Have We Been Calling Machu Picchu by the Wrong Name?

Historical records suggest the Inca called the 15th-century citadel Huayna Picchu, before an American explorer who “discovered” the site in 1911 renamed it

Mountainside stone ruins of a city
Analysis of historical documents showed no evidence of the site being called Machu Picchu until 1911. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

A new study suggests that scholars and the public alike have been calling Machu Picchu by the wrong name for over a century, reports Dan Collyns for the Guardian. As a pair of researchers argue in Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology, historical records indicate that the Inca actually called the Unesco World Heritage Site Huayna Picchu, or just Picchu.

American explorer and archaeologist Hiram Bingham gave the Inca citadel its name upon his “discovery” of the site in 1911. As Collyns wrote for BBC News in 2011, Machu Picchu was never really lost: Locals in the nearby Peruvian city of Cusco knew of the ruins, as did several other explorers. But Bingham was the first to widely publicize the site.

According to Science Alert’s Carly Cassella, Bingham asked a local landowner to write the site’s name in his field journal. The farmer wrote down “Macho Pischo,” which sounded to Bingham like “pecchu” when spoken.

Confusion over the site’s name likely stems partly from the fact that Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu are both mountains in the Cusco region. A less impressive set of ruins stands on the summit of Machu Picchu, the tallest mountain peak in the area. But the grand city encountered by Bingham is closer to the small, steep peak known by locals as Huayna Picchu.

For the study, co-authors Donato Amado Gonzales, a historian at the Ministry of Culture of Peru (Cusco), and Brian S. Bauer, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, reviewed Bingham’s field notes, 19th-century maps of the region and 17th-century documents from various archives, among other sources. Per a statement, they found a 1904 atlas that mentions the ruins of the Inca town of Huayna Picchu, as well as evidence that locals described the site to Bingham as Huayna Picchu in both 1911 and 1912. No sources before 1912 refer to the citadel as Machu Picchu.

The most conclusive evidence of the site’s original name comes from accounts written by Spaniards in the late 16th century, after the Spanish Conquest.

“We end with a stunning, late 16th-century account when the Indigenous people of the region were considering returning to reoccupy the site, which they called Huayna Picchu,” says Bauer in the statement.

Unesco describes Machu Picchu as “among the greatest artistic [and] architectural” achievements in the world, in addition to the “most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilization.” Constructed in the 15th century, when the Inca Empire was the largest in pre-Hispanic America, the site was abandoned in the mid-16th century. The Huayna Picchu mountain provides a stunning backdrop to some 200 structures, including religious, astronomical, agricultural and ceremonial centers.

According to Shweta Sharma of the Independent, some observers believe a “name change is [i]n the cards” for the iconic site. But Natalia Sobrevilla Perea, an expert on Latin American history at the University of Kent, says she’s not so sure.

“All names are invented and changeable and it doesn’t make much difference,” she tells the Guardian. “Except now Machu Picchu is an established brand very linked to Peruvian identity, so what would be the point of changing it?”