The stones at Machu Picchu seem almost alive. They may be alive, if you credit the religious beliefs of the ruler Pachacuti Yupanqui, whose subjects in the early 15th century constructed the granite Inca complex, high above a curling river and nestled among jagged green peaks. To honor the spirits that take form as mountains, the Inca stoneworkers carved rock outcrops to replicate their shapes. Doorways and windows of sublimely precise masonry frame exquisite views. But this extraordinary marriage of setting and architecture only partly explains the fame of Machu Picchu today. Just as important is the romantic history, both of the people who built it in this remote place and of the explorer who brought it to the attention of the world. The Inca succumbed to Spanish conquest in the 16th century; and the explorer Hiram Bingham III, whose long life lasted almost as many years as the Inca empire, died in 1956. Like the stones of Machu Picchu, however, the voices of the Inca ruler and the American explorer continue to resonate.
Imposingly tall and strong-minded, Bingham was the grandson of a famous missionary who took Christianity to the Hawaiian islanders. In his efforts to locate lost places of legend, the younger Bingham proved to be as resourceful. Bolstered by the fortune of his wife, who was a Tiffany heiress, and a faculty position at Yale University, where he taught South American history, Bingham traveled to Peru in 1911 in hopes of finding Vilcabamba, the redoubt in the Andean highlands where the last Inca resistance forces retreated from the Spanish conquerors. Instead he stumbled upon Machu Picchu. With the joint support of Yale and the National Geographic Society, Bingham returned twice to conduct archeological digs in Peru. In 1912, he and his team excavated Machu Picchu and shipped nearly 5,000 artifacts back to Yale. Two years later, he staged a final expedition to explore sites near Machu Picchu in the Sacred Valley.
If you have visited Machu Picchu, you will probably find Bingham’s excavated artifacts at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven to be a bit of a letdown. Mostly, the pieces are bones, in varying stages of decomposition, or pots, many of them in fragments. Unsurpassed as stonemasons, engineers and architects, the Incas thought more prosaically when it came to ceramics. Leaving aside unfair comparisons to the jaw-dropping Machu Picchu site itself, the pottery of the Inca, even when intact, lacks the drama and artistry of the ceramics of earlier civilizations of Peru like the Moche and Nazca. Everyone agrees that the Machu Picchu artifacts at Yale are modest in appearance. That has not prevented, however, a bare-knuckled disagreement from developing over their rightful ownership. Peru says the Bingham objects were sent to Yale on loan and their return is long overdue. Yale demurs.
In many ways, the dispute between Yale and Peru is unlike the headline-making investigations that have impelled the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to repatriate ancient artifacts to their countries of origin. It does not revolve around criminal allegations of surreptitious tomb-raiding and black-market antiquities deals. But if the circumstances are unique, the background sentiments are not. Other countries as well as Peru are demanding the recovery of cultural treasures removed by more powerful nations many years ago. The Greeks want the Parthenon marbles returned to Athens from the British Museum; the Egyptians want the same museum to surrender the Rosetta Stone and, on top of that, seek to spirit away the bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Where might it all end? One clue comes in a sweeping request from China. As a way of combating plunder of the present as well as the past, the Chinese government has asked the United States to ban the import of all Chinese art objects made before 1911. The State Department has been reviewing the Chinese request for more than two years.
The movement for the repatriation of “cultural patrimony” by nations whose ancient past is typically more glorious than their recent history provides the framework for the dispute between Peru and Yale. To the scholars and administrators of Yale, the bones, ceramics and metalwork are best conserved at the university, where ongoing research is gleaning new knowledge of the civilization at Machu Picchu under the Inca. Outside Yale, most everyone I talked to wants the collection to go back to Peru, but many of them are far from disinterested arbiters. In the end, if the case winds up in the United States courts, its disposition may be determined by narrowly legalistic interpretations of specific Peruvian laws and proclamations. Yet the passions that ignite it are part of a broad global phenomenon. “My opinion reflects the opinion of most Peruvians,” Hilda Vidal, a curator at the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru in Lima, told me. “In general, anything that is patrimony of the cultures of the world, whether in museums in Asia or Europe or the United States, came to be there during the times when our governments were weak and the laws were weak, or during the Roman conquest or our conquest by the Spanish. Now that the world is more civilized, these countries should reflect on this issue. It saddens us Peruvians to go to museums abroad and see a Paracas textile. I am hopeful that in the future all the cultural patrimony of the world will return to its country of origin.” Behind her words, I could imagine a gigantic sucking whoosh, as the display cases in the British Museum, the Smithsonian, the Louvre and the other great universal museums of the world were cleansed of their contents, leaving behind the clattering of a few Wedgwood bowls and SÃ¨vres teacups.
Richard Burger’s office at Yale is dowdily decorated with modern Peruvian handicrafts, sculptures and fabrics. Although Burger, a professor of anthropology, has devoted his professional career to Peruvian archaeology, everything he excavates remains in Peru, as required by law. With his wife, Lucy Salazar, a native of Lima whom he met while she was studying archaeology at San Marcos University there, Burger organized an exhibition, “Machu Picchu: Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas,” which, in 2003 and 2004, toured the United States and displayed many of the objects that Bingham sent back to Yale.
