We Might Have Been Calling Machu Picchu by the Wrong Name For Over 100 Years — Here's Why

The site was originally called Picchu or Huayna Picchu.

Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountain landscape in Peru.
Photo: Getty Images

The ancient Incan site of Machu Picchu may not be called Machu Picchu, according to a published academic paper stating significant evidence the name may be wrong.

The paper, published by Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology, suggests that the Peruvian site visited by countless tourists each year was originally called Picchu or Huayna Picchu. And the name Machu Picchu didn't even become associated with the archaeological ruins until 1911 when archaeologist and explorer Hiram Bingham first visited.

"We began with the uncertainty of the name of the ruins… and then reviewed several maps and atlases printed before Bingham visited to the ruins," Brian S. Bauer, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois Chicago and a co-writer on the paper, said in a statement. "There is significant data which suggest that the Inca city actually was called Picchu or more likely, Huayna Picchu."

Bauer, along with historian Donato Amado Gonzales from the Ministry of Culture of Peru (Cusco), reviewed Bingham's original field notes, early 20th century maps of the region, and centuries-old land documents, suggesting "that less was known about the site than what was previously thought."

According to their findings, the site was named for the closest rocky summit and not Machu Picchu, which is the name of the highest mountain near the city.

The original name of the ruins has come up more than once throughout history, including in a 1904 atlas and accounts written by Spaniards in the late 16th century.

"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," Bauer said.

This isn't the first time in recent history a discovery has been made about the Inca site. Last year, researchers discovered the ruins were not built after 1440 like they initially believed, but several decades earlier.

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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