Inca Empire

I. Introduction

Inca Empire, vast kingdom in the Andes Mountains of South America that was created by the Quechua, a Native American people, in the 15th century AD. The Inca Empire was conquered by the Spanish in the early 16th century. The Incas built a wealthy and complex civilization that ruled more than 9 million people. The Inca system of government was among the most complex political organizations of any Native American people. Although the Incas lacked both a written language and the concept of the wheel, they accomplished feats of engineering that were unequaled elsewhere in the Americas. They built large stone structures without mortar and constructed suspension bridges and roads that crossed the steep mountain valleys of the Andes.

The Incas conquered a number of neighboring peoples as they expanded their area of influence outward from their home in the Cusco valley of highland Peru. Inca lands eventually totaled about 906,500 sq km (about 350,000 sq mi). This territory centered on the peaks of the Andes, but extended to the Pacific Coast and the Amazon basin. The political center of the empire was in what is now Peru, and its territory included parts of present-day Ecuador, Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwest Argentina. The terrain included high grass plateaus, low-lying jungles, deserts, and fertile river valleys.

II. Origins of the Incas

Most of the major ideas and institutions incorporated within Inca culture developed from a series of earlier Native American civilizations in the Andes. According to legend, the people later known as Incas began as a small group of warlike people and lived near Lake Titicaca in southeastern Peru sometime before the 13th century. According to Inca myth, the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, and his three brothers and four sisters emerged from caves in the earth. Around the year 1200, Manco Capac led ten Inca ayllus, or clans, from Lake Titicaca north to the fertile valley of Cusco. The Incas conquered the people of the area and took it over for themselves. They founded the city of Cusco as their capital. Manco Capac married one of his sisters to establish the royal Inca bloodline. He and succeeding emperors increased their power through marriage alliances and the conquest of neighboring groups. By the reign of Viracocha Inca, the eighth emperor, the Incas dominated an area stretching about 40 km (about 25 mi) around Cusco. Recent archaeological evidence, however, shows that Inca culture was developing in the Cuzco Valley for centruries.

The Incas dramatically expanded and unified their territory after the conquest of the Chancas, under Viracocha's son, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. Pachacuti (whose name means "earthquake" or "cataclysm") reorganized the Inca social and political system. He and his son, Topa Inca Yupanqui, were brilliant soldiers and statesmen who extended the empire from northern Ecuador to central Chile. Under their leadership, the Incas united the diverse native peoples along 4800 km (3000 mi) of coast into a far-flung empire with a common Quechuan language and way of life. These leaders brought Inca civilization to its peak: They made the capital city of Cusco into the center of Inca society and government, developed a state religion, and set up an elaborate administrative system to control their widely scattered subjects and territories.

III. Inca Civilization

A. Political Organization

Inca society was strictly organized, from the emperor and royal family down to the peasants. The emperor was thought to be descended from the sun god, Inti, and he therefore ruled with divine authority. All power rested in his hands. Only the influence of custom and the fear of revolt checked the emperor's power. The emperor had one official wife, but he had many royal concubines and his children by these wives often numbered in the hundreds. The emperor chose his most important administrators from among his sons.

Just below the emperor came the aristocracy, which included descendants and relations of all the emperors. These pure-blooded Incas held the most important government, religious, and military posts. The nobles of conquered peoples also became part of the governing aristocracy and were considered Inca by adoption.

For administrative purposes the empire was divided into regions known as the "four suyus (quarters) of the world," with Cusco at its center. The Incas called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, a Quechuan word meaning "Land of the Four Quarters." One suyu, the Antisuyu, stretched to the east of Cusco and contained deep, forest-covered valleys that gradually descended into the jungles of the Amazon basin. Indian groups in this region, many of whom were only partially pacified, continued to launch attacks against the Incas. Cuntisuyu included all the land west of Cusco, including the coastal regions of Peru from Chan Chan to Arequipa. Collasuyu was the largest of the quarters. Located south of Cusco, it took in Lake Titicaca and regions of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Chincasuyu contained the remaining land to the north of Cusco.

A blood relative of the emperor served as governor of each quarter. The Incas further divided each quarter into progressively smaller units, with officials of descending rank overseeing the activities of these units. Serving under each governor were ten district governors, each of whom ruled over a district containing about 10,000 peasants. Another official, ideally a leader of a large village, ruled over a smaller area containing about 1000 peasants. At the level below, ten foremen each supervised a total of 100 peasants. At the lowest organizational level, an official oversaw a group of ten peasants. For every 10,000 people, there were 1331 officials.