When Burger and Salazar came to Yale in 1981, most of the Inca artifacts were in storage. “We didn’t know if the collection would support an exhibition,” Burger told me. “It was scattered in different rooms of the Peabody. There had been fires and floods. Some of it desperately needed conservation work — it was deteriorating because it wasn’t climate-controlled.” Their notion was to create an exhibition in cooperation with the government of Peru, a prospect that the Peruvian tourist authority greeted with enthusiasm but no financing. Since Yale would provide only seed money, they had to come up with financing — slightly more than $1 million — to conserve the objects and bankroll the exhibition.
Never relinquishing hope that Peru might be a sponsor of the show, they were encouraged by a change of administration. The authoritarian Alberto Fujimori regime fell in a human rights and corruption scandal in 2000; following a brief transitional government, Alejandro Toledo was elected in 2001 as the first ethnically indigenous president of the country. Toledo has an inspiring personal story. Growing up as an impoverished shoeshine boy in a small town, he caught the eye of a Peace Corps volunteer, who arranged to have him study in California at the University of San Francisco. Toledo went on to do graduate work at Stanford University, where he met his future wife: Eliane Karp, a French-born student of anthropology and linguistics who was preparing a Ph.D. dissertation on the Latin American indigenous-culture movement and its relationship to Europe in the early 20th century. A gifted linguist, she speaks the native Andean language of Quechua. (Her husband does not.) At the suggestion of a friend who was advising the Toledo campaign, Burger and Salazar met with Karp-Toledo in her temporary office in August 2001, just after the new administration took power. The meeting went well. “We were very optimistic,” Burger told me. “This is a guy with a degree from Stanford, and his wife speaks Quechua and is interested in anthropology. We thought maybe Yale and Peru could have an educational initiative together.” Karp-Toledo told them she would like to learn more.
“She said, ‘Send me a proposal, not to my office but to my house, and I’ll show it to my husband,’ ” Salazar recalled.
“So we wrote up a proposal that involved an educational mission,” Burger said. “We sent it to them. When we went to Peru the following year, they said, ‘Why don’t we meet in the palace?’ ”
Before being admitted to see Karp-Toledo on that morning in August 2002, Burger and Salazar were kept waiting for an hour and a half while she conferred with an anthropologist, Luis Lumbreras, who was well known to the Yale couple. A charismatic Marxist, Lumbreras was one of Salazar’s professors at San Marcos. He is an expert on pre-Inca Peruvian cultures, and is best known academically for his pioneering excavations of an ancient ceremonial capital, ChavÃn de Huantar. Burger later worked at the same site and published studies that discredited many of Lumbreras’s conclusions. Scholars can be as jealously territorial as nations when it comes to the proprietorship of cultural patrimony. Entering Karp-Toledo’s office, Burger and Salazar discovered with mild consternation that Lumbreras would be participating in the discussion. Soon after, the president himself appeared.
“During the meeting, Toledo came in and gave his opinion,” Burger said.
“It was the first time we saw him,” Salazar continued. “He said: ‘I saw the proposal, it’s great. When can I sign? I want to be at the opening of the exhibition.’ ”
After Toledo made his exuberant offer to travel to New Haven, there was an uneasy silence. Then his wife reprimanded him.
“Eliane raised her finger and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere,’ ” Salazar continued. “That moment was embarrassing, for me as a Peruvian.”
“For me as a man it was embarrassing,” Burger said.
“He started to fix his tie,” Salazar went on.
“He said, ‘I have to go back to my cabinet meeting, I have left all cultural matters in Eliane’s hands,’ ” Burger recalled.
Once Toledo departed, Karp-Toledo expressed herself clearly.
“It was very uncomfortable,” Burger said. “She said she wanted everything back. It was a question of legal repatriation.”
“She said, ‘This is a proposal that you have written, not that we have written,’ ” Salazar said.
“Lumbreras began to give a history of Machu Picchu that was completely wrong,” Burger said. “He was saying that all of the material should have been returned in six months.” Evidently, Karp-Toledo was guided by his counsel.
“Eliane is a child of the ’60s, of Paris and Berkeley, of the rights of indigenous people,” Burger told me. “For her, meeting Lumbreras is like meeting the reincarnation of Che Guevara, the embodiment of the Latin American revolution.”
The meeting at the presidential palace limped on for an hour and a half before it adjourned awkwardly.
Karp-Toledo is a slim woman with long, wavy reddish blond hair and a fondness for fashionable versions of Andean woolens and ethnic jewelry. She left Peru in July 2006, two weeks before the inauguration of her husband’s successor, Alan GarcÃa, a former president whom Toledo defeated in the previous election. (In Peru, presidents are barred from serving consecutive terms, so Toledo could not run for re-election.) Karp-Toledo’s enemies say she skipped out to avoid arrest on charges of financial chicanery. When I visited her at Stanford University in January, she pooh-poohed the suggestion. “I didn’t want to see Alan GarcÃa inaugurated,” she told me. “It is very sad for Peru.” Stanford, where she studied for a doctorate without completing her dissertation, welcomed her back, along with her husband.
