland, Italy and Morocco this year.

Except - this actually isn’t fiction. It’s a real place we’re going to visit next year. And our improbable, scenery-chewing explorer hero? He was, more or less, a real person.

If you’re accompanying us on our adventure into Peru next summer, you’ll see for yourself that getting to Machu Picchu these days isn’t the difficult, treacherous jungle trek it once was. We’ll board a train in Cusco, a sprawling, beautiful city over 3km above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, and ride the rails for over three hours through jaw-dropping scenery to the town of Aguas Calientes. 

From here, we’ll board a bus that will make its way onto a road that winds up a mountainside, cresting a ridge at an altitude of 2,430 metres (7,970 feet). Then you’ll see it - and all those “lost city” vibes will hit you like a ton of bricks. Machu Picchu is like a magic trick (or a Indiana-Jones-style special effect), revealed by perspective and altitude after being invisible from the valley floor. It says a lot about how it stayed out of the limelight for so long. 

Pisac Inca ruins near Cusco, Peru

Pisac Inca ruins near Cusco, Peru

But all that changed in the summer of 1911, thanks to a man this switchbacking road is named after. 

Hiram Bingham III’s obsession was a decade in the making. He’d carved out a name for himself at Yale University by specialising in South American history, and after the First Pan American Scientific Congress in Chile in 2008, his homeward-bound journey led him through Peru, where he first heard the stories of ruined Inca cities swallowed up by the jungle. He was hooked - and soon organised the 1911 Yale Peruvian Expedition, an attempt to find the last two great cities of the Inca Empire before they were overrun by Spanish invaders.

Bingham trekked to the top of the mountain and found the overgrown ruins of Machu Picchu. It didn’t match the reports of either Vitcos or Vilcabamba (the latter being the final refuge of the Incas before they were conquered in 1572), but Bingham was immediately swept away by the romantic grandeur of the place.

Here’s where the story gets a little less Hollywood. Bingham correctly assumed the two cities he was seeking were hidden further up the river valley, but when he discovered both in due course, and found each to be architecturally underwhelming compared to Machu Picchu, he seems to have convinced himself that the true Incan capital was the discovery that had so impressed him, and misidentified Machu Picchu as Vilcabamba. 

This is the kind version of events. A more cynical interpretation: since his later book Lost City Of The Incas pointedly neglects to mention the many geographical clues that led him to the true location of Vilcabamba (modern-day Espiritu Pampa), and instead twists them to paint Machu Picchu as the last stand of the Incas, it could be that the ambitious showman in Bingham, consciously or not, saw how much easier it would be to sell Machu Picchu’s monumental beauty to a world thirsty for such wonders. 

(It’s also worth noting that Bingham’s job here was whipping up justification - and funding - for further expeditions. These took place in 1912 and from 1915-1916, with the backing of National Geographic.)

When further research made it clear that Machu Picchu couldn’t be either capital city, Bingham’s judgement remained clouded. He labelled it a capital of another kind: a great religious centre, commanding the spiritual lives of the region’s inhabitants. In fact, archaeologists now believe it was the Incan equivalent of an English country house or Roman villa, albeit one on an astonishing scale - a vast, self-contained and self-sufficient royal estate of 750 people, built for an emperor and successfully maintained for at least a century.

Nevertheless, Binham’s name was thoroughly made. He was pronounced the discoverer of Machu Picchu - clearly not true, as earlier explorers and at least one Spanish conquistador seem to have stumbled across it (not to mention countless non-explorer locals down the centuries) - and the romantic legend of the “lost city” of Machu Picchu lodged itself in the popular imagination, where it proves difficult to correct to this day. 

Incredible ruins at Machu Picchu

Incredible ruins at Machu Picchu

(Equally problematic: the Peruvian government understandably took a dim view of the removal of thousands of artifacts from the site, many to be housed at Yale - and it was only in 2012 that the University agreed in principle that they should be returned, although negotiations continue around what that should look like in a practical sense.)

The rest of Bingham’s life would prove just as dramatic and colourful. By 1917 he would be a professional aviator, serving as a lieutenant colonel  in the Air Service and U.S. Signal Corps. By 1922 he was serving as a lieutenant governor of Connecticut, and in 1924 he became State governor - before resigning the position after one day to become eligible for a seat in the United States Senate. Nicknamed the “flying senator,” Bingham’s political career would last until 1933, and during the Second World War he returned to military service as a lecturer for the Navy.

A perfect template for a fictional all-American explorer hero, you’d think? Indiana Jones was created by George Lucas, and it’s tempting to think he must have stumbled over Bingham’s story and thought “yes, like that!” But Lucas has always strenuously denied any specific real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones, instead pointing towards the pulp 1930s action heroes he grew up watching at the cinema. Of course, they would have been influenced by real, larger-than-life figures - but it’s hard to draw specific conclusions here.

However, here’s one tantalizing detail: the costume designer for Indy’s first outing, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, has stated that the inspiration for the look of Indiana Jones (khaki, leather jacket, that incredible hat) is a 1954 Charlton Heston film, Secret Of The Incas, containing a storyline clearly owing much to Bingham’s exploits - and filmed on location at Machu Picchu. 

(Her exact comment on this: “We did watch this film together as a crew several times, and I always thought it strange that the filmmakers did not credit it later as the inspiration for the series.”)    

Wheel & Anchor will be exploring Machu Picchu and the land of the Incas in late June and early July 2022. Click here for the details!

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