Not discovery, but rediscovery
What kid hasn’t pretended to venture through the dense jungle (really their backyard) and suddenly stumble across vast ruins, untouched for centuries? It’s an adventure fantasy deeply ingrained in our psyche, built on the journeys of 19th- and early-20th-century explorers. “Lost” cities, hidden to the outside world, offer valuable information about the past when they’re found and studied. Usually, the people who lived in such places left or died due to war or conquest, disease, economic hardship, or natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, or volcanic eruptions. Hundreds of these sites around the world are often clustered near formerly thriving civilisations, including those of the Incas, the Maya, the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Egyptians. Some legendary cities are generally regarded today to be fictional, but others may exist and continue to be searched for today. They remain some of the ancient mysteries researchers still can’t explain.
Today, though, modern archaeologists recognise the importance of respecting and working with local people, and utilising local knowledge, when it comes to “rediscovering” sites that have been there all along. As archaeologists say, “It’s not what you find; it’s what you find out.”
Machu Picchu, Peru
Perhaps the most famous rediscovered city and now one of the most popular travel destinations in South America, Machu Picchu sits high in the Peruvian Andes. On July 24, 1911, the explorer Hiram Bingham first laid eyes on the majestic site. The local people, though, had known about the ruins and actually showed Bingham the way – but his reports became the first time the place was made known to the world at large.
“Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stone work,” he wrote in his 1948 best seller Lost City of the Incas. “It was hard to see them for they were partly covered with trees and moss, the growth of centuries, but in the dense shadow, hiding in bamboo thickets and tangled vines, appeared here and there walls of white granite ashlars carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together.…Dimly I began to realise that this wall and its adjoining semi-circular temple over the cave were as fine as the finest stonework in the world. It fairly took my breath away. What could this place be?”
Researchers now believe it was a summer retreat for the Inca elite. Even though Machu Picchu was abandoned as the Incan empire collapsed in the 16th century, the Spanish invaders never found it. It sat largely undisturbed until Bingham’s arrival.
When Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu, he was actually looking for – and believed he’d found – Vilcabamba, the “lost city of the Incas” that was the emperor’s final refuge before being overthrown by Spanish invaders. Ironically, expeditions after his death proved Bingham had found Vilcabamba. It wasn’t Machu Picchu, though; it was another nearby site called Espiritu Pampa. The archaeologist Gene Savoy re-rediscovered that site in 1964. Even today, Vilcabamba hasn’t been fully excavated; recent research has even discovered evidence of pre-Incan inhabitants called the Wari. Today, plans for a museum and more field research at the site are in the works. Another city Bingham rediscovered, Choquequirao, which means “cradle of gold,” is still being uncovered from the jungle as well.