In a graduate seminar in anthropology, Karp-Toledo was explaining to her students that much of our knowledge of the isolated Inca culture, which lacked a written language, comes from the chronicles of the Spanish conquerors. What the Spaniards didn’t comprehend was that their Inca informants viewed past events as a malleable clay to be fashioned into a pleasing form. Today some scholars assert that the practices of the 21st-century descendants of the Incas provide a corrective to the accounts in the chronicles. In the south Andean highlands around the former capital of Cuzco, the peasant farmers may pour a glass of CusqueÃ±a beer instead of the corn beverage chicha on the floor for the earth goddess, Pachamama, but the old ways survive. Like Bingham, Karp-Toledo is fascinated by the final stronghold of the Inca and the archaeological remains that have been uncovered there, but her interest is not that of a romantic explorer. For her, the power of cultural patrimony lies in its potential to motivate the living. She argues that the ruins of the last independent Inca capital can inspire Peru’s indigenous people to free themselves politically of domination by the Peruvian elite, which is largely of Spanish ancestry. “The last Inca retreated after losing Ollantaytambo, deeper to Vicabamba, which is now jungle, then to Vilcabamba,” she told her students. “The resistance lasted about 40 years in a society organized into several cities. The last resistance, with the farmers or campesinos, still is existing today. And it is very interesting to see today how these architectural symbols help to keep the resistance going.”
As first lady, Karp-Toledo devoted much of her energy to recalibrating such potent symbols of Peru’s past. I had been told that she banished from the Plaza Mayor in Lima the statue of Francisco Pizarro, the conquistador who held hostage and then executed Atahualpa, the hapless son and successor of the last great Inca, Huayna Capac. When we talked outside the classroom, Karp-Toledo smilingly told me that the story was untrue. “It is often associated with me, but I had no part in the decision,” she said. She credited the mayor of Lima with removing the monument, but allowed that during the campaign she gave a newspaper interview in which she discussed it. “I said, ‘I don’t know too many people in the world who have a statue of their conqueror in the plaza and are worshiping him and honoring him,’ ” she recalled. “I think the guy is a genocide and has no place in the plaza.” Still, she acknowledged that in Lima, the criollos, who are descendants of the Spanish, see the past differently. “The Peruvian elites looked at Pizarro as a civilizer, which we know is not so,” she told me. “I took down a huge painting of him, armed and everything, at the top of the staircase of the Presidential Palace. I didn’t want to see it every day.” The Toledo administration also flew the rainbow Inca pennant alongside the modern Peruvian flag on top of the palace. “I’m sure Alan GarcÃa took it down,” she told me. “He’s so criollo, and we are so totally different.” Even though it is her husband who is a cholo, or indigenous Peruvian, Karp-Toledo far outdoes him in her ardor for the native customs and religious beliefs. Because she is of European origin, she was derided by her many enemies as la gringa and dismissed as the particular sort of gringa who latches onto indigenous styles in a sentimental and condescending way.
The day after Toledo was inaugurated in Lima as president in July 2001, a second oath-taking ceremony was held at Machu Picchu. “We decided that we would go to be inaugurated in a place that we know and care about and that is part of Alejandro’s heritage,” Karp-Toledo explained. “Machu Picchu is such a symbol. There was a Pachamama offering and an offering to the high mountains, the apus, who are the main custodial gods of Cuzco. There are quite a few apus where Machu Picchu is located.”
Unlike most other great Inca settlements, Machu Picchu was overlooked and untouched by the Spanish, and the sensibility of its creators palpably survives. The manifest care and sensitivity of the construction — the way the avenues were laid out, the buildings and altars were sited and the stones were cut and joined — all testify to a reverence for the natural world that to us seems otherworldly. Of course, feeling the spiritual tug of Machu Picchu doesn’t necessarily lead to a conversion to Inca religious practices. According to Jorge Flores Ochoa, a prominent professor of anthropology at the University of Cuzco, the American-educated Toledo hung back from the televised religious ceremony of the burning of a sacred packet at his inaugural festivities as Karp-Toledo joined in enthusiastically.
Among the many foreign guests who attended Toledo’s inauguration at Machu Picchu was Terry Garcia, an executive vice president of the National Geographic Society. He represented an organization with a long relationship with the site. The 1911 expedition in which Bingham first saw Machu Picchu was sponsored solely by Yale, but the explorer’s two subsequent research trips to Peru — in 1912 and 1914-15 — were jointly backed by Yale and the National Geographic Society. Indeed, Bingham’s Machu Picchu excavation of 1912 was the first archaeological dig that National Geographic supported. When Bingham’s riveting account of his finds appeared in 1913, an entire issue of the magazine was devoted to the article. “We’re always going to have an interest in this,” Garcia told me. “It’s part of our history.” Peru, with its natural and archaeological treasures, remained an important place for the society.
