Book Review: Cradle of Gold

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I’ve officially had this blog up and running for over 2 months and have managed to avoid posting anything on it so a couple friends suggested that I start with something simple like a book review to at least get things in motion. History has always interested me in the same way that a great movie is able to capture an audience. The stories we choose to tell often become bigger than themselves. Something that started out as an accident may become a tall tale or a legend.

Machu Picchu and the history of the Inca has been a story that has always captured my imagination. The Inca civilization was at the height of its power when the Spanish first stumbled upon it. Through major miscommunication and a greed for gold, an amazing culture was destroyed almost overnight. Most artifacts were lost and along with it many great stories that might have been told. The last book I finished captured the tragic end of the civilization and the relevance it still has today. The Cradle of Gold:The Story of Hiram Bingham, A Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the search for Machu Picchu by Christopher Heaney is a brief history of the end of the Inca empire when it was conquered by the Spanish and the rediscovery of Machu Picchu during the early 20th century by Hiram Bingham, who would later become the inspiration for Indiana Jones as you can see above.

One of the biggest misconceptions in Early American history(by which I mean the 1500s before the United States was even an idea) is that the Native Americans in general were naive and backward before the Europeans arrived. During the 1500’s, there was more than one empire in Latin America and they were highly advanced civilizations. The two major empires were the Aztec, which dominated the entire region of what is now Mexico, and the Inca which spanned across the entire mountain range of the Andes (about 2,500 miles of territory). The breakdown of Native American groups was very complicated and there were subdivisions within these groups, but for simplicity I won’t get into that.

The Inca developed an extensive road system that rivaled the Roman empire and established a tribute system which enabled them to literally pave their roads with gold. When the Spanish first arrived, they were in awe to see mountain temples built with gold plated sides gleaming in the sunlight. They immediately sought out to collect as much gold as possible and were far enough away from home to do so by any means necessary. One of the biggest misunderstandings between the Inca and Spaniards was over the value of gold. To the Inca, gold was decorative. It did not hold value the same way it did in Europe, where it was a rare luxury. Gold is too malleable to make weapons out of and changes shape when heated so it can’t be used for home goods like pots and pans. At first the Inca freely traded gold for the new things Spaniards brought with them, but they soon realized that allowing them into their empire was a huge mistake.

Even though the empire crumbled relatively quickly, it was not as obvious at the time. The Inca were proud and brave, believing that the descended from the Sun, and fought until the bitter end when they were defeated. In Cradle of Gold, Heaney does a great job explaining the Inca culture and events preceding their conquest. The last ruler, Tupac Amaru, was a great leader that was loved by his people and fought the Conquistadors until they captured and executed him and his family. Even at his death Tupac Amaru promised to rise up again and defeat the Spanish (It was a common belief that the dead could haunt the living for wrong doing and that it was possible to be raised from the dead). When Hiram Bingham first travelled to the area, many of the indigenous people he encountered told stories of the Inca and Tupac Amaru with reverence hundreds of years later.

peru emperors

Hiram Bingham was the son of a famous missionary that first brought Christianity to the natives of Hawaii. At a young age, he rejected religious life and studied at Yale University in the hope that he would be able to climb the social ladder. He was one of the few students without a rich family to support him so he often felt like an outcast from the high society he desperately wanted to be a part of himself.

Bingham decided to become a history professor as a way to distinguish himself and hopefully be accepted by his peers. During his studies, he realized that the history of Latin America had never been formally recorded and hoped to make Yale the preeminent expert on the subject. With financial assistance from his wife’s family, heirs of the Tiffany fortune, Bingham organized the first expedition to Peru for the purpose of collecting artifacts from the Inca empire.

When he first arrived at Machu Picchu Bingham did not realize what the expedition had stumbled upon. It was covered in weeds and plants since the nearby villagers used the land for farming. Upon further investigations they discovered that the site was significant because of the elaborate stone work and design of the city. Bingham hypothesized that it was the last city of the Inca civilization. Later this was proved false, but the story quickly became popular in the United States and Bingham became famous for the “discovery” of Machu Picchu. It was technically not lost since the locals knew of its existence. The expedition did bring the city to recognition for a much broader audience and expanded the study of Latin American history in other countries.

The Cradle of Gold tells the story of the Inca and Hiram Bingham in a concise clear way that makes it easily accessible to any audience. Toward the end, Heaney describes his own experience in traveling to Peru and visiting the Espiritu Pampa (the real final refuge of Tupac Amaru) to scatter his friend’s ashes. It’s very uncommon for a history book to include any personal information about the author let alone a very personal story such as that one. Historians are taught to remain as impartial as possible yet it is a well known fact that each era has its bias and each person has his own understanding of the material. For me, the story added a lot about the effect history can have. Often people get so caught up in the minutiae of unfamiliar dates, names, and places that they no longer see the bigger picture. Great events in history shape the world in a broad way, but it can also effect people on a personal level the same way a great movie or novel stays with you long after it’s finished.

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