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Hiram Bingham was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on 19th of November 1875. In 1892 his parents sent him to Phillips Academy in Andover and later to Yale University. However, the family’s savings lasted only a year, after which young Bingham had to find a job to support himself until he graduated in 1898. That same year he met his future wife Alfreda Mitchell – niece of Charles Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Company jewellery – and became part of the American upper class. In August 1899, Bingham enrolled at the University of Berkeley and, in 1905, obtained a doctorate from Harvard, where he started working as a professor of history.
Hiram became interested in Inca history after visiting the ruins of the pre-Columbian city of Choquequirao. Fascinated by this adventure, Bingham persuaded Yale University to finance an expedition with Peruvian authorities to explore the ruins of Inca cities in the Cuzco region. After his arrival, Bingham was welcomed by the rector of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad. The rector introduced him to Melchor Arteaga, a farmer who had seen a vast area of ruins on a hilltop near his home.
On the 19th of July 1911, Bingham’s expedition began in search of the city of Vilcabamba, the last Inca refuge during the war against Spain. On the 23rd of July, the group discovered the ruins of Machu Picchu. Upon entering the complex, Bingham realised what an extraordinary discovery he had made. In his book, The discovery of Machu Picchu, he wrote: “Suddenly I found myself standing in front of the walls of a ruin and houses built with the best quality of Inca art… I found bright temples, royal houses, a large square and thousands of houses. It seemed to be in a dream”.
In the following years, Hiram carried out further expeditions to explore the site, during which he illegally removed around 46,000 archaeological artefacts (only three hundred have been returned). His reputation grew so much that in 1925 he was elected governor of Connecticut and US senator until 1933. But the question of whether he was the first to discover Machu Picchu remains. Obviously, the locals already knew about it, but a certain Augusto Bernes had also visited the area in 1860 and tried to obtain funds to start an excavation; Hiram was lucky enough to be supported by Yale University.
Now the road that leads tourists to the ancient Inca city is named after the archaeologist and explorer who is the probable source of inspiration for the protagonist of one of the most beloved film sagas in history.