Prompted by an outside inquiry, Garcia began an intensive education in the role of National Geographic and Yale at Machu Picchu not long after he started in his job. He says that after reviewing the legal record he became convinced that Peru was entitled to have back the objects that Bingham brought out. The agreement was especially clear-cut on the last expedition, of 1914-15. Because a change of political leadership in Peru had weakened his standing in the country, Bingham did not receive permission to dig again at Machu Picchu, but only at nearby sites; and he was forced to agree to return whatever research materials he took to Yale within 18 months, a period that was later extended. According to Yale (though not Peru), all the artifacts that Bingham exported in the third expedition were repatriated in 1921. But that is a coda to the earlier dig, the one that is laden with symbolism and has provoked the uproar. A clause in the agreement authorizing the historic 1912 excavation, while not time-specific, states that Peru “reserves the right of requiring of Yale University and the National Geographic Society of the United States the restitution of single and duplicate artifacts that might be extracted and have been extracted,” as well as copies of all research papers and reports. “Title wasn’t ever meant to be transferred,” Garcia says. “It was a loan.” From his perspective, any dispute over the Bingham collection could only damage the position of the National Geographic Society in Peru — “a very rich country in terms of its natural and cultural resources” — and limit the society’s access to Peru’s cultural patrimony for future magazine articles, museum exhibits and television programs.
At the end of 2000, Garcia met two well-connected men at a dinner party at the Greek Embassy in Washington: José Koechlin, a Lima-based travel-company owner and conservationist, and Barton Lewis, an American friend of Koechlin’s who worked in the Peruvian tourism industry. It was Koechlin, upon learning of a planned Peruvian magazine article on Bingham’s failure to return the Machu Picchu artifacts, who had asked Lewis to call friends at National Geographic, thereby triggering Garcia’s interest in the case. In the Peruvian business community, which is ruled by relationships, Koechlin stood to benefit from a connection with the famous National Geographic. He also had a potential interest in seeing the artifacts return to Peru. Koechlin’s flagship property is the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, a luxurious boutique hotel in Aguas Calientes, the tourist town that grew up around the Machu Picchu train station and is a 20-minute bus ride from the archaeological site. The sole attraction in unlovely Aguas Calientes is a Machu Picchu museum at the other end of town from the Inkaterra Pueblo. Few tourists are even aware of it. If the museum could be enhanced with the Yale holdings, or if a new “interpretive center” could be constructed with the National Geographic Society’s assistance, there would be another reason for affluent tourists to stay an extra night in Aguas Calientes, aside from the hummingbirds and high-thread-count bedsheets at the Inkaterra Pueblo. Koechlin told me there was nothing to this line of talk, which I had heard propounded several times in Lima, a city where the rumors roll in as thick as the winter fog. He said that he chose to become involved as a patriotic Peruvian.
The influential Koechlin arranged for Lewis and Garcia to attend the Toledo inauguration festivities at Machu Picchu. In the throng, they began talking with a small group of civic-minded Cuzco residents and some Peruvian officials — including Lumbreras, who was then serving as director of the National Museum of Archaeology. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned to the Bingham artifacts. What was said, however, surprised Lumbreras greatly. “Up until that point, we believed it was the responsibility of Yale, and Peruvians thought they had no right to reclaim it,” Lumbreras told me. “After this meeting, we began to investigate.”
Until then, the repatriation fight would have looked to the hardheaded Lumbreras like the quirky one-woman crusade of a freelance historian, the eccentric Mariana Mould de Pease. Over the last decade, she has been the most persistent proponent of legally recovering the Yale objects. When I visited her house in the comfortable Miraflores district of Lima, Mould de Pease laid out many copies of documents and old maps on her dining-room table. A woman subject to bursts of fluttery, birdlike excitement, she was wearing on a silver chain around her neck a large pendant with a photograph of her late husband, Franklin Pease, a distinguished historian of pre-Conquest and early colonial Peru. Nineteenth-century portraits of her family, which is partly of English descent on her side and partly American on Pease’s, stared down at us from the walls.
A LimeÃ±a of European ancestry, Mould de Pease nonetheless vehemently supports the indigenous claims on Machu Picchu, a back-burner issue in Lima but a heated topic in Cuzco. In the minds of the CuzqueÃ±os, who inhabit the place that the Inca called “the navel of the world,” their compatriots in Lima, the imperial capital that the Spanish established on the coast, are greedily selling off the national patrimony. Even in Bingham’s day, Mould de Pease told me, there were CuzqueÃ±os who tried to block the trains from Machu Picchu that were loaded with artifacts bound for Lima and then for New Haven. Because Machu Picchu is by far the most important tourist attraction in the country, it has become a pawn in the never-ending power struggle between the LimeÃ±os and the CuzqueÃ±os. People in Cuzco would tell me that Machu Picchu is a sacred place that must be protected from commercialization and excessive tourism. When I said that to people in Lima, they would insist that there is no fault line between the two cities. Koechlin, for instance, told me that Peru is a Catholic country, both in the highlands and on the coast, and that the “elitist” criticisms of mass tourism in Machu Picchu originated with foreigners, not CuzqueÃ±os. “Pablo Neruda came to Machu Picchu and said, ‘I want to walk and be alone,’ ” Koechlin said. “That is very elitist. Then in the 1990s, HernÃ¡n Crespo of Unesco said he goes to Machu Picchu to be alone. That is elitist. It is not a sacred religious place like Americans have sacred sites. It’s more a poetic thing.” I repeated Koechlin’s remarks in Cuzco to Fernando Astete, an archaeologist and the director of the Machu Picchu park, who was telling me that the Yale collection could not be shared (though many of the pieces were found as duplicates in the tombs) because the Andean people feel they need pairs of objects for their ceremonies even today, to express the male-female duality of the universe. “He is an ignoramus,” Astete said angrily. “He lives in Lima, which is a Western city. Lima is Lima. All they care about is money.”
