Having rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911, Hiram Bingham soon put forward a number of theories as to the purpose and function of the Lost City of the Incas. His beliefs were widely accepted amongst the global archeological community throughout the following five decades, but modern archeologists and historians have since proposed a number of alternative ideas as to what Machu Picchu was used for.
While Bingham’s theories have been largely discredited, they nonetheless make interesting reading, particularly when considered in the context of the time, and alongside later Inca investigations.
Machu Picchu as Tampu-tocco
Bingham believed that the ruins of Machu Picchu were actually those of Tampu-tocco, the legendary birthplace of Manco Capac, generally considered the first Inca ruler. This, if true, would have placed Machu Picchu at the very center of the Inca civilization, as the birthplace of the future empire. Using the 1642 accounts of Fernando de Montesinos (Memorias Antiguas y Historiales del Perú), Bingham concluded, not without reason, that the first name of the ruins at Machu Picchu was Tampu-tocco.
Montesinos had recorded a number of physical characteristics associated with the legendary Tampu-tocco, such as the presence of a fine masonry wall with three windows (perhaps niches). This detail, in particular, suggested a direct link with Machu Picchu’s Temple of the Three Windows (named by Bingham himself).
The initial stumbling block with Bingham’s Tampu-tocco theory is the nature of the legend itself. As stated by Gordon Francis McEwan in The Incas: New Perspectives, “Most modern scholars view the story of Manco Capac and his siblings as a myth.” Inca origin myths, be they located at Tampu-tocco or Lake Titicaca, are not known for their strong ties with reality. That said, the search for Tampu-tocco continues. In the last 10 years, excavations by Gordon McEwan and colleagues have pointed towards the site of Chokepukio (also in the Cuzco Valley) as a candidate for Tampu-toccu.
Machu Picchu as Vilcabamba
At the opposite end of the chronological scale, Hiram Bingham believed that he had also found Vilcabamba, the final refuge of the Incas while under threat from the Spanish Conquistadors. Taking note of the site’s defensive capabilities, Bingham wrote: “Here was a powerful citadel tenable against all odds, a stronghold where a mere handful of defenders could prevent a great army from taking the place by assault” (Inca Land, 1922). For Bingham, Machu Picchu’s purpose was primarily defensive, making it a logical stronghold for the remnants of the post-Conquest Inca leadership.
Vilcabamba, however, has since been identified as the site of Espíritu Pampa, not Machu Picchu. Bingham himself was the first man to rediscover Espíritu Pampa, but failed to see its full significance. Despite seeing Espíritu Pampa as a potential Vilcabamba, Bingham maintained that Machu Picchu more admirably met the requirements of the Inca’s last refuge.
Machu Picchu & the Inca Virgins of the Sun
Bingham’s final theory, one which is used in support of his Vilcabamba idea, involves the Inca Virgins of the Sun. “In its last state,” he wrote, Machu Picchu “became the home and refuge of the Virgins of the Sun, priestesses of the most humane cult of aboriginal America.” Bingham believed that these consecrated women fled from Cuzco to Machu Picchu/Vilcabamba to escape the Spanish, at which place they gradually passed away.
His main archeological evidence in support of this theory came from the burial site studies of Dr. George Eaton: “Of the one hundred thirty-five skeletons whose sex could be accurately determined by Dr. Eaton, one hundred nine were females” (Inca Land). This study was later found to be erroneous (male and female remains were almost equal in number), largely throwing Bingham’s theory into the realms of whimsy rather than archeological fact.
Furthermore, if Machu Picchu was indeed Vilcabamba, as Bingham believed, it would seem unlikely that these Virgins of the Sun passed away gradually, “concealed in a canyon of remarkable grandeur, protected by art and nature” (Inca Land). Vilcabamba fell to the Spanish in 1572; it is doubtful that the Spanish would have left these chaste women untouched, free to go about their daily rituals. Considering his belief that he had found Vilcabamba, this was arguably the most fanciful of all Bingham’s Machu Picchu theories.
- Hiram Bingham – Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru, Riverside Press Cambridge, 1922.
- Gordon Francis McEwan – The Incas: New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
- Helaine Silverman – Andean Archaeology, Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
- Kim MacQuarrie – The Last Days of the Incas, Simon & Schuster, 2007.