Inca state affairs were complex and tightly controlled. Whole native populations were at times uprooted and resettled in other communities. Often groups were relocated to areas where they were needed for agricultural or mining activities. Sometimes relocations were politically motivated. Placing Quechua-speaking populations in newly conquered areas impaired the ability of local groups to unite against the Incas. Furthermore, these relocations facilitated the spread of Inca ideas and culture and promoted unity in the empire.

In order to deal efficiently with such matters, government officers kept strict accounts of all the people, gold, land, crops, and projects of the empire. Since the Incas had no system of writing, they kept records by means of a quipua series of short, knotted strings hung at intervals from a long top string. By varying the colors and kinds of string used and the spacing of the strings and knots, the Incas could record populations, troops, and tribute, as well as information about their legends and achievements. The quipu was a complex memory aid rather than a literal record, and only a trained quipucamayo, or memory expert, could create or interpret it. An oral comment accompanied each quipu and allowed the quipucamayo to make sense of its meaning. Following the Spanish conquest and the introduction of records written in Spanish, the Incas lost the ability to read quipus. Modern scholars still have not deciphered the codes used in the creation of quipus.

B. Public Works

The Incas' public works were built through a labor tax known as mit'a. This tax required most people incorporated into the Inca Empire to provide labor for public works during certain portions of each year. This labor tax supported large-scale public works that required the marshalling of large labor forces, such as for the building of forts, roads, and bridges, or the mining of metals and gems. It also allowed the emperor to raise large armies to undertake wars of conquest.

Road building was important to establishing communication throughout the huge, complex empire. The Inca emperors built a 16,000-km (10,000-mi) network of stone roads. Trained runners carried official messages, working in relays to cover up to 400 km (250 mi) per day. Government officials traveled on two main north-south roads and lesser crossroads that ran to every village in the empire. Local government officers managed tambos, or rest houses, which were spaced a day's journey apart and stocked with food and equipment.

To span the deep river gorges separating cities, the Inca built suspension bridges of rope that were marvels of engineering. Some of these rope bridges were nearly 100 m (330 ft) in length. One of the Incas' greatest engineering feats was a bridge that crossed a dangerously steep gorge along the Apurímac. Constructed in 1350, this bridge–made from ropes of twined plant fibers–survived for more than 500 years, until it was abandoned in 1890.

To increase agricultural production, the government commissioned stone terraces in the steep, narrow Andean valleys. Officials also oversaw the construction of grain warehouses, which served as storage centers for a portion of each year's grain harvest. The government distributed this grain to the people during times of scarcity and famine, and also as forms of payment for labor.

Among the most impressive of the Incas' building projects were their vast temples, palaces, and fortresses. Massive stone buildings, such as the fortress at Sacsahuaman near Cusco, were skillfully erected with a minimum of engineering equipment. The wall of Sacsahuaman was made of enormous stones, the largest of which weighed 200 tons. Stones were transported with the help of wooden rollers, and they fitted together so exactly that no mortar was necessary.

Cusco itself was a marvel of Inca building and metalwork. The great Temple of the Sun was almost entirely sheathed with gold plate. In its courtyard, figures fashioned of gold depicted scenes from Inca life. Gold corn appeared to grow out of clods of earth made of gold, and golden llamas grazed on gold grass. Other cities included Machu Picchu, whose ruins were discovered in 1911.

C. Society

The basis of Inca society was the ayllu, typically ayllus were families living together and sharing land, animals, and crops. The ayllus varied in size, from small farming villages to larger towns. Everyone belonged to an ayllu. An individual was born into an ayllu and died within it. Even the choice of a mate could be determined by the ayllu. If an Inca man did not marry by the age of 20, the head of the ayllu selected a mate for him.

Most Incas were farmers who worked the land. The emperor owned all the land in the empire. He administered its use through the ayllu, which divided land into allotments large enough for a family to farm. Families planted and harvested the land communally. Each autumn the ayllu adjusted land allotments to match increases or decreases in the size of each family. Aside from producing their own food, each ayllu worked additional fields to support the emperor and the state religion.

