Opinion: Machu Picchu – What are we celebrating?

Opinion: Machu Picchu – What are we celebrating?
One of the first Peruvians to photograph Machu Picchu was Martín Chambi. He shot this image of the Inca citadel in 1931.

By Eliane Karp for La República
Translated and edited by Jorge Riveros-Cayo

In middle of the grandiloquent official celebrations organized by the current administration in honor of the so-called “Machu Picchu Centennial,” I have the need to make a reflection from a historical and social perspective about the creation of a myth called the “Discovery of Machu Picchu.”

The first thing that should be said is that Machu Picchu was not discovered by Hiram Bingham a hundred years ago. To this date, the most accepted hypothesis by archaeologists about the construction of Machu Picchu, probably named originally as Pata Llaqta, is that it was commissioned by Pachakuteq after he became Inca (most probably after his victory over the Chankas). This event situates us approximately in the year 1430.

This huge architectural complex evidently took some time to be built. By the excellence achieved in its architecture and edification, it reflects a synthesis of stone, mountain, and river; the philosophy and mysticism of the Incas in their height.

When Pachakuteq died, it became a mausoleum, where his mummy was kept and venerated fervently. It was believed to continue to exercise power over the people, giving advice to the descendants of the royal panaca, in charge of the mummy’s custody and of relating the events, certainly embellished, of his reign.

This history can be found in the texts of the Spanish Juan de Betanzos, one of Pizarro’s ex soliders that married the Inca princess Angelina Yupanqui. She was Atahualpa’s fiancée, but could not marry him since the Inca was assassinated. She told Betanzos, his husband, her memories about the use given to Machu Picchu, in the same way her panaca transmitted it in the oral tradition.

As with Hiram Bingham, researcher and traveler with more of an adventurous spirit than a scientific interest, he traveled Peru since 1909 searching for El Dorado. He was not looking for Machu Picchu because he ignored its existence.

Bingham was taken first to Choquekirao, from where he extracted archaeological materials that apparently were never returned (according to his own letters). It wasn’t until 1911 that he was taken to Machu Picchu. He did not discovered it; he was taken there by Peruvian scientists and farmers who were always in the area and knew about its existence. Machu Picchu never disappeared from the collective memory of the local indigenous people.

There are maps that locate Pata Llaqta way before the arrival of Bingham. Antonio Raimondi himself made a map – used by Bingham in his travel to Peru – where there is an exact geographical location of Machu Picchu.

Karp says:

"It is not quite clear what is it that president García wants to celebrate. The false discovery of Machu Picchu? The exaggerated recognition to Bingham? The return almost a century later of some (not very many) pieces that remained illegally in Yale? Or the centennial of a misunderstanding that has not been overcome yet?"

As far as I am concerned, the only real virtue of Bingham was to obtain the money from the National Geographic Society for the expedition, a decision made after an intense lobby in Washington D.C. This society later revealed to the world the archaeological site through its magazine, with the first publication of the expedition’s photographs that they financed.

Bingham also obtained some special decrees through his connections in Lima with the Peruvian government. These enabled him for the first time to legally take the archaeological artifacts to Yale University, for scientific use only during 18 months. This period of time expired without Yale’s returning the pieces back to Peru.

What is really sad is that many of these boxes remained unopened for a long time in the university’s basements. Mr. Bingham decided to go to war in Europe and later he ran for senator in Connecticut. In reality, very little was obtained from this scientific exchange between Yale Univeristy and Peru’s scientific world.

We have many letters written between Bingham and the National Geographic, where he requests the money for the expedition and explains his relation with the Peruvian government of the time. His perception is very interesting and quite different of what some people expect to make us believe today. In any case, it is very clear that the artifacts belong to Peruvians and should be given back, something that Yale has refused to do, breaking agreements with the Peruvian government.

At the end, it is not quite clear what is it that president García wants to celebrate. The fake discovery of Machu Picchu? The exaggerated recognition to Bingham? The return almost a century later of some (not very many) pieces that remained illegally in Yale? Or the centennial of a misunderstanding that has not been overcome yet?

It shoud be remined that most of the artifacts are still in power of Yale University, that has promised to return them within two years. In exchange, there is a compromise of the Peruvian government to keep Yale involved through a contract of technical assistance. Are these grandiloquent celebrations about another concession made to Yale University?

In this case, my feelings go out instead to pay homage to the indigenous people of the region who are the direct descendants, as well as to the city and citizens of Cusco. They were the ones that, from a start, were always opposed to letting the artifacts being taken away from the historical monument.

I think it is important to demystify what is currently happening in Cusco  which does not pay a tribute to the real events – separating the pomp organized by this government – from the real and historic sense of things, reestablishing the celebrations of Machu Picchu in its real and fair dimension.

Eliane Karp is an anthropologist, and guest professor of the University of Salamanca, Spain, and the University of Stanford. She was Peru’s First Lady between 2001 and 2006.