Thursday, August 26, 2010

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

by Christopher Heaney

New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

Week 35 Non-fiction

My husband Thell’s mother always wanted to go to visit Machu Picchu in Peru, because she had read about it in National Geographic many years ago. Because she never got there, Thell has wanted to go in her stead. We finished reading Cradle of Gold by Christopher Heaney this week in anticipation of the trip we hope to make in the next year, while we are still young enough to travel to Cuzco, to ride the Hiram Bingham train, climb the steep cliffs and explore the ancient city of Machu Picchu.

One of the most colorful, but also unknown, figures of the late 19th and early 20th century, Hiram Bingham, was an American academic, archaeologist and adventurer. He spent much of his young adult life exploring in Peru, searching for the lost cities of the Incas, and the rest of his adulthood defending his discoveries.

Born of missionary parents, Bingham was educated at Harvard and married an heiress to the Tiffany fortune. Although he received a PhD from Harvard, he longed to teach at Yale, and to live a life of adventure and achievement. He was “caught between his family’s missionary ideals, his own Gilded Age desires, and hours spent devouring the books of Theodore Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad.”

Fate would take him to Peru where he began to search for Vilcabamba, the lost city of the Incas. He financed his early trips himself with his wife’s money; later trips were financed by National Geographic and Yale University where he became a professor. Along the way, he was led to the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu, named for the mountain behind the city. He also explored other cities of the Incas, and brought back to Yale bones, pottery, and other artifacts of the waning days of the Inca Empire. These cities were not lost to the indigenous people; they were just lost to history.

The items he brought back to Yale were the stuff of controversy, because they included among other things, human bones—5415 pieces in all. Heaney outlines the several arrangements Bingham and Yale made with the various governments of Peru—there were failures and deceptions on both sides. Enshrined at the Peabody Museum at Yale, the artifacts remain controversial 100 years later. Recently, Peru sued Yale to have all the human remains returned to Peru; the court case is still pending.

Bingham went on to be a pilot during World War I and later a US Senator. He was truly a man of his age, and most likely the model for the movie hero, Indiana Jones. His was an amazing life, and Christopher Heaney does the man justice. We are at once fascinated and repelled by the man who would use his wife’s money and leave her at home alone with seven children.

The book is also about the history of the Incas and about Machu Picchu, the jewel of the empire. The last chapters discuss the controversy over archeological artifacts; to whom do they belong? Heaney also discusses his own adventures in Peru as he searched out the information to write this book.

It is engrossing reading of a subject about which not much has been written. The review in the Wall Street Journal was what encouraged me to read this book, which I read aloud with my husband. We both enjoyed it, and when we go to Peru, we will be glad that we had read it.

Christopher Heaney is a professor at the University of Texas. Here is his website:

Here is an interesting interview Heaney did with the Yale Daily News. It deals with the ongoing controversy that Hiram Bingham looted Machu Picchu and that Yale is withholding valuable gold pieces from the Peruvian government.

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