The daily life of the people of the Inca Empire varied widely according to social class. The emperor lived in a dazzling palace with gold and silver walls, plates, and cups. He wore a gold fringe around his forehead as the emblem of his office. His throne was merely a low stool, possibly of red wood, although sometimes of gold. Although his blankets were made of soft vicuna wool, he slept on the floor like his lowliest subjects.

Although the emperor and other nobles often had many wives, the emperor traditionally married his sister as his principal wife. The next emperor would be chosen from among the sons born of this union. Since both the emperor and his sister were considered direct descendents of the god Inti, this union guaranteed that the son who succeeded to the throne would also be a pure-blood descendant of Inti. The heir was given strict training to make him able to outdo other boys in strength and endurance. Royalty and nobility were exempt from taxation and had such privileges as land, llamas, fine clothing, and litters, which were mats upon which the royalty and nobility would sit and be carried around by people of lesser social levels.

Inca farmers, in contrast, led a life of hard work. After breakfasting at daybreak on chicha, a kind of thick beer made from fermented corn, the entire family worked in the fields until midmorning. Then they ate the day's main meal, consisting of such foods as corn kernels boiled with chili peppers and herbs; soup or stew of guinea-pig meat thickened with potato flour; or cornmeal mixed with water and baked in hot ashes into a hard bread. Potatoes were a staple, especially in the mountains. In addition to working in the fields, women made chicha, ground corn and potatoes into flour, and produced cloth by spinning and weaving cotton or wool. If an Inca man were not a noble, he could have only one wife.

A typical Inca house was a one-room rectangular building of adobe brick or stone with a thatched, gabled roof, and without windows or a chimney. At night people slept on the floor around a crude stove, which was made of stone cemented with mud. During the day, people spent most of their time outdoors. Upper-class houses were often larger and partitioned into several rooms.

Although the quality of clothing varied, poor and rich and even the emperor dressed in the same basic fashion. Men wore breechcloths, sleeveless knee-length tunics, and cloaks or ponchos. Women wore long dresses and capes fastened with a pin of copper, silver, or gold. All garments were of woven cotton or wool cloth. The men fixed their hair in a distinctive style to signify the allyu to which they belonged and wore decorative earplugs of shell or metal.

Although there was little social mobility, some Inca peasants escaped the grinding labor and harsh life of their class. Specially gifted boys were trained in crafts or in keeping records and used their skills to serve the emperor. Also exempt from menial labor were the yanacona, unusually intelligent boys who were trained and employed by the emperor as servants, pages, or temple attendants. They were slaves, but they made important contacts and might rise high in government service. Some Inca girls also received education and distinction as "chosen women." The most beautiful 10-year-old girls of each ayllu were selected. After studying religion and domestic arts, they were placed in the households of the emperor and his nobles. Sometimes they were sacrificed to the gods and buried atop Andean mountain peaks.

D. Economy

Agriculture was the basis of the economy, producing almost all the foods in the Inca diet. Each ayllu had its own self-supporting farm community. Ayllu members worked the land cooperatively to produce food crops and cotton. All work was done by hand because the Incas lacked wheeled tools and draft animals. Their simple implements included a heavy wooden spade or foot plow called a taclla, a stone-tipped club to break up clods, a bronze-bladed hoe, and a digging stick.

The inhabitants of the Andean region developed more than half the agricultural products that the world eats today. Among these are more than 20 varieties of corn; 240 varieties of potato; as well as one or more varieties of squash, beans, peppers, peanuts, and cassava (a starchy root); and quinoa, which is made into a cereal. By far the most important of these was the potato. The Incas planted the potato, which is able to withstand heavy frosts, as high as 4600 m (15,000 ft). At these heights the Incas could use the freezing night temperatures and the heat of the day to alternately freeze and dry the potatoes until all the moisture had been removed. The Incas then reduced the potato to a light flour. They cultivated corn up to an altitude of 4100 m (13,500 ft) and consumed it fresh, dried, and popped. They also made it into an alcoholic beverage known as saraiaka or chicha.

The Incas faced difficult conditions for agriculture. Mountainous terrain limited the land that could be used for agriculture, and water was sometimes scarce. To compensate, the Incas adopted and improved upon the terracing methods invented by pre-Inca civilizations. They built stone walls to create raised, level fields. These fields formed steplike patterns along the sides of hills that were too steep to irrigate or plough in their natural state. Terraces created more arable land and kept the topsoil from washing away in heavy rains.