The political conflict over Machu Picchu has as many dramatic episodes as a telenovela. In the 1990s, the Fujimori government caused an uproar when it proposed leasing the archeological parks, including Machu Picchu, to private concessions and building a cable car that would take visitors directly to the Machu Picchu site. Replacing the present bus ride or long, steep walk from the train station, the cable car could have doubled or tripled the number of visitors. Mould was among those outraged. “They were trying to use Machu Picchu as a place just for entertainment,” she told me. Hotel and train magnates, including Koechlin, supported the scheme, which was eventually defeated by a coalition of Cuzco students, international scholars, New Age believers in spiritual energy and the holders of the Aguas Calientes bus monopoly. “They were going to destroy the area with the number of people,” says David Ugarte, an anthropology professor at the University of Cuzco who led the student protests. “And the cable car was a cultural aggression, because Machu Picchu was built by Pachacuti as a place for religious purposes and resting. What the Western people call mountains were divinities for the Andean people. They were going to make holes in the divinities.”
Mould’s participation in the cable-car protests was merely a sideline to her research and writing, which increasingly focused on the role of Hiram Bingham. In November 1999, her husband died unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer. “I was shocked,” she told me. “I was 56. What would I do with my life? I need an anchor.” She resolved that she would “tell the Peruvian version” of the Bingham expeditions. In the process of stripping away the reputation of the celebrated Yalie — “this dashing man, so handsome, so Western, so Caucasian” — she came across presidential decrees that authorized Bingham’s excavations and seemed to reserve Peru’s rights to recover objects that he removed. In the spring of 2000, Koechlin got advance word of an article that Mould was preparing. This is how, through Lewis, he came to raise the issue with the National Geographic Society and how the matter reached Lumbreras’s attention at the inaugural ceremony the following year.
Lumbreras says that when he returned from Machu Picchu, he ordered a search at the National Museum of Archaeology for Yale’s restitutional shipments. He found some boxes returned in 1921, but of course nothing from the historic 1912 Machu Picchu expedition. “They had returned boxes of animal bones and human bones that were not from Machu Picchu,” he said. “This was an insult. The boxes were more valuable than their contents.” He asked Mould to compile information for him on the legal decrees that governed Bingham’s excavations, and he brought the file to Eliane Karp-Toledo. He told me that the first lady was “particularly interested” in Machu Picchu. “It was in her line of interest, the defense of the indigenous world,” he explained. “She said she was a CuzqueÃ±a.” I looked at him quizzically and said, “She did?” He shrugged and smiled. Although he could not recall when he delivered Mould’s documentation, it would have happened sometime between Burger and Salazar’s first meeting with Karp-Toledo, which had been so encouraging, and the second meeting at the Presidential Palace, which went so badly.
Lumbreras concluded from the inquiry that Yale had made “a serious promise that was not fulfilled.” To him, the case is important not for the objects themselves. “Inca pottery is nothing special,” he said. “The pieces are important because they are of a particular historical context. And besides being from Machu Picchu, they are important because they represent the first time the Peruvian government took steps to protect its cultural heritage. The goal is the recovery of our legal rights.” He expressed no desire to establish a new museum. “Nobody goes to Machu Picchu to see a museum, much less to see if there are any pots,” he said. “You need a lot of time to see the site, they don’t want to waste time to see a museum. Besides, they’re not fabulous collections.” He said that, no matter what Karp-Toledo believed, he foresaw no significant benefits for the indigenous people in the recovery of these artifacts. “Machu Picchu belongs to multinational companies — the train companies, the hotel chains — like all world patrimony,” he said. Yet, unsentimental as that sounds, he said he shares the Peruvian attachment to these ancient indigenous cultures, some of them extinguished far more totally than the Incas. “There is a relation between Peruvian places like Machu Picchu, ChavÃn and Chan Chan,” he said. “We think it is part of the same story. I have a completely criollo education and background. I am closer to Aristotle than to Huayna Capac, maybe, in my way of thinking and speaking. Nevertheless, I feel very closely tied to this patrimony we have inherited. It is not an ethnic issue, much less a racial one. Racially, I am mixed indigenous with a very Western brain. Ideologically, I am an atheist, so I don’t have anything to do with the indigenous religion. But because Machu Picchu is from here, people say, ‘It is mine.’ That is the way people see things.”
At this point, the cultural-patrimony dispute between Peru and Yale began to resemble one of those bitter custody battles in which the adoptive parents painstakingly document how they have provided the child with a superior home while the birth parents, insisting that they never intended to give up their progeny permanently, seek recourse in the courts. In some ways, Peru’s claim against Yale mirrored the more famous bickering between the British Museum, which maintains that Lord Elgin rescued the Parthenon frieze from target practice and souvenir seekers, and the Greek government, which argues that a central treasure of its history was illegitimately seized while the country was under the colonial domination of the Ottoman Empire. The Peruvian case, however, featured a legal paper trail of documents.
