Who found Machu Picchu? How a German may have beaten the Americans to lost Inca city

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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.

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Daniel J. Buck - 8/12/2008

Paolo Greer and I have had an exchange over at the Discovery News website in reference to his claim that A.R. Berns discovered, looted, whatever, Machu Picchu in the late 19th Century.

You can view the entire exchange at:

In Greer’s August 9 post, he now concedes that there is no evidence that A.R. Berns ever visited Machu Picchu.

His fallback position now seems to be that because Berns lived in Urubamba and was an explorer and a huaquero, he must have been to Machu Picchu. That’s sounds to me more like a hope — there’s a pony in here somewhere.

Keep in mind the evidence we have for Berns activities in Urubamba is his 1881 prospectus for the imaginary gold and silver deposits and the imaginary Huacas del Inca mummy tunnel, the same prospectus that excited his potential investors
with the news that the Incas had a gold washing sluice there, called Llamajcansha, which Berns helpfully translated as “Gold Yard.”

Llamajcansha means, in Quechua, “Llama yard.”
Berns was selling his investors a load of llama dung.

By the way, per the 1876 Peruvian cenus there were at that time more than 17,000 people living in the Urubamba Province. I suggest we designate all of them discovererss of Machu Picchu and call it a day.

Below is Greer's August 9 post, followed by my update with additional information.

Discovery News

“There is no, repeat no evidence that A.R. Berns knew of, visited, intended to loot, or looted Machu Picchu,” Dan Buck.

Already, Buck has written more words of invalidation about my articleon various web sites than were contained in the original story.

I agree with him that, “The fact that Berns set up a company called‘Huacas del Inca’ is not proof of anything,” and “There are inumerable Inca ruins in the Urubamba and La Convencion districts of Cuzco.”

It is also true that these and other tidbits, in themselves, aren’t much proof that Berns was in Machu Picchu, especially if taken out of contextto pretend that such comments, alone, were my argument.

In fact, if readers were to ignore my article completely and depend solely upon Buck’s ongoing harangue, no connection between Machu Picchu and Berns would be apparent.

Or they could read my article for themselves.

Among other things, I wrote that for many years between 1867 and 1881 Berns lived at what is now Aguas Calientes, about two miles from Machu Picchu. During that period, he explored the region, using local guides whose families had been in the area for generations. He purposely searched for ruins.

Berns was in the business of looting Inca tombs and almost certainly made the effort to do so in Machu Picchu, virtually on his doorstep.

Since then, millions of tourists have taken the Machu Picchu shuttle from the site of Berns’ camp to the ruins, just a few minutes away.

There’s no reason to bring in Sherlock Holmes on this one.

Actually, I included enough evidence, including maps, in my account to allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Anyone who wants to read and truly appreciate this research can find my article, “Machu Picchu before Bingham”, at the URL above.

Well, almost anyone.

My two quotes from the Discovery interview above were not contradictory.

I am sure that Berns did make an effort to find something in Machu Picchu, since the German was in the business and what are now the most famous ruins in Peru, if not in the Americas, was a short hike from his camp.

Several reporters were especially eager to know what “treasures” Berns took out, exactly. They wanted something sensational to print. I was asked to detail such golden plunder and I would not.

If Berns kept a list of his spoils, he has not shown it to me.

Thanks to Buck for typing out my interview. Even when the batteries in my hearing aid are fresh, I still miss a word or two.

However, the interview says what I said it did, no matter how “clearly” Buck heard otherwise.

Ms. Lorenzi’s recording above is only two and a half minutes long. It was done when she happened to ring me from Florence, Italy, to a busy internet café in Lima, Peru. In it I did not present the detail I explained in my article, or in the interviews that followed.

These are posted on Kim MacQuarrie’s blog.

Buona fortuna,

Paolo Greer

Posted by: Paolo Greer | August 09, 2008 at 06:49 PM========================================================

Yesterday, August 11, I received from Duke University Library a photocopy of the 48-page prospectus for Berns 1887 Huacas de Inca stock company. It’s Indiana Jones mumbo-jumbo, with nary a clue as to any specific archaeological site. The basic premise is that there are ruins out in the hinterlands of Urubamba and La Convencion with unimaginable treasures waiting to be plundered: “las riquisimas y valiosisimas obras de arte que antes de 400 anos adoraban los templos y edificios publicos y reales de la metroploli Imperio Incasico,” etc., etc.

Most of the prospectus is devoted to a potted summary of Berns’s remarkable -- which is to say imaginary -- achievements, which included several $100 million construction projects (more than $2 billion today), none of which seem to have laid a single brick. My favorite was a $100 million mining project in Arizona. Berns tells his investors, “Arizona es un pais donde se ocupan mas de 500,000 personas en mineria, pues su principal industria es mineria.” The total Arizona population in 1880 was 40,440.

The prospectus goes on to say that Berns’s Arizona enterprise went so swimmingly that his backers allowed him to go to Peru, but not before bestowing on him stock worth $12 million (nearly a quarter billion dollars in today’s currency). And so on.

There is no mention, however, in the 1887 prospectus of Berns’s 1881 enterprise, the Torontoy gold and silver mine fraud.

The 1887 prospectus compares the Huacas del Inca organizers to Columbus, Galileo, and Robert Fulton. Re the last-mentioned there might be a connection, hot air.


James W Loewen - 6/4/2008

In this story an important word was omitted: "white." Machu Picchu was never lost, so it could hardly be found. Peruvians were farming its terraced fields and using its water system. They led both the German and the American to it. So we seem to be arguing about which was the first WHITE person to "discover" it. Just as my sister and I can argue as to which member of our family was first to discover oregano. Sigh.