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Utah archaeologist explains why we’ve been calling Machu Picchu by the wrong name

Report claims the ancient Incan city was originally called Huayna Picchu

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Llamas graze at Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Peru, on April 1, 2010.

Llamas graze at Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Peru, on April 1, 2010. Researchers claim Machu Picchu has been referred to by the wrong name for more than 100 years, saying the Inca who built it likely called the city Huayna Picchu.

Karel Navarro, Associated Press

It might be time to update your travel bucket list. That’s because we’ve been referring to the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu by the wrong name for more than 100 years, according to a new report.

The report, published in Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies, says the famous archaeological site located in Peru’s Andes Mountains was likely called Huayna Picchu by the people who built it in the 15th century.

Emily Dean, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Southern Utah University, told CNN that Huayna means “new or young,” Machu means “old” and Picchu means “mountain peak,” in the Indigenous Quechua language — which means we’ve been incorrectly calling the site old mountain peak.

How did we get it wrong?

Machu Picchu was rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. According to report author Brian Bauer, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Bingham’s decision to call the site Machu Picchu was influenced by his guide, Melchor Arteaga, a local farmer.

Bingham was told the correct name at first, but “days later, he was told by a different guide that the site was called Machu Picchu,” according to NPR.

In an interview with Deseret News, Dean said Bingham is seen as a “mythic explorer,” and is believed by many to have been the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. Bingham is known for having a flair for the dramatic, Dean said, and has taken liberties when naming other artifacts and sites.

He may have coined the name of the Intihuatana ritual stone at Machu Picchu, Dean said, which translates roughly to “hitching post of the sun” in the local Quechua language.

“There’s no evidence that it was ever actually called that. That was sort of a romantic name he gave to that particular area of the site,” she said. “So I would say that he was not atypical for his era.”

According to Dean, the work of modern archaeologists involves less swashbuckling than Indiana Jones would have you believe, and more often consists of digging through archives and libraries to find firsthand accounts to corroborate hypotheses.

Report author Donato Amado Gonzales, a historian at the Ministry of Culture in Peru, noticed evidence suggesting the name was incorrect and teamed up with Bauer to find the truth. Their evidence included “a report from 1588 stating the Indigenous people of the Vilcabamba region were considering returning to Huayna Picchu,” wrote CNN.

In the same article, Dean said she’s not surprised by the mistake, because many non-Peruvian researchers weren’t experts in Quechua and often failed to adequately research place names.

Researchers also found a 1904 atlas, which described the ruins of an Incan city called Huayna Picchu, according to The Guardian.

Dean said these revelations are important because they push back on the common narratives about early 20th century archaeology — which was often based on a colonial mindset that gave little credence to the knowledge of Indigenous populations. Although Bingham seems to have had a more nuanced view than many of his contemporaries, he was still heavily influenced by the prevailing thought of the time.

“He is often called the discoverer of Machu Picchu,” Dean said. “I appreciated that the article makes clear that there were a lot of Peruvians and people living in the local community who — of course — knew that the site was there, that they were aware of its history.”

She said Bingham’s work probably helped the site gain worldwide attention and awe, but he was by no means the first person to discover the “lost city of the Incas.”

“I think that’s important to point out,” she said.

What is Machu Picchu?

A 2021 paper found that the ancient city was built around A.D. 1420, 30 years earlier than was previously believed, according to NPR.

  • According to CNN, the city was likely used as an estate for royals living in the Incan capital of Cuzco. Historians believe the city was later abandoned when the Spaniards invaded in the late 16th century.
  • Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2020, visitors were capped at 2,244 per day, but a new visitor center could allow for 6,000 daily visitors, according to CNBC.

What’s next for Machu (or Huayna) Picchu?

Despite the new revelations about the site’s name, it seems unlikely that Peruvian authorities will officially change it.

  • “It may not have been Machu Picchu to the Incas but now it’s Machu Picchu to the world,” Amado Gonzalez told NPR.
  • “All names are invented and changeable and it doesn’t make much difference,” Natalia Sobrevilla, professor of Latin American history at the University of Kent, told The Guardian. “Except now Machu Picchu is an established brand very linked to Peruvian identity, so what would be the point of changing it?”
  • Amado Gonzalez added: “As Shakespeare said: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’”