Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Cradle of Gold: the Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu

About 100 years ago - on July 7, 1911, to be exact - an American man named Hiram Bingham found the ruins of an ancient ceremonial city, mostly overgrown with Peruvian jungle. Some indigenous families were living on the site, tending small subsistence farms. Despite the fact that local people had always known about the ruins, and despite the fact that the clues of other explorers and many indigenous people enabled his route, Bingham claimed to "discover" these ruins. Those ruins are now one of the world's most famous and most remarkable places: Machu Picchu.

Over the next few years, Bingham would bring Machu Picchu to the attention of the larger world. He would uncover other nearby Incan ruins and open the ancient paths between them, now known as the Inca Trail. He would also violate an agreement he made with the Peruvian government, and illegally excavate, remove and steal ancient artifacts from those sites, including the remains of Incan people - the ancestors of people forced to work there.

I have an enduring fascination with both modern and ancient Peru. I finally went there in 2006, spending three weeks traveling through that country. It was a trip I had wanted to make all my life.

Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-life Indiana Jones and the Search for Machu Picchu, by Christopher Heaney, tells many intertwined stories. It's a biography of Bingham and the story of his Peruvian expeditions, with the surrounding historical context. That supposedly heroic tale is intertwined with a much older story, one that is truly heroic and tragic: the final Incan resistance to the Spanish invasion. The book also analyzes the struggle between modern Peru and Yale University over the the tens of thousands of artifacts that Bingham stole from Machu Picchu and other Incan sites, that Yale refuses to return. In addition, and more briefly, the author writes about his deeply felt personal connection to these subjects.

Heaney has written an ambitious book that clearly represents an enormous amount of research. He succeeds in all his stories, but not all readers will be equally interested in each thread. I have little interest in biography, and when I do read a biography, it's either to study history or to learn about a person whose life and contributions are important to me. I found myself distinctly uninterested in Bingham's personal story, and the story of the search for the Incan "lost cities" was written in more detail than I needed. But if you enjoy those kinds of tales, this is a good one.

The final chapters - on the case against Yale and the author's personal story - were, for me, the best parts of the book. Unfortunately, this was also the briefest part, and left me wanting to learn more.

In the book's introduction, Heaney summarizes the Peru vs Yale fight this way.
In 2008, Peru sued Yale for the return of the artifacts and human remains that Bingham excavated from Machu Picchu. Peru claimed it had loaned Yale the collection of silver jewelry, ceramic jars, potsherds, skulls and bones and was now demanding its return. Yale called Peru's claim "stale and meritless" and asserted that now it owned the collection. Peru said Yale had 46,000 pieces; Yale said it had 5,415. Between these two distant poles, I have attempted to find the truth.
I interpreted this to mean that the author believed there is some middle ground, some compromise, between Peru's position and Yale's. I was wary and skeptical of how Heaney might justify a position; later, I was relieved to be wrong. Heaney understands and beautifully articulates why Yale must return Peru's stolen history.

Bingham's expeditions take place against a backdrop of US imperialism; deep, well-justified suspicion and distrust by South Americans of North American intentions and, often, their own government's desire to profit from US imperialism; indigenous forced labour, slavery, repression, and resistance; and an American and European public fascinated by heroic adventures. One interesting thread running through Crater of Gold is the historically contradictory attitudes of white North Americans towards indigenous people. It's a perfect illustration of the Peruvian expression "Incas si, Indios no", meaning, as Heaney puts it, "it is easy to romanticize the pre-Columbian past while ignoring the indigenous present".

I believe that one day the Incan bones and other treasures now housed in Connecticut will be returned to Peru. If that happens in my lifetime, I may have to return to that country to see and celebrate them. (A longer version of this review appeared here on wmtc.)

No comments:

Post a Comment