There was no doubt in Hiram Bingham's mind that he had stumbled onto something mystical in the summer of 1911, when he discovered the dazzling Incan settlement now known as Machu Picchu. He was convinced that the remote Peruvian outpost dotted with temples was a sacred city, the birthplace and final stronghold of the Incas, where virgins sought sanctuary and priests worshipped the sun god. The charismatic Bingham--a Yale University archaeologist, later a Connecticut Governor and U.S. Senator and much later a model for Hollywood's Indiana Jones--announced, in a series of magazine articles and best-selling books, what he had found, and the world ate them up. Tourists and spiritual seekers have been making the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu ever since.
But what, exactly, are they visiting? More than 90 years after Machu Picchu first landed on the scientific map, modern archaeologists are making a persuasive case that it wasn't a spiritual center at all. Machu Picchu, it turns out, may have been nothing more than a mountain retreat for the Emperor Pachacuti and his royal court, sort of a 15th century Camp David. "It was just a country palace where they'd go to get away from the capital, Cuzco," says Yale archaeologist Richard Burger. "It was only a three-day walk away."
In retrospect, Bingham can be excused for concluding that Machu Picchu was the holiest of Incan sites. Its inaccessibility certainly suggested that. So did some of its apparently religious structures, which were built with distinctive three-window designs, evoking the legend that the Incan people were created by three brothers who appeared through a trio of portals. And the large percentage of uncovered skeletons that Bingham's expert determined to be female suggested the remains of an Incan nunnery.
But the idea that much of this is fantasy is pretty persuasive too. There are no Incan records--the Incas had no written language--but the Spaniards, who conquered so much of South America, kept plenty. Fifteen years ago, John Howland Rowe, an anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was studying the archives left by the Spaniards at Cuzco and came across a 16th century lawsuit filed by descendants of Pachacuti seeking the return of royal family lands, including a retreat called Picchu. Over the years, other researchers have dug deeper into the mystery, none deeper than Burger, a onetime student of Rowe's, and his wife Lucy Salazar, a Yale archaeologist.