By late 2001, Burger and Salazar had rounded up their financing and were proceeding at full speed on their show. They dispatched a photographer to Machu Picchu. They made a latex mold of a palace wall to demonstrate the masterful masonry and constructed dioramas of an Inca ruler conferring with an emissary and of Bingham entering the burial caves. They exhumed Bingham’s diaries from the archives and cameras from storage to be placed in a display case. They also sought pieces that would be more impressive than the mostly humdrum things that Bingham had sent back to Yale. They told me that Peru canceled a promised loan of Inca gold at the last minute, but they obtained substitutes from a private American collection. The show — which was the first traveling exhibition organized by the Peabody — was a success, visiting six American museums and attracting more than a million visitors.
Unusually intact and well cataloged, the Bingham collection has great value to scholars of Inca life. In the ’90s, Yale researchers and visiting scholars began to apply up-to-date analytical techniques to artifacts that had been neglected since 1930. From ceramic styles and dental examination, they concluded that most of the people living at Machu Picchu originally hailed from other regions of the empire. Carbon isotopes in human bones revealed that corn, rather than the expected potato, formed the staple diet. The most newsworthy revisionist finding emerged from the study of human bones by John Verano, an expert at Tulane University. Back in 1916, Bingham’s osteologist, George Eaton, reported a 4-to-1 preponderance of women over men in the human remains at Machu Picchu. Largely on that basis, Bingham arrived at his famous conjecture that Machu Picchu was a place for sequestering “chosen women,” those females of exceptional grace and beauty who, according to the Spanish chronicles, were destined to be virgin priestesses or royal concubines. Verano discovered that Eaton was mistaken: there was no such sex disparity. So much for the “chosen women” hypothesis.
Scholarly consensus has disproved as well Bingham’s hunch that Machu Picchu was the place where the Inca empire originated and then, after the Spanish invasion, retreated. Instead, it seems that it was a winter resort in the warmer valley where Pachacuti Yupanqui could escape the harsh Cuzco climate. This theory partly derived from a close reading of a 16th-century Spanish document. In the scientific studies that Burger and Salazar organized on the Bingham artifacts, they gathered archaeological evidence to support the idea that Machu Picchu was, as Salazar puts it, “a kind of Camp David” for a culture in which the ruler indulged himself by fasting while gazing at the mountains, rather than, say, by clearing brush and jogging. Pachacuti was the leader who consolidated the Inca realm; along with his military and civic accomplishments, he had a taste for smooth stone courses and gateways that frame views. The famous Inca architecture in Cuzco, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, as well as Machu Picchu, is attributed to his patronage. “Pachacuti is still considered as a mythic figure to be the best ruler of Peru,” Karp-Toledo told me. For many Peruvians, the connection of Machu Picchu to Pachacuti that was corroborated by the Yale research added emotional weight to the campaign to recover the objects.
Viewed from New Haven, however, the ongoing conservation work and study of the Bingham collection reinforced the argument that Machu Picchu was part of the cultural patrimony of humanity, not of one nation. Even Peruvian partisans usually praise Yale’s stewardship especially when compared with Peru’s record in safeguarding archaeological treasures, which is spotted with the traces of disappearing objects. Twenty-two gold Inca pieces virtually all of the gold in the collection were stolen from the Museo Inka in Cuzco in 1993. Three pre-Inca textiles vanished from a museum in Ica in 2004. Most spectacularly, hundreds of pieces were found to be missing from the National Museum of Archaeology in 1979, forcing the resignations of Lumbreras, in his first stint there as director, and of the museum’s curator of metal objects, who eventually became his second wife. When I inquired, Lumbreras said that most of the thefts predated his administration. He agreed, however, that “it is terrible and true” that Peru has failed to safeguard its patrimony. Whether the solution is to cede guardianship to other countries is a separate question. “The argument is that the developed countries have more money to put in a security system,” Karp-Toledo told me. “Why don’t they help us put in a better security system?” Or, as Flores Ochoa scathingly said, “This is the argument that all the museums that have taken objects from other countries use that the countries don’t take care of these objects. That is what the big countries have to ease their guilty conscience.”
Garcia, the National Geographic official, agreed. Even before Toledo took office, he offered to broker an arrangement between Peru and Yale. He suggested a collaboration of all three parties on an “interpretive center-slash-museum near Machu Picchu” to house some of the Bingham objects, either in the town of Aguas Calientes or alongside the archaeological site. For a year, beginning in July 2001, he and other National Geographic representatives (with the active interest of Koechlin and Lewis) pursued that project. “We thought it was reasonable,” Garcia says. “Yale expressed very little interest in the proposal. Frankly, the attitude they took was, ‘Keep your nose out of our business.’ That probably is still their attitude.” Garcia, however, had his own business reasons to see the dispute resolved: the Peruvian cultural authorities, lumping the National Geographic Society with Yale because of its historic partnership in the Bingham expedition, were threatening to withhold promised loans of Inca mummy textiles for a National Geographic show. This was an ominous portent. If Yale persisted in opposing Peru’s claims, Garcia wanted to make it clear that the National Geographic did not support the university.
