As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Hiram Bingham's Machu Picchu Legacy
Posted Dec 21,2008

BinghamHiram Bingham was 36 years old when he first climbed Machu Picchu in
1911 and set up camp in the ruins.
Photo by E.C. Erdis.

Hiram Bingham is a household name around National Geographic. It is one of those bigger than life names, like Peary, Leakey, and Powell, that will always be associated with a place. In Bingham's case, the place is Machu Picchu. Archaoelogist Christina Elson posts here on some of the complexities that have emerged in the wake of Bingham's achievements.-Chris Sloan

Quechua farmers, German treasure hunters, Peruvian prospectors, European missionaries—it sounds to me like pretty much everyone got to Machu Picchu (“old peak” in Quechua) before the lanky Hiram Bingham in 1911. Bingham, in fact, said in his 1922 book “Inca Land Explorations in the Highlands of Peru” that on the day of his visit he met several farmers living at the base of the peak who were planting crops up on the old Inca terraces. Even Bingham’s guide Melchor Arteaga had already seen the ruins at least once. Melchor didn’t feel like climbing the snake-infested trail on a rainy day. He and his farmer pals sent Bingham up there with a kid while they hung out by a warm fire. I suspect that since archaeologists started exploring the world’s more remote corners in earnest, they’ve found the majority of “lost” sites in similar fashion.

Bingham wasn’t a casual visitor or looter. He took extensive photographs and collected everything he excavated for further study. Sadly, these artifacts—the core of what archaeologists call “the data”—are now at the center of a legal battle between the government of Peru and Yale University. After several years of negotiation Peru sued Yale on December 5th in a Washington D.C. Federal Court for the return of thousands of artifacts and for monetary damages.

Like many archaeologists, I’m interested to see how the case unfolds. One thing I don’t much care for that has been asserted in Yale documents and mirrored in press reports is a description of the collection as mostly “bits and pieces of pots, bones, and other small fragments that are similar or identical to countless objects already in Peru” and over all lacking in “museum quality pieces” (see “Myths and Facts about the Machu Picchu Materials at Yale University”). The repeated assertion that the collection lacks museum quality pieces reinforces problematic and pervasive ideas that it’s OK to assign relative value to cultural heritage. Unlike art historians, archaeologists learn as much from mundane sherds as they do from exquisite vessels. Most archaeologists would say that all of the pieces that make up this collection are of equal “value” and that excavated collections should be curated together along with the drawings, photos, and notes that document them (granted it’s OK to loan artifacts for exhibits). Each artifact is unique but only fully understood when studied within the context of the entire collection. Hopefully, the advent of new analytical techniques and ideas about Inca history means archaeologists will want to study this collection for a long time.

What do you think should happen to the collection Bingham excavated in 1912 at Machu Picchu? Should it stay in the US? Go back to Peru? Who should be allowed to study it? Why do you think Yale and Peru can’t resolve the issue outside of court?—Dr. Christina Elson

A few place you can read up on the Yale-Peru saga involving Machu Picchu
New York Times: (see especially December 8, 2008, September 17, 2007 and June 24, 2007 articles)
Chronicle of Higher Education: (July 4, 2008 article)

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (1)


Peru Tours
Dec 21, 2008 9PM #

As a local, I think this Peruvian cultural heritage definitely must return to my country. Not based on blind semi – fanatic nationalism, but by simple logic. I doubt very much that the current government (quiteeee diferent from Fujimori´s pseudo-democracy) hinder any in-situ or abroad study that could be required for this achaeological pieces.

Certainly the most advanced techniques in archaeological analysis are available in first world countries like the USA, but this can not be the main reason (due to the reason already mentioned above) sustained by the university to seize this historic collection indefinitely, collection that belongs to all Peruvians.

Peru is showing a new face to the world during these last years. His cuisine is now recognized worldwide, economic growth admired throughout Latin America and a reason for praise everywhere. The level of investments has grown significantly recently and you can feel that in your day by day life here, artists that never take into account Peru for their tours now are visiting us without problems, the real estate boom here is still increasing(not as much as it is in Dubai, that’s incredibly huge) the level of inflation remains low, so much so that even though the international financial crisis is already knocking our door, its not affecting us too much in comparison to our neighbours. But in addition of the recent moments, most peruvians have always been and actually are very proud of their cultural past.

But even talking about the papers supporting the position of Yale, or the “fact”that Hiram was the authentic, unique and great discoverer of Mapi (Machu Picchu). Well, I think we will enter a vicious circle of never ending, maybe thats why Peru and Yale are going to solve this on a court.

Incidentally, speaking of Hiram as the discoverer of Mapi, chroniclers and historians have been talking about records of the Inca citadel existance since the sixteenth century. Taking into account that the Spaniards came to these lands in 1532. It is not logical to think that in reality, Machu Picchu was never "lost"?

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