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Sign for Machu Picchu in Peru. But, was it really called Huayna Picchu? Source: LUC KOHNEN / Adobe Stock

The World-Renowned Machu Picchu Name Was Unknown to the Incas


Two researchers have proven that the world-renowned Machu Picchu didn’t exist in the Inca world, but Huayna Picchu did. Does this mean that the enormous marketing machine which generates tourism to the famed monumental ruins in Peru will need to be rebranded?

An Ancient Hub of Modern Tourists

For many, Hiram Bingham III (November 19, 1875 to June 6, 1956) was an American politician who served as Governor of Connecticut for a single day, representing the shortest term in history. However, for Ancient Origins readers Bingham was the intrepid explorer who in 1911 rediscovered the mountaintop Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru.

Constructed on a 2,430-meter (7,970 ft) mountain ridge within Urubamba Province of Peru, above the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca citadel. The site has become to Peru what Stonehenge is to England. Both are national icons for prehistory and globally recognized archaeological sites, and Machu Picchu is one of the most visited ancient sites in Latin America every year.

Classic vista of Machu Picchu. Or is it Huayna Picchu? (Pav-Pro Photography / Adobe Stock)

Classic vista of Machu Picchu. Or is it Huayna Picchu? (Pav-Pro Photography / Adobe Stock)

An International Archaeological Site About Which “Very Little” Is Known

Machu Picchu is renowned for its sophisticated, un-mortared, huge dry-stone walls. Mysterious buildings command spectacular panoramic views and it is known they were orientated and aligned with astronomical precision. However, while archaeologists have studied the astronomy and alignments within the complex of buildings the exact former use of the site remains a tightly-locked mystery.

On July 7, 2007, Machu Picchu was declared as one of the New Seven Wonders of the Modern World. At that time President Alan García declared by supreme decree that July 7 was to be known as the “Day of the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu” to recognize the participation of Peruvian people in the promotion of tourism. Machu Picchu is today the number one tourist destination in Peru with over 600,000 visitors per year, according to Cenfotur.

Now, more than a century after Bingham first visited the site, historian Donato Amado Gonzales from the Ministry of Culture of Peru (Cusco) and anthropologist Brian S. Bauer from the University of Illinois Chicago have completed a review of Bingham's 1911 field notes. Their conclusion is that the site was “much less known prior to its rediscovery than was previously thought.”

Hiram Bingham at his tent door near Machu Picchu in 1912. (Public domain)
Hiram Bingham at his tent door near Machu Picchu in 1912. (Public domain)

Deep-Diving for Ancient Answers

In a new paper titled “The Ancient Inca Town Named Huayna Picchu” published in the Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology, the pair of researchers reviewed all of Bingham's original field notes and 20th century maps of the region. They also dug up old land deeds from different archives, some of which date back several centuries. The new findings suggest not only that “much less” was known about the site than what was previously thought, but also that it was never actually called Machu Picchu by the Inca.

The new study concludes that the Inca originally called the site Huayna Picchu. Pronounced “HHWEY-NAH,” this name refers not to the Inca city but to the mountain peak behind it. Professor Bauer, a UIC professor of anthropology, said the the actual Inca settlement was called only Picchu or more likely, Huayna Picchu, a name which they discovered in a 1904 atlas.

Should Machu Picchu Be Renamed?

The two scientists discovered that Bingham was told in 1911 of ruins called Huayna Picchu. Then in 1912 he noted that a landowner's son confirmed the Inca ruins were indeed known locally as called Huayna Picchu. So what then does this Inca title mean? This name comes from the Inca ruler Huayna Capac (c1450 and 1527?), the father of Atahualpa and Huascar who ruled over the entire empire between 1493? and 1527 AD.

Bauer wrote that the most “definitive connections” to the original name of the Inca city were found in a so-called “stunning” 16th century Spanish account referring to indigenous people of the region planning to reoccupy the Inca site. The big question now is; will the name of the site be restored to its original? Probably not is the answer, as hundreds of signs, brochures and tour companies would all have to rebrand, and we can’t be having that.

Top image: Sign for Machu Picchu in Peru. But, was it really called Huayna Picchu? Source: LUC KOHNEN / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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