It’s Huayna, not Machu Picchu, historians say

‘Discoverer’ Hiram Bingham gave ruins of lost Inca citadel the wrong name, new study finds

The ruins of Machu Picchu. Photo: iStock

It is the very symbol of the Inca Empire. But Machu Picchu, the lost citadel of the Incas high in the Andean jungle, may not have been called by its founders at all. In fact, his name would have been simply “Picchu” or “Huayna Picchu”, according to a recently published study.

The ancient Inca city named Huayna Picchu written by Donato Amado Gonzales and Brian S Bauer, was originally published in Ñawpa Pasha: Journal of the Institute of Andean Studies in August of last year. It has now been republished after several typographical errors were discovered in the original manuscript.

The study authors looked at three lines of evidence to come to this startling conclusion:

  • The field notes of Hiram Bingham, the American who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911 and brought it to the attention of the world
  • The accounts of visitors to the area after the Spanish conquest and before Bingham’s discovery
  • Documents from the 16th and 18th centuries, the colonial period

The study noted the geography of the area now known as Machu Picchu:

The archaeological remains of Machu Picchu are located above the Urubamba River on a narrow saddle between two mountain peaks. The larger peak, called Machu Picchu, stands in the south, while the smaller peak, Huayna Picchu, is located in the north. In the words of Hiram Bingham, “On the narrow ridge between these two peaks lie the ruins of an Inca city whose name has been lost in the shadow of the past.”

The lost citadel

Spanish invaders led by Francisco Pizarro had defeated the Sapa Inca, or Supreme Ruler of the Inca Empire, Atahualpa in 1532 on the plain of Cajamarca and later executed him.

In 1537, Manco Inca Yupanqui, a half-brother of Atahualpa, fled to a remote area where Machu Picchu now stands and established a rump Inca state. The rough terrain meant that the Spaniards could not reach it.

Manco and his successors led a rebellion against the Spanish until 1572, when the last ruler, Tupac Amaru, was captured and executed.

The Inca rump state consisted of cities such as Vilcabamba, Vitcos, and Machu Picchu.

In 1912, when Bingham returned to the site he had “discovered” before, Ignacio Ferro – the son of local landowner, Mariano Ignacio Ferro, told him that the ruined city was actually believed to be Huayna Picchu, have writes the researchers.

They also noted the reason Bingham decided to call the site “Machu Picchu”:

It appears from his field notes that Bingham decided to call the ruins Machu Picchu based on information provided by his guide, Melchor Arteaga, a sharecropper who lived at the bottom of the valley.

Scholars also point out that seven years before Bingham’s arrival in Peru, Carlos B Cisneros Atlas of Peru registered “the city of Huayna Picchu”, in the heights above the Urubamba River, as one of the most important archaeological sites in the Urubamba region.

Before leaving the city of Cusco (the ancient Inca capital) to explore the ruins in 1911, Bingham was told by Adolfo Quevedo, the city’s sub-prefect, that there were ruins called Huayna Picchu on the river. Urubamba, the researchers noted.

They scoured colonial records dated 1539, 1550, 1552, 1560 to discover that “a large area below Ollantaytambo was called Picchu”. They also found a document from 1568 that specifically mentions the town of Picchu.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence comes from 1588, a decade after the Spaniards conquered the rump state of the Incas.

The authors quoted a section of the Documentos Silquewhich recorded Francisco de Toledo, the Viceroy of Peru sending 51 Peruvian Indian serfs from Cusco to the Vilcabamba region to help Martin Hurtado de Arbieto.

Arbieto was the leader of the Spanish forces that invaded the area and captured Tupac Amaru, the last Sapa Inca. The document recorded:

…and it occurred to us that the native Indians of this province were very eager to go and resettle at the place which they call Vayna Piccho which is very far from this town, more than ten leagues on the very edge and limit of this district.

the Documentos Silque contain another irrefutable proof that the ruins were called Huayna Picchu. The reference is from 1714:

…and from there to another apacheta named Guaira Casa and from there to the ancient Inca city named Guayna picho and from there descending to the great river of Vilcamayo…

The authors concluded: “Furthermore, although negative evidence is never so satisfactory, it is intriguing that we know of no reference to an Inca city called Machu Picchu before news of Bingham’s visit exploded through the world in 1912.”




Edward K. Thompson