One of the modern wonders of the world may have gone by the wrong name ever since its re-discovery by an American explorer in the early 20th century. Among the most iconic tourist sites on the planet, Machu Picchu was brought to the world’s attention by Hiram Bingham in 1911, yet new research indicates that he may have got his wires crossed when announcing the name of the ancient Inca city.
Nestled high above the Urubamba River in the Peruvian Andes, the archaeological gem sits on a narrow saddle between two mountain peaks. The larger of these reaches to around 3,000 meters above sea level and is known as Machu Picchu, while the smaller – which reaches to 2,700 meters above sea level – is called Huayna Picchu.
According to a new study in Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies, the famous settlement was originally named after the shorter peak, and was therefore known to the ancient indigenous inhabitants of the region as Huayna Picchu.
The study authors reached this conclusion after re-examining Hiram Bingham’s field notes, as well as local maps created in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and older documents produced by the Spanish colonial rulers hundreds of years earlier. In doing so, they were able to untangle the mystery of the site’s original name and re-tell the story of how Bingham came to misidentify his discovery.
For example, the researchers note that an atlas of Peru drawn up by one Carlos B. Cisneros in 1904 – seven years before Bingham’s expedition – includes a town called ‘Huaina-Piccho’ in the mountains above the Urubamba River. Reaching further back in time, the authors find this name preserved within accounts written by Spanish hacienda owners shortly after the conquistadores took control of the region.
One such document, written in 1588, recounts how the indigenous inhabitants of nearby Vilcabamba intended to return to the ancient settlement of ‘Vayna Piccho’, where they planned to forsake Catholicism and resume practicing their native religion. A second account from 1714, meanwhile, lists an ancient Inca town by the name of ‘Guayna Picho’.
By the time Bingham set off in search of the ruins, however, the site had long since been forgotten, leading him to describe it as “an Inca city whose name has been lost in the shadows of the past.” Despite this, his field notes reveal that he was told by the subprefect of Urubamba that the place he was looking for was indeed called Huayna Picchu.
The confusion begins, however, with a man named Melchor Arteaga, who lived near to the pre-Columbian ruins and acted as Bingham’s guide in 1911. After leading the explorer to the city, Arteaga explained that the place was known as ‘Macho Pischo’, yet this was later contested by Ignacio Ferro, whose father owned the land on which the site is located and who told Bingham that the old city was in fact called Huayna Picchu.
According to the study authors, Bingham’s decision to use the name Machu Picchu was based on “an initial misunderstanding… which has been uncritically repeated over the past century.” They also note that there is “no reference to an Inca city called Machu Picchu before news of Bingham’s visit exploded across the world in 1912.”
Based on these findings, they conclude that “the Inca city was originally called Picchu, or more likely Huayna Picchu, and that the name Machu Picchu became associated with the ruins starting in 1911 with Bingham’s publications.”