Built on a mountaintop in the Andes and believed to have once been the summer retreat of the Inca emperor Pachacuti (or, alternatively, Pachacutec), machu picchu in Quechua—the Incan language that is still spoken by indigenous peoples who live in the Peruvian Andes today—translates to “old mountain.”
That seems to make sense, as Machu Picchu is located in the Cordillera de Vilcabamba. However, after scouring place names on 19th-century maps, information in 17th-century documents and the original field notes of U.S. archeologist Hiram Bingham—a lecturer at Yale University and the modern-day, key catalyst for investigation of the site—and other archeologists in South America, researchers have recently found that not one of the sources refers to the site as “Machu Picchu.”
When Hiram Bingham first visited Machu Picchu in 1911 and then brought the place to the world’s attention, it was little known—even among those who lived in Cusco, Peru, a city in the southeastern portion of the country, near the Urubamba Valley, and once the capital of the Inca Empire.
In August 2021, more than 110 years after Bingham’s first visit to the site, archeologists and historians from the Ministry of Culture of Peru and the University of Illinois Chicago published a paper in Nawpa Pacha: Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies in which they concluded that the Incas originally called Machu Picchu Huayna Picchu, for the rocky summit that lies nearest to the site and which translates to “new mountain.” Huayna Picchu is the smaller peak to the north of the ruins; while Machu Picchu, they explain, is the larger mountain that flanks them to the south.
Even Hiram Bingham, in his notes, stated that he was uncertain of the name of the place when he first visited it. So, from there, the researchers reviewed atlases and maps that had been printed before and after the archeologist’s trip.
The researchers found that an Inca city called “Huayna Picchu” is mentioned in a 1904 atlas that was published seven years before Hiram Bingham arrived in Peru. Additionally, they report that in 1911, a local landowner’s son told Bingham about some ruins that were called “Huayna Picchu” along the Urubamba River before he had left Cusco to search for them.
But the most definitive connections to the original name of the Inca city are preserved within accounts written by Spaniards relatively soon after the region came under their control in the late 16th century. An account written in 1588 describes the concerns of the Spanish invaders who feared that the indigenous people of the Vilcabamba region were considering leaving Cusco to return to and reoccupy a site that they called “Huayna Picchu.”
Bingham apparently first heard the name “Machu Picchu” from Melchor Arteaga, a tenant farmer who lived on the valley floor and acted as Bingham’s guide during his travels to the ruins. For unknown reasons, Bingham ignored the name he had heard before from the landowner’s son and went with Arteaga’s claim. The scientists say that the name error isn’t surprising, since many non-Peruvian archaeologists didn’t put much effort into researching the names of Peru’s places and most likely didn’t fully understand Quechua. They tended to accept what Bingham reported.
In 1913, after Hiram Bingham began publishing accounts of his travels in The New York Times, the newspaper credited him with finding a “lost city in the clouds.” It’s a place of “splendid palaces and temples and grim encircling walls. He calls it Machu Picchu,” the newspaper contended.
Still, even Bingham apparently was not convinced he had the name right. In 1922, he wrote an article cautioning that other documents could surface showing that the name of the city was not “Machu Picchu.” Anthropologists and historians, too, who have studied documents about the region before and since have also come across writings that revealed the site’s original name. But, for some reason, scholars have never pressed the issue.
It could be that the name Machu Picchu is so ingrained in our minds and such a part of Peru’s identity that there would be no good rationale for changing it. The Peruvian people and their government are attached to “Machu Picchu” as an archaeological and national symbol. And, as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, its name recognition is something Peruvians take a lot of pride in.
In a sense, then, naming Machu Picchu for one of its surrounding mountains versus another wouldn’t make much difference. And unlike with the former names for Denali and Zimbabwe, the names for Machu Picchu are both derived from indigenous words that describe the site’s landscape features.
Same stirring place
While the researchers say that their new study is likely to prompt some fresh debate on the name of this mysterious and one-of-a-kind place, and that it’s good to document the original name in the scholarly record, I think that the real value of the study’s findings is that they help to dispel the myth that Machu Picchu was an eternal “lost city in the clouds.”
It was never lost to the indigenous peoples of the region.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,