The rediscovery of the Inca city of Machu Picchu is officially recognized as taking place in 1911 when Hiram Bingham stumbled on the site while looking for the lost city of Vilcabamba. Of such good fortune are many careers made.
Other Western explorers had also been to the site, but their goal had been to plunder, not to study. Bingham, on the other hand, returned to the site in 1912 at the behest of Yale University and the National Geographic Society for the express purpose of documenting the find and conducting research. He is thus credited with the discovery, exactly 100 years ago.
That Machu Picchu was still there to find is somewhat of a miracle. The city had been essentially abandoned a few decades before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors, and as a result, was never discovered by them.
If they had discovered it, there would probably be a big Catholic cathedral there now instead of the essentially intact remnants of an Incan civilization. At the very least, it would've been completely destroyed for being pagan, as the Spanish had done to every other indigenous site they discovered anywhere in the Americas. Of such good fortune are miracles born.
This discovery not only revealed Machu Picchu to the world, but it also prevented treasure hunters from continuing to steal items from the site. Or so it seemed.
However, during the years immediately following Bingham's discovery, thousands of priceless artifacts were removed by the explorer himself and shipped to Yale University in the United States; ostensibly on loan for purposes of research.
The only thing is, the loaned items were never returned, despite repeated demands for such by the government of Peru. At first Yale took the position that Peru, as a third-world nation, could not be trusted with the priceless artifacts and simply refused to honor their earlier pledge to return them. As far as Yale was concerned, that was the end of the discussion; forever.
Ultimately, The National Geographic Society, who had also been part of the original agreement, declared their support for Peru's ownership of the artifacts and began to pressure Yale to relent and return their treasure. Meanwhile, the Peruvian government began legal action in US courts to force the return.
In the face of this double effort, Yale simply stopped talking. As far as they were concerned, the discussion was over.
But late last year former Peruvian President Alan Garcia appealed directly to President Barack Obama to intervene on Peru's behalf. And with Obama, Garcia was preaching to the choir.
Within two weeks of that appeal, Obama summoned Yale representatives to the White House and shortly thereafter Yale announced that they would indeed - at long last - return all of the more than 40,000 "borrowed" artifacts to Peru.
That process is now underway. The first shipment, containing all of the museum quality pieces, arrived in Peru earlier this year to great fanfare. Eventually, these pieces will be displayed in the Inca Museum at the Casa Concha in Cusco.
Happy birthday Machu Picchu!