It appears that ever since its “discovery” in 1911, Machu Picchu has been called the wrong name. In an article entitled ‘The Ancient Inca Town Named Huayna Picchu’, published in Ñawpa Pacha, the Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies, authors Donato Amado Gonzales, historian at the Ministry of Culture in Peru, and Brian S. Bauer, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reveal the true name of the architectural site to be Huayna Picchu.
It is intriguing that we know of no reference to an Inca city called Machu Picchu before news of Bingham’s visit exploded across the world in 1912.Gonzales & Bauer, 2021
Built around 1420, the city is believed to have served as an estate for royal Incas living in Cuzco, the capital of the Incan empire, but it was abandoned when the Spanish invaded the area. It was then lost in the Andes mountains only to be found again by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911.
Bingham was guided through the mountains by a local farmer Melchor Arteaga and sources from that time show that he was not sure what to call the city, but decided to settle on Machu Picchu based on a suggestion by his guide.
More broadly, this finding challenges the popular narrative that Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu.Emily Dean, professor of anthropology at Southern Utah University in Cedar City
Emily Dean, professor of anthropology at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, clarified that in the Indigenous Quechua language, Picchu means “mountain peak”, while Machu means old and Huayna on the other hand means new or young. The fact that Bingham’s guide called the city Machu shows that locals had already known about the site long before the American explorer “discovered” it. Dean says that the mistake is not surprising, since non-Peruvian archaeologists did not fully understand Quechua thus did not put much effort into researching the names of places.
To uncover the true name of the city, researchers Gonzales and Bauer first analysed Bingham’s notes from the time he found the ruins. Page 47 from his field journal, dated 25 June 1911, the day after his first visit to Machu Picchu, shows Bingham asked Melchor Arteaga how to write the name of the site and the answer by Arteaga “Macho Pischo” (in the centre of the page).
Another important document for the reveal of the true name of Huayna Picchu was a report dating back to 1588 mentioning that the indigenous people of the Vilcabamba region were considering returning to Huayna Picchu. Another document from 1715 clearly references “the ancient Inca town of Huayna Picchu”. The researchers also used a map drawn in 1874, a few decades before Bingham arrived in the area, by German engineer Herman Göhring, showing the two different peaks of “Macchu” and “Huainu”. The authors note that within Göhring’s written report there is also a passing reference to the fortress of “Picchu”, although it is unclear whether Göhring visited the site or simply recorded its existence.
Lastly, the authors mentioned that, despite their discovery of the original name, they “would not suggest that the name be changed since Machu Picchu is known worldwide”. Dean also said that the name of Machu Picchu is already published in thousands of books, articles, advertisements and legal documents and “the Peruvian people and their government have embraced the new name, so while it’s an interesting addition to the history of the site, it won’t change the modern name”.