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Who found Machu Picchu?

How a German may have beaten the Americans to lost Inca city

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent
Monday, 2 June 2008

When Peruvian locals led Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu in 1911, it was a discovery which would make the Yale professor famous, highly respected and richer.

Bingham went on to become a governor of Connecticut and member of the US senate, and his book on Machu Picchu became a bestseller. Such was his prominence in early 20th century archaeology, that some have speculated that Bingham was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones.

But Bingham's claim to be the first to discover Peru's lost city of the Incas is looking more than a little doubtful. Detailed investigations by a US historian have revealed that Machu Picchu was, in fact, discovered over 40 years earlier by a German businessman.

Little is known about Augusto R Berns, an obscure entrepreneur now largely lost to history, but documents unearthed in US and Peruvian archives by the American historian Paolo Greer, reveal that Berns discovered Peru's most famous archaeological site in the late 1860s before setting up a company specifically to loot Machu Picchu and its immediate surroundings.

Berns had set up a railway sleeper production business in Peru, and stumbled on the unknown ruins of Machu Picchu after purchasing nearby land to fell trees for timber. He explored the mountain citadel ruins between 1867 and 1870.

In archives in Peru, documents written by Berns and discovered by Greer reveal how the German found several sealed underground structures. Berns predicted that they would "undoubtedly contain objects of great value" – the "treasures of the Incas".

His company, the aptly-named Companhia Anonima Explotadora de las Huacas del Inca (the Inca Sites Exploitation Company) had the backing of some of the most important people in Peru, including the country's president at the time, Andres Avelino Caceres.

In 1887 the Peruvian government consented to the looting of Machu Picchu, even making an agreement with Berns allowing him to export the material as long as he gave the government a 10 per cent cut. One of Berns' business partners in the venture appears to have been the director of Peru's national library. The vice- president of Berns' company was a pathology professor at a university in Lima, a collector of antiquities who eventually sold his collection to a museum in Berlin.

Machu Picchu was originally built in the 15th-century by the Inca emperor, Pachacuti, who was almost certainly buried there when he died in 1471.

The city had an important temple to the sun and Pachacuti's tomb and the temple are likely to have been adorned with substantial amounts of gold.

While most of that gold was probably removed in 1532 in a futile attempt to ransom the last reigning Inca emperor, Atahualpa, who had been captured by the Spanish conquistadors, it is conceivable that Berns found substantial quantities of high status ceramics not required for the ransom.

The revelations come at a time when Peruvian demands are increasing for the return of Hiram Bingham's Machu Picchu material, thousands of items of ceramic and bone currently in Yale University.

Greer, who has launched an international search for the lost Inca treasures, located a list of 57 of Berns' American, British and other contacts and potential contacts who may have bought antiquities that Berns found in Machu Picchu. But so far no list of finds has been discovered and the investigation will extend to the US and Europe to try to track down lost treasures in private collections. Greer's findings will be published in the next issue of South American Explorer magazine.

The mountain citadel in deepest Peru

Temples covered in gold, fantastical gardens and fine fountains carved into the rock. In its day, Machu Picchu would have been an extraordinary sight.

The mountain citadel, perched 2,400m (7,875ft) high in the Peruvian Andes, remains a powerful draw, with hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world visiting every year.

It is said to have been built by the 15th-century Inca ruler Pachacuti, the supposed founder of the Inca's cult of the dead, and his descendants. Machu Picchu, which means "old mountain", is believed to have become his mausoleum – much like the pyramids of Egypt for the pharaohs – and would also have served as a secret ceremonial city for 200 to 300 high-status members of society.

The settlement clearly had a religious purpose: the remains of lavish palaces, temples and astronomical observatories can still be seen today.

The so-called "Hitching Point of the Sun" which can still be seen, is a ritual stone which gave a precise indication of the dates of the two equinoxes and could also be used to calculate other important dates.But it was also a formidable fortress, lying in the saddle of two mountains and accessible only by steep mountain paths and bridges, which could be easily defended. Ian Johnston 

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