Have We Been Calling Machu Picchu By The Wrong Name This Whole Time?

There are a few famous sights that almost everyone has seen, if not in person, then at least through photos on a computer screen. Think the Egyptian pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China — and Machu Picchu.

This Peruvian wonder is an ancient city which was built hundreds of years ago. It has miraculously withstood the test of time, earthquakes, and jungle deterioration to remain stable and open to visitors today (via National Geographic). Machu Picchu rests on the top of a green mountain in a rainforest, so high up that clouds float across the vistas (via UNESCO). With hundreds of structures, including an upper and lower town, it's an undeniably impressive city, and it definitely deserves having its name spread to all corners of the planet.

But did you know that we might actually have been spreading the wrong name? That's right: The famous city of Machu Picchu might not actually have been called Machu Picchu at all (via Smithsonian Magazine).

What is Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu dates back to the 1400s, when it was created by the Incan empire in what is now Peru (via CNN). But the city, which was intended to be a royal retreat, wasn't used for very long. By the 1500s, Spanish invaders had driven the Incas from their skytop city (via Smithsonian Magazine).

It wasn't until 1911 that the city was "rediscovered" — though this term might be a misnomer, as, even in the early 1900s, there were farming families living in the city who were certainly aware of its existence, according to National Geographic. Still, the existence of the city was news to Americans, including Hiram Bingham, the Yale University lecturer and explorer who "found" the city (via CNN). Bingham was on the hunt for the famous Lost City of the Incas, where they retreated during the Spanish invasion. He did eventually find that city, but he found Machu Picchu first, and it ended up being far more famous (via National Geographic).

What is Machu Picchu's real name?

The name Machu Picchu came from Bingham — kind of. When he found the city, he asked the locals what it was called, and somehow ended up with the incorrect name of Machu Picchu, according to CNN, which means "old mountain peak." However, newer research suggests that there was actually a miscommunication at play: The mountaintop city that's now gained fame had traditionally been called Huayana Picchu, or "new mountain peak."

The miscommunication was uncovered in 2021 when a group of researchers came together to examine the historical evidence and discover the truth of the city's origins, according to Smithsonian Magazine. Researchers used maps and other old documents to uncover the city's original name.

Researchers say that this type of miscommunication is not uncommon, according to CNN. Just look at Japan, for instance — in the local tongue, the country is called Nippon, and the international name "Japan" may have been a result of miscommunication with explorers (via Culture Trip). But either way, even though we'll probably keep calling Machu Picchu by its incorrect name, at least we have evidence of its true origins.