By the time of Karp-Toledo’s hostile session with Burger and Salazar in August 2002, positions were hardening. A month afterward, Garcia, Koechlin and Lewis organized a meeting with Lumbreras; Burger told me that when he heard about it through the Lima rumor network, he “couldn’t believe that this was happening behind Yale’s back,” and, from that point, he was disinclined to collaborate with the National Geographic Society because it was “undermining what we were doing.” For his part, Garcia was losing patience with Yale. “It’s so patronizing of them to suggest that you can’t return these objects to Peru because they can’t take care of them — that a country like Peru doesn’t have competent archaeologists or museums,” he says. “Maybe if you were a colonial power in the 19th century you could rationalize that statement. I don’t see how you could make it today. Why not acknowledge that the title belongs to the Peruvian people and work out an agreement with Peru? You get out from under this horrible controversy with Peru and you are still able to conduct scholarly work.”
But it was not quite that simple. Granting Peru ownership of the collection would have binding implications. Under Peruvian law, antiquities cannot stay outside the country for more than two years before they must be returned. This statute, designed to protect the national patrimony, was to Yale’s thinking an obstacle to repatriating the collection. “Part of our concern with the materials we have here not the museum-quality objects but the study collection, the small sherds and pieces of things is that we are very concerned about scientific research and ongoing analysis,” Barbara Shailor, who is Yale’s deputy provost for the arts, told me. “If objects must be returned in two years, what does that mean in terms of scholarly research?”
At the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, President Richard Levin of Yale met with Eduardo Ferrero, the ambassador at the time. “He said he would study the issue, and we agreed to have another meeting,” Ferrero told me. “It didn’t happen. He began to take more and more time.” Levin told me that “universities don’t move very quickly.” But as months passed, Ferrero came to believe that Yale was stalling. He retained an American lawyer and formally requested the return of the collection. In late 2005, he became more aggressive, leading to his announcement of a deadline and an ultimatum. When Yale did not comply, he broke off negotiations in March 2006 and declared that Peru would take its case to the courts. He says that Yale knew very well that a new government would take office in Lima that summer. “They didn’t act according to the principles of good faith,” he told me. “I think they wanted to gain time. They thought that with a change of government, the new government would not give so much importance to the issue.”
The Toledo administration left without filing a lawsuit. As many people told me, Yale is far more affluent than Peru, and lawsuits are expensive. When the administration of Alan GarcÃa took office in July 2006, a commission (established in Toledo’s last months, but with the membership now changed) placed the matter under review. The ubiquitous Koechlin is on the commission as well. Last March, I asked Santiago Marcovich, the Foreign Ministry official who then headed the commission, if the GarcÃa government would be as adamant as Toledo’s in pursuing the claim. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so. I don’t know. It’s a different way of tackling the problem. We cannot be so conflictive. Or maybe yes. It depends on the action of Yale. It is action-reaction. Peruvian law doesn’t allow us to make any concession on matters of cultural heritage.”
Choosing to be more conciliatory toward a government that might be open to compromise, Yale last month extended a new proposal to the GarcÃa administration. The university showed me two letters sent to Peruvian officials in which Yale offered to send back “the museum-quality (that is, whole) objects excavated by Bingham at Machu Picchu” for display in a “state-of-the-art museum exclusively dedicated to Machu Picchu” that would be opened in Cuzco in collaboration with Yale on the centennial anniversary of Bingham’s 1911 discovery of the site. To help raise money for the museum, Yale would resurrect its touring exhibition, which — including dioramas and ceramics — would end up permanently in Cuzco. This represents a significant concession over Yale’s past proposal to divide possession of the approximately 300 display-worthy objects. The research collection, however, would continue to reside in New Haven. “The museum-quality pieces are the ones that people will want to see,” Shailor, the deputy provost, told me. “I don’t think they will want to see the end of a little finger or five dog bones, but these are extraordinarily valuable from a research perspective.” When I spoke with him in early May, Levin said that Yale is prepared to concede Peruvian title to the entire collection, but only after the ultimate physical allocation of the objects has been negotiated. In other words, Peru’s pride will be assuaged if Yale’s research needs can be met. Whether Peru will consent to those terms — indeed, whether the GarcÃa government is at liberty to do so, legally or politically — is uncertain; but earlier this month, Peru told Yale that it was prepared to resume talks, with Housing Minister HernÃ¡n Garrido-Lecca, a former investment banker who did postgraduate work at Harvard and M.I.T., as its lead negotiator. “We have clearly stated that we would like to proceed in these negotiations, but first we would like a complete list of the pieces that were taken by Hiram Bingham in his expeditions to Peru,” Garrido-Lecca told me. “We want to have a friendly negotiation. In the end, we would like to have every piece in Peru, of course. But we would like to have a long-term relationship with Yale. We have a totally different attitude toward this matter than the previous administration.”
Burger and Salazar say they acknowledge the return of the museum-quality objects to Peru as a painful inevitability. (Salazar winced when I mentioned an attractive pair of dishes decorated with butterflies.) For both of them, but especially for Salazar, who is currently conducting an inventory, the Bingham collection has provided an outstanding career opportunity. If the dispute is amicably resolved, their hope is that Yale and Peru will collaborate on educational and scientific programs in the future. Yale officials would also like to borrow, for display on a rotating basis in the Peabody museum, objects that Bingham excavated at Machu Picchu. “We would want to continue some presence, because it is an important part of the Peabody’s history,” Shailor told me. “Hiram Bingham is such an extraordinary figure.” She paused almost imperceptibly, and added, “For his age.”
