From Machhapuchchhre to Machu Picchu

Features Issue 194 Jan, 2018
Text by Elena Moody / Photo: Dr. Johan Rehinhard

On December 11 and 12, 2017, Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) held the 4th Mountain Festival at the International Mountain Museum in Gharipatan of Pokhara. The two-day festival marks the International Mountain Day and aims to highlight the biological diversity, knowledge, skills, traditions, and sports of Himalayan mountain regions. During the festival's conference organized by the NMA, high-altitude anthropologist and archaeologist Dr. Johan Reinhard was awarded the prestigious Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal for “Remarkable service in the conservation of culture and nature in mountainous regions”. The medal recognizes Sir Edmund Hillary's life-long commitment to service on behalf of mountain people and their environments, and for his philanthropy, and encourages the continuing emulation of his example.

Like Sir Edmund Hillary, Dr. Reinhard is a world-class adventurer, with hundreds of ascents in the Andes, Himalayas, and Alps. His work to preserve mountain cultures and environments covers six continents and decades. He was a part of the successful American Bicentennial Everest Expedition in 1976, he has led a great number of expeditions that have discovered more than 60 high-altitude Inca ritual sites, crossed the Indian Tihar desert by camel, notched first rafting descents of rivers, including the Trishuli and Sun Kosi in Nepal, and conducted underwater archaeological dives from the Mediterranean Sea to Licancabur Lake in one of the world's highest altitude dives. In 2016, National Geographic published an article on him titled “He may actually be the Most Interesting Man in the World”. After having the honor of sitting down for coffee with him and discussing his life's work, this title appears to be very well deserved.

Who is Johan Reinhard?

Dr. Reinhard is a National Geographic explorer, senior research fellow with the Mountain Institute, research professor with Future Generations University, visiting professor at Catholic University, Salta (Argentina), and an honorary professor of Catholic University, Arequipa (Peru). He is also an avid photographer, cinematographer, self-taught scuba diver, sky diver, prolific mountain climber, river rafter, and more. “I've always wanted to have every tool available that could help me explore every part of the world,” he states. As a man who learned skydiving with the hope of gaining access to an otherwise inaccessible region of New Guinea, it is clear that his philosophy on exploration is as extreme as it is celebrated.

You may recognize Dr. Reinhard, as he has been featured in a number of documentaries devoted to his discoveries and scientific research on networks such as National Geographic, Discovery, History Channel, and BBC. He has directed expeditions in the Andes that have led to the discovery of Inca human sacrifices so well-preserved that they provide a wealth of historical and scientific insight. He is, however, probably best known for his 1995 discovery of the 500-year-old “Ice Maiden”, the frozen body of a young Inca girl who was sacrificed to the Inca Gods on Mount Ampato in Peru. The Ice Maiden is the most well-preserved body from pre-Columbian times, and the article in National Geographic written on this discovery was ranked by its readers as one of the best of the year, and later, as one of the best of the decade.

Dr. Reinhard has more than eighty publications, with six books, including a children's book and accompanying teacher's manual. In order to exhibit his many archaeological discoveries, three museums have been built in Argentina, Buenos Aires, and Peru. He has been noted twice in the Guinness Book of World Records, and his work has been recognized with a staggering number of awards. Awards include the Rolex Award for Enterprise, one of Outside Magazine's “25 Most Extraordinary Explorers”, Ford Motor Company's “12 Heroes of the Planet”, the Puma do Oro (Bolivia's highest award for archaeological research), and he has been listed twice on Time magazine'sWorld's Ten Most Important Scientific Discoveries”, to name but a few. He once even made the list for People magazine's “Most Eligible Bachelor”!

