Who really discovered Machu Picchu?

According to conventional wisdom, the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, a dashing American explorer with a satisfyingly assonant name who later went on to be the Governor of Connecticut and a US Senator. A charming tale, so much so that Bingham is widely reputed to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

Problem is, Bingham may not have been the first to locate Macchu Picchu. New research suggests the lost city was actually found in 1867- some 44 years before Bingham- by a German businessman named Augusto Berns. And far from being a dashing Harrison Ford-esque type motivated by the quest for knowledge and adventure, Berns was more interested in looting the wealth of artifacts contained within the ancient metropolis. Which he did, apparently with the blessing of the Peruvian government. Content to keep the horde all to himself, he never made his discovery public.

Bingham's removal of some 40,000 artifacts (now housed at Yale University) from Machu PIcchu has long been controversial, with the Peruvian government demanding their return. Since Berns may have removed many more thousands of Incan treasures, it now appears that the city housed a far larger archaeological trove than previously thought. And since the Peruvian government apparently gave Berns permission to ransack the site, their demand that the artifacts be returned now seems a little less credible.

The moral: if you find something neat in the world, chances arean unscrupulous businessman has already been there and stripped it of everything valuable. Perhaps a bit too specific to put on a mug, but it explains why there was a McDonald's in my childhood sandbox.