The Mystery of Machu Picchu and the Mason Who Discovered It

Most of us have enjoyed watching the cinematic adventures in the Indiana Jones film franchise. In the first of the film series, Professor Jones, a seemingly mild-mannered university professor of archeology, finds himself deep in a jungle searching for lost treasure which he is hoping to share with the world in his university’s museum. You know the rest : booby-traps galore, poison darts, villains around every corner trying to steal the historic artifacts, and death-defying escapes.

While the fictional Indiana Jones adventures are thrilling – the real life story of an unknown Inca settlement which had been a hidden mystery for over five centuries was discovered in 1911 by a professor from Yale University, Hiram Bingham lll.

Bingham, a member of Hiram Masonic Lodge No. 1 in Connecticut, was part of an impressive and accomplished American family. One of his ancestors, Deacon Thomas Bingham, immigrated to the American colonies in 1650 and settled in New England. The descendants of Thomas Bingham have a rich legacy of wise and learned men, many of whom devoted their lives to the study of theology and history, as well as to government service.

Among these scholars was Hiram Bingham l, who in the autumn of 1819, sailed to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) to serve as a missionary. In 1923 the Protestant minister baptized Queen Kaʻahumanu and others in Honolulu. In addition, Bingham helped to create a written language system of the Hawaiian spoken tongue as well as translating the Bible into Hawaiian. Reverend Bingham also designed and oversaw the construction of the Kawaiahaʻo Church in Honolulu and it remains today as the oldest church in Hawaii.

The minister’s son, Hiram Bingham ll, followed in his father’s footsteps, preaching the gospel in the Kingdom of Hawaii and in other Pacific Islands following his graduation from both Williston Seminary and Yale University.

Born in Hawaii in 1875, Hiram Bingham III, received his early education at Oahu College. Today, this prep school is known as Punahou School which counts among its most famous alumni, Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.

Arriving in the Mainland, Hiram Bingham lll, enrolled at Phillips Academy before earning his B.A. degree from Yale in 1894. He continued his studies in Latin American history at the University of California’s Berkeley campus followed by completing his PhD at Harvard in 1905. During his college years, Bingham was a member of the Masonic-affiliated Acacia Fraternity.

After completing his studies, Bingham served as a professor at Harvard lecturing on both history and politics before serving as a preceptor for Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. Beginning in 1907, Bingham taught and researched Latin American history at Yale.

While he had no formal training as an archeologist, Bingham’s research at Yale led him to what would become his most famous accomplishment – the discovery of the ancient Inca settlement of Machu Picchu.

Following his service as a delegate in 1908 to the Pan American Scientific Congress in Santiago, Chile, Bingham journeyed across South America and published an account of his travels. Back at Yale and intrigued by the chance to return to South America to explore the history and hoping to find “lost” cities, Bingham organized the Peruvian Expedition in 1911 to search for historic ruins of the Inca civilization.

Guided by locals in Peru, high on Bingham’s agenda was to find traces of Vilcabamba which many historians believed might have been the lost capital of the Incas before the Spanish conquest.

On July 24, 1911, Bingham and the expedition reached a site high in the rugged Andes Mountains. They were led to some ruins which despite being covered in vegetation at the rim of a mountain peak, were in remarkable condition. At first, Bingham believed that the ruins were that of the elusive “Lost City” of the Incas but further research would show that this site had been one of a series of residences of the Inca leader.

Machu Picchu is believed to have been built between the mid-15th to the mid-16th century. The stacked stone construction style and footprint indicates that this was a complex used as temporary quarters for the Inca ruler. Several excavations have led to speculations about what life was like at Machu Picchu. Some archeologists first believed that it was used as a temple or sanctuary for young virgins. More recent excavations and research has shown that the buildings and grounds were more probably used as a royal retreat.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Inca were one of a number of tribes inhabiting the Andes. A fierce and powerful tribe, the Inca had conquered many other tribal groups. Their domain included an immense empire which absorbed and assimilated tribes into their control as long as the tribes agreed to worship the Inca Sun God who they believed to be found in the Andean mountain range. The Inca civilization was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors over many years during the mid 1500s.

Hiram Bingham lll didn’t find a treasure chest in Machu Picchu or even an exotic jewel. However, in his personal life, Bingham married into what is, perhaps, the world’s most famous family of jeweler’s. His wife, Alfreda Mitchell, was the granddaughter of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the famed Tiffany & Company.

Alfreda and Hiram Bingham were the proud parents of seven sons. These include Woodbridge, Alfred, Charles, Brewster, Mitchell, Jonathan, and Hiram Bingham lV. All of these sons were accomplished in their own right and pursued careers as professors, lawyers, ministers, authors, and in the military as well as in government service.

Believing that service to one’s community and country was vital, Bingham was a member of the Connecticut National Guard earning the rank of Captain. In 1917, the man who had reached heights in the Peruvian Andes looked to the skies as he became not only an aviator, but organized the United States Schools of Military Aeronautics at several colleges with the goal of providing expert training for future aviators. He also served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Signal Corps. In 1920, Bingham published an account of his experiences during World War l entitled, “An Explorer in the Air Service”.

Following the end of the “War to End All Wars”, Bingham served as Lieutenant Governor and later Governor of Connecticut. In 1924, Bingham went to Washington, following his election as a U.S. Senator. Bingham’s fame an an explorer and aviator brought him immediate attention by the Washington press who often referred to Bingham as "The Flying Senator”.

Few men have lived a life as exciting and significant as Hiram Bingham lll. On June 6, 1956, Bingham passed away at his home in Washington and he lies buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Bingham’s life was truly extraordinary. This adventurer’s name will be forever linked to the incredible pre-Columbian ruins that he brought to the attention of the world. Machu Picchu was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and today is considered one of the most desired tourism locations on the planet.




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