Machu Picchu, one of the most recognized archaeological sites in the world, is located high (2,430 m above sea level) above the Urubamba River on a narrow saddle between two mountain peaks. The larger peak, called Machu Picchu (3,082 m), stands to the south, while the smaller peak, Huayna Picchu (2,720 m), is located to the north. A new paper by Ministry of Culture of Peru historian Donato Amado Gonzales and University of Illinois Chicago archaeologist Brian Bauer suggests 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.
When the American explorer Hiram Bingham III first visited the settlement’s ruins in 1911 and then brought them to the world’s attention, they were little known — even among those who lived in the Cusco region.
More than 110 years after Bingham’s first visit to the site, Dr. Gonzales and Professor Bauer reviewed independent data sources, for information concerning the original name of Machu Picchu.
They examined Bingham’s notes and other materials related to his work at the site, early maps and atlases descriptions of the region, and 17th century land documents held in the Archivo Regional del Cusco.
“We began with the uncertainty of the name of the ruins when Bingham first visited them and then reviewed several maps and atlases printed before Bingham’s visit to the ruins,” Professor Bauer said.
“There is significant data which suggest that the Inca city actually was called Picchu or more likely, Huayna Picchu.”
The researchers found that the ruins of an Inca town called Huayna Picchu is mentioned in a 1904 atlas that was published seven years before Bingham arrived in Peru.
Additionally, they detail that Bingham was told in 1911 of ruins called Huayna Picchu along the Urubamba River before he left Cusco to search for the remains.
A landowner’s son later told Bingham in 1912 that the ruins were called Huayna Picchu.
“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,” Professor Bauer said.
“We end with a stunning, late 16th-century account when the indigenous people of the region were considering returning to reoccupy the site which they called Huayna Picchu.”
The team’s paper was published in the Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies.
Donato Amado Gonzales & Brian S. Bauer. 2022. The Ancient Inca Town Named Huayna Picchu. Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies 42 (1); doi: 10.1080/00776297.2021.1949833