"We found that Berns and his colleagues extracted gold from archaeological remains at Machu Picchu using a company that had won a mining concession for extracting wood and gold, in the area where the citadel is located," Peruvian historian Carlos Carcelen told reporters.
Carcelen did his research with American cartographer Paolo Greer, French archaeologist Alain Gioda and British historian Alex Chepstow-Lusty. They researched archives in Peru and Spain questioning the idea Bingham "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911.
"Sadly, we demonstrated that there was a major looting of gold objects which later were sold to European museums and universities," Carcelen added.
It was Greer's discovery of a 19th century German map in the dusty archives of the National Library in Lima that put the researchers on the trail of the truth, explained Gioda, of France's Institute for Research and Development. And it makes Berns the westerner who apparently first came upon the remains of the indigenous Incas' citadel, which the Spanish conquistadors never located.
"That is my most personal conviction and on this point I take all responsbility," said Gioda. He said researchers had amassed considerable evidence: documents on the working of a mine, the map, the concession, and even remarks attributed to Bingham, suggesting the possibility an explorer may have walked before him in Machu Picchu.
While Bingham brought world's spotlight to the citadel, local people already were well aware of it, if not of its global archaeological significance.
Carcelen stressed that Berns had no scientific or archaeological interest whatsoever. Rather he was like many British, French, Italian and German adventurers "who came to loot Peru in the 19th century," the Peruvian said.
"They were businessmen who had no job or morals who came here to make a fortune, to take the greatest possible advantage," Carcelen said. In Berns' case, he put a lumber mill in the jungle southeast of Cusco in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the mountain on which Machu Picchu is located.
Berns' business, on which there were founding documents located in Peru's National Library was used to move gold abroad, he added.
Researchers now are trying to determine how many archaeological items Berns may have spirited out of the country, and are on the trail of "several individuals, commercial contacts and partners who dealt in gold and other objects in Europe," he said.
Carcelen noted that in the late 19th century Peruvian artifacts began appearing in European museum and university collections, even though there are no records of archaeological or anthropological expeditions in Peru at the time. The president at the time, Jose Balta, also gave Berns wide leeway in his operations, Carcelen added.
Machu Picchu, likely the best-known symbol of the Inca Empire, was built around 1450, but abandoned roughly a century later, at the time of the Spanish conquest.