Who Found Machu Picchu? (Radio 4)

Hiram Bingham was an unreliable witness.

Who Found Machu Picchu?
Radio 4

A programme marking the centenary of the discovery of Machu Picchu (5 October, 11am) was subtly dramatic; it gave the impression of covering wholly unfamiliar ground. When Hiram Bingham first stepped on to the site in 1911, the narrator said, he'd had "good luck, a map and money from Yale". This map was later described as being "like Long John Silver's" and the name Indiana Jones was mentioned three times in the programme's 30 minutes. For the most part, though, it was a sensible show.

Bingham had been looking for a different city entirely and had only decided to take a look at the top of one particular slope on the urging of a local farmer. Leaving behind his fellow explorers (an entomologist, a geologist and a butterfly collector) for a few hours, and after a steep climb, Bingham parted dense foliage to see the first few beautifully cut Inca stones. What he saw next, as he later recalled, "fairly took my breath away. What could this place be? Why had nobody given us any idea of it? Would anyone believe what I had found?"

What he omitted from his account was that families were living in the ruin, cultivating crops on the terraces. The temples were also covered in the graffiti of a man who had visited nine years earlier. Bingham either ignored this or, in the case of the graffiti, removed it.

The programme went on to ponder what Machu Picchu might have been. The latest thinking is that it was a royal estate, used in
the winter months. Programmes such as this always crumble to the touch when people start musing in this way: somehow, it always sounds like the token mouthing of pieties.

Meanwhile, a little report on the Today programme (1 October, 7am) warned that world languages are dying out at the rate of one a fortnight. In New York, the Endangered Language Alliance recorded a field labourer speaking the dying Aztec language of Nahuatl. "Choc­olate, tomato, chilli, sky, stars, rainbow," he said into a microphone patiently and with tremendous affection, as though removing a favourite sweater from the back of a drawer to find it unwashed but still sweet-smelling. And then, rather mysteriously, he added: "I speak so no one will insult me."

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression