Who looted Machu Picchu first?

The story as we know it gives Yale University explorer Hiram Bingham III the honor of having been the first Westerner to exploit the Inca ruins in 1911, but a team of historians say one Augusto Berns, a German adventurer and con man, got there way earlier.

Berns made a (sucker’s) deal with the Peruvian government to grab as much loot as he could from Machu Picchu back in 1867.

Berns purchased land across from Machu Picchu in 1867, and an 1887 document even shows he set up a company to plunder the site, Greer told The Associated Press.

Berns wrote that Machu Picchu “‘will undoubtedly contain objects of great value, and form part of those treasures of the Incas,'” Greer said.

Peruvian historian Mariana Mould de Pease backs Greer’s claim. She said she found in Yale University archives a letter of understanding between Berns and Peru’s then-president to pillage the site, as long as the Peruvian government received 10 percent of the profits.

See what I mean about the sucker’s deal? Because, damn, 10 percent is just embarrassing. If you’re going to let foreigners take your country’s cultural patrimony and run, shouldn’t you at least get a decent cut?

This insensate generosity flummoxes me. “Sure, buddeh. Go ahead and take all the piles of painstakingly worked ancient gold you can find. Just leave me a Krugerrand in the tip jar on your way out. Oh, and don’t forget to tell your friends about our great selection and rock-bottom prices!”

Who knows were the stuff Berns took has ended up. We know that Bingham’s loot, a massive collection of over 4000 artifacts ranging from mummies to ceramics to gold jewelry, ended up on display at Yale where it remains to this day, although after much negotiation it is finally slated to return to Peru in 2011.

6 thoughts on “Who looted Machu Picchu first?

  1. Maybe it’s just the relatively sure gains of a 10% deal versus unsure gains of attempting to plunder the site oneself. (I mean, assuming the fundamental attitude of only seeing national historical sites as ATMs in the first place.)

    The then-president may well have seen Berns as an expert looter who would run the operation professionally and pay as arranged. Whereas — try to set it up yourself and you get the hired help robbing you blind, plus more awkward questions about your blatant profiteering. The 10% deal is much easier to keep under the table and out of the news.

    Anyhow. The insensate determination to measure the worth of irreplaceable artifacts in terms of fungible cash flummoxes me more than the generosity.

    1. It seems to me our grasping Peruvian friend could have easily aimed for a 50-50 deal and still been able wash his hands of the details, but I suppose aiming too high is one of the classic blunders of corrupt regimes.

      I do wonder how the governmental and/or cultural elites viewed their Inca heritage at the time. They certainly didn’t treat what was left of Incan descendants terribly well. Perhaps they looked down on the “savages” despite their savage goldsmithing cash money skills.

  2. The AP story is incorrect. Machu Picchu is high on a mountain across and down the Urubamba River from where Berns’s tract was. There is no evidence that he even knew of Machu Picchu’s existence. He did obtain a government decree, dated June 16, 1887, setting forth certain conditions under which he could excavate Inca burials and ruins in the province of Convencion (where his prperty was located) in the department of Cuzco. But no specific sites where named. There is, in fact, no evidence that he ever excavated anything. DBuck

  3. There are several references to this controversy on lastdaysoftheinca.com.

    The proponents of the Berns achu Picchu looting story have not presented a single speck of evidence — other than speculation untethered to facts, the sort Baron Von Munchausen might appreciate — to support the idea that A.R. Berns even knew about, let alone looted Machu Picchu.

    He did establish a stock company in 1887 in Peru, “Huacas del Inca,” with the purported purpose of hunting for Inca treasure. There is no evidence presented so far, however, that he ever turned a spade. It seems more likely that he was hunting treasure in the pockets of gullible investors.

    Several years earlier, in 1881, Berns had another company in which he was seeking the equivalent in today’s money of a couple of hundred million dollars to develop a gold and silver property, Torontoy, in the Urubamba Valley (up and across the river from Machu Picchu), which he claimed to be the richest on earth. As far as anyone knows, nothing came of that venture either.

    By the way, in my earlier post, I was imprecise in my discussion of the 1887 concession Berns obtained to excavate ruins in the Distrito de La Convencion. Neither his Torontoy property nor Machu Picchu are located in the Distrito de La Convencion. In any event, the concession did not specify any particular ruin.
    Dan Buck

  4. The above posts in reference to Berns’s concesson to excavate ruins were based on a unofficial copy of the decree granting the concession. I’ve since located an official copy, and it indicates that Berns was authorized to excavate in both the La Convencion and Urubamba provinces of the Department of Cuzco. (Machu Picchu is in the Urubamba province.) Nonetheless the larger point remains: the concession specifies no ruin in particular and there are inumerable ruins in the two provinces, some still being discovered today. Thus it is ludicrous to leap from the general concession to the specific conclusion that Berns intended to loot or did loot Machu Picchu.

    In any event, there’s no evidence he ever hired a mule or turned a spade. His company apparently collapsed soon after it was launched amidst charges — detailed in angry letters published in EL COMERCIO in 1888 — that he had spent company money for his personal expenses.

    Daniel Buck

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