Reinhard's Early Years

Dr. Reinhard was born and raised in a very small town in Illinois, U.S.A. Growing up, he felt somewhat different to his peers, and from a young age he loved to escape into adventure books and science-fiction. He recalls that it was these stories, and the launch of Sputnik 1, the first Soviet artificial satellite to be placed in orbit, that really captured his imagination. He remembers being as young as twelve years old when he realized the great limitations of the human body on our perspective. “We are so limited by our vision, color spectrum, hearing, and so on, but what sets us apart is our ability to reason, our reflection and curiosity, that enable us to find better solutions”.

He would then make it his life's purpose to increase what he calls his "appreciative understanding" and share his findings with the world. His more rebellious adolescent years found him at sixteen years of age, the youngest to join a railroad line gang, and by eighteen, he had saved enough money to travel to Brazil. It was during this trip that he realized that his passion and interest in the people and their culture were just as important to him as the place. “To spend time in other cultures is the best way to view our world through another window.” He completed his undergraduate studies in anthropology at the University of Arizona and received his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Vienna, Austria, in 1974.

A Decade in the Himalayas

There is no doubt that Dr. Reinhard is most well-known for the twelve years he spent in the Andes, but prior to that time, he spent over ten years exploring the sacred valleys of the Himalayas, conducting invaluable anthropological research, primarily in western Nepal. He first came to Nepal in 1968 in search of the Kusunda, speakers of one of the world's rarest languages, which is only spoken by one remaining individual today. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he began his life-long research with some of the last nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes on the planet, the Raute and the Raji, who first populated the western hills of Nepal. He is reported to have been the first white man to find the Raute. He, however, feels strongly that “it was the Raute who found me; an American anthropologist lost in the Himalayas.” He helped bring the world's attention to these marginalized groups previously believed to be almost inhuman “wild men” (ban manche), and who may have a role in the local myth of the yeti.

He conducted some of the first studies of the Kusunda, the Raute, and the Raji, compiling their vanishing languages and cultural practices, and has provided scholarly rationale for policies protecting their interests. Dr. Reinhard has also directed Peace Corps training projects in Nepal, and conducted investigations in Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, and the Garhwal Himalaya. These investigations provided insights into Himalayan shamanism (traditional religious practices)and the role of sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, and have contributed greatly to the body of work on the Tibetan Buddhist beyuls, the sacred “hidden lands” in the Himalayas that have contributed to the Shangri-La legend.

Dr. Reinhard has recently returned to Nepal to conduct follow-up research with one of the Raji groups of western Nepal, who have been greatly impacted by the overall social, economic, and political changes both locally and globally. Over the years, he has seen them displaced from their original homeland, now Royal Bardiya National Park, and witnessed their adaptation and cultural change from nomadic hunting-and-gathering to settled agriculture. His insights into hunting-and-gathering societies is pivotal in conserving these cultures and giving us a better understanding of the socio-economic evolution of mankind. Dr. Reinhard's continuing commitment to sharing his understanding of mountain cultures leaves an important legacy for many generations to come.

It’s not possible to list here all of his achievements and contributions to our understanding of the indigenous cultures of the Andes and Himalayas. He has dedicated his life to our planet, to explore, study, and advocate the relevance of historical periods in the modern world. He has a compassionate wisdom and admirable philosophy to life that inspires one to follow their dreams and to live with intention and purpose. As Jeff DeBellis of the Mountain Institute so aptly states in his letter for nomination of Dr. Reinhard for the Sir Edmund Hillary Mountain Legacy Medal, “He is simultaneously one of the most humble and accomplished explorers of his generation”.

If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Johan Reinhard, his website,, includes biographical notes, publications, honors, ancillary resources, and over 14,000 archived images of his expeditions, archaeological sites, and more. Or, get a copy of The Ice Maiden: Inca Mummies, Mountain Gods, and Sacred Sites in the Andes (2005), Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center (2007), and Inca Rituals and Sacred Mountains: A Study of the World's Highest Archaeological Sites (2010). The Nazca Lines: A New Perspective on Their Origin and Meaning (1988 edition) is now also available on Kindle.