Many of the Peruvians who are clamoring for the return of the Yale collection belittle Bingham’s achievement. “It is increasingly evident that Bingham did not ‘discover’ Machu Picchu,” Flores, the Cuzco anthropologist, told me. “The place was not too far away from Cuzco. It is within a known farm, Cutija. Machu Picchu was always known by the CuzqueÃ±os, especially by farmers of that area.” Flores speaks with authority. He comes from a leading Cuzco family, and his maternal grandfather acquired the farm opposite Cutija in 1890. Flores says that the rector of the University of Cuzco informed Bingham of the whereabouts of Machu Picchu. And, obviously, the local farmers knew of it: the child of one farmer escorted Bingham to the site, where the American explorer, far from being in terra incognita, photographed graffiti that had been scrawled by another farmer. “Because we are getting close to the centenary of the discovery, it has brought up a debate on who really discovered Machu Picchu,” Flores continued. “After the people see that CuzqueÃ±os knew about it, they say: ‘Who is Bingham? He didn’t discover the pieces. He was told. And why does Yale have it? They should give it back. Because he did not discover Machu Picchu. On the contrary, he was someone who took things from Machu Picchu.’ ”
The notion that Bingham did not really discover Machu Picchu is set forth at the Machu Picchu site museum, where the wall labels pointedly state that “this place was not unknown to the local inhabitants.” Fernando Astete, an archaeologist who has worked at the Machu Picchu park since 1978 and been director of it since 2001, wants the Bingham collection to be exhibited at the site’s museum. When I spoke with him in Cuzco, he said: “I am happy with the museum. It has temperature control and humidity control and guards.” But when I visited the site museum, which is located about a mile and a half from the Aguas Calientes train station, I found evidence of none of those amenities. The doors were open to the air, which was moist from the nearby river, and the sole official was a caretaker who sold tickets and then exited the building. On display in the attractive (if unguarded) museum are the finds that Peruvian archaeologists have made at Machu Picchu in the years since Bingham’s excavations. “In the last 30 years, we have found a good collection — ceramics, metal, stone, spondylus shells, very few textiles,” Astete said. “We also have found tombs that Bingham didn’t find.” The Machu Picchu museum contains fewer intact ceramics than are at the Yale Peabody. There is, however, one unique object: a gold bracelet found in 1995, the only gold ever uncovered at the site. It was located in the loose-fill foundation of a plaza, most likely placed there as an offering during construction.
Burger and other scholars believe there was no gold for Bingham to find at Machu Picchu because the royal family would take precious objects back to Cuzco when they left the estate. During his lifetime, however, Bingham was plagued by rumors that he had smuggled gold out of Machu Picchu through Bolivia. Those rumors persist. I heard them myself in Peru, from people who told me that their grandparents witnessed Bingham’s caravans laden with mysterious material, heading east for the border to evade export controls.
Such gossip is wishful thinking. By the time Bingham came to Peru, there was very little Inca gold remaining anywhere in the world. It vanished centuries earlier. When Francisco Pizarro seized Atahualpa in 1532 and held him hostage, the Inca ordered his subjects to collect a ransom. The obedient populace stripped the enormous gleaming panels and other lavish embellishments from the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, which were a legacy of Pachacuti. They dismantled an artificial garden of sculptures of corn, flowers and birds, all realistically made with precious metals. They conveyed vases, idols, drums, pots, altars, fountains, masks and other creations of the finest goldsmiths — the tribute that this great and isolated civilization had paid to its gods and rulers. The chronicles record the steady arrival of prodigious quantities of gold, which the conquerors stored alongside their prisoner. All for naught. The Spanish executed Atahualpa anyway and melted down the treasure to ship home. As I talked to people in Peru about the Bingham collection, this tragic history was always flickering in the background. The Spanish ships heavy with plunder sailed from Peru long ago. The patrimony is irretrievable, the Spaniards unaccountable. Yet the drama continues to play out, like a recurring nightmare or a neurotic repetition compulsion, within Peru today. Precious objects that remain in Peru — things far more beautiful than the Machu Picchu crockery — are still being extracted at a horrifying rate. In many parts of the country, especially along the coast, tomb-robbing is a major industry: the huaqueros sell the plundered antiquities to middlemen for placement with rich collectors in Lima or abroad. The dispute with Yale is a sideshow.
Historic relics have pragmatic value: politically, for purposes of national pride and partisan advantage; economically, for display to tourists, museumgoers, magazine readers and TV-program watchers; scientifically, as research material for scholars pursuing academic careers; and, most nakedly, as merchandise for dealers in antiquities. In comparing the arguments and motivations of the different claimants to the Yale collection, I often identified with historians of the Inca trying to untangle those Spanish chronicles that were spun from the tales of native informants with their own purposes. The people at Yale say that they have preserved the collection as a legacy of a great civilization and they want to continue to study these artifacts to learn more about that culture. They are also paying tribute to one of the most colorful and glamorous figures in the university’s history. The Peruvians celebrate their own legendary ancestor when they describe the urgency of their case, but they also have very down-to-earth political and commercial uses for the collection. “Cultural patrimony” — the phrase sounds so otherworldly. Bingham and Pachacuti were both very practical men. They would not have been fooled for a minute.