Although rain generally falls in the Andes between December and May, there are often years of drought. The Incas constructed complex canals to bring water to terraces and other patches of arable land. They also made use of natural fertilizers. Guano, the nitrate-rich droppings of birds, was plentiful in coastal areas. In the highlands, farmers used the remains of slaughtered llamas as a fertilizer.

Camelids, such as llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, were very important to the economy. In addition to carrying burdens, llamas and alpacas were raised as a source of coarse wool and of dung, which was used for fuel. The finest-quality wool came from the wild vicuña, which was caught, sheared, and set free again. The Inca also raised guinea pigs, ducks, and dogs, which were the main sources of meat protein.

The Incas mined extensive deposits of gold and silver, but this wealth ultimately brought disaster in the 16th century, when Spanish soldiers came seeking riches for themselves and their king.

E. Religion

The supreme god of the Incas was the creator god, Viracocha. The Incas also worshiped the sun god, Inti, from whom the royal family was believed to be descended, and a number of other nature gods that were vital to the success of their crops. The Incas also believed that certain objects and places were sacred. They called these objects and places huacas. A huaca might be a great temple built by humans; an object found in nature, such as a hill, spring, stream, or rock; or a small amulet, or charm. Every Inca family had a huaca, some object of worship that was put in a niche in the home. Offerings were repeatedly given to the huacas to maintain balance in nature and society.

The Incas also believed in an afterlife and worshiped the spirits of their ancestors. The bodies and tombs of the dead were treated as huacas. The bodies of dead rulers were among the holiest shrines in the empire. These rulers were treated as if they were still alive, attended to by servants in their palaces and consulted for advice on daily affairs. Rural people practiced simpler rituals of ancestor worship. When a person died, the body was embalmed and placed in a beehive-shaped tomb with vessels of food and chicha. The family of the deceased held funeral ceremonies for eight days and wore black clothes for as long as a year, and women in mourning cut their hair. The Incas also made above ground tombs called chullpas. They would enter and reenter these tombs, providing more food and precious goods and offerings to their mummified ancestors.

The Inca state religion was highly formal, with a large number of priests to conduct its many rituals and ceremonies. In many rites, live sacrifices were offered to the gods. The sacrificial offerings were usually llamas or guinea pigs, but on the most sacred occasions or in times of disaster, human children or chosen women might be sacrificed. Priests prophesied the future and treated the sick, since illness was thought to result from the ill will of a person or a god. The chosen women served the gods, especially the sun god, and certain of them, called virgins of the sun, took vows of chastity for life. See also  Pre-Columbian Religions: Inca Religion.

F. Science and Arts

Although priests treated most illness with healing ceremonies, the Incas were capable of amazing feats of surgery, including amputations and perhaps even bone transplants. The patient was first made unconscious by drugs, intoxicants, or possibly hypnotism. Many of these surgeries were successful, and the patients lived for years after the operations.

The Incas seem to have reckoned time by a lunar calendar. They had accurate standards of measurement, including a fathom that equaled about 163 cm (64 in) in length, and they used a balance beam for measuring weight.

The Incas were skilled in such crafts as textiles, pottery, and metalwork. They wove wool and cotton into intricate geometric patterns. In addition to painted pottery vessels, the Incas made small objects of clay that were sometimes decorated with animal forms. They created a few standardized forms, chiefly llamas and human figurines, in stone and metal. Goldsmithing was an Inca specialty. Smiths who worked gold and silver lived in a special district and did not have to pay taxes. The best examples of their art have not survived, because the Spanish melted most Inca articles made of gold and shipped them to Spain. Craftsmen made wide use of copper and bronze for tools and ornaments, while fashioning gold and silver into jewelry and other items for use by the nobility or the priests. See also  Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture.

The Incas produced a rich body of music, of which only fragments survive. Inca music often accompanied ritualized religious dancing. Musicians used repetitive rhythms and dissonant tones to induce an almost hypnotic state in the dancers. Inca instruments were made of wood, reeds, pottery, bone, shell, and metal. The Incas played two basic kinds of instruments: wind and percussion. Wind instruments, such as horns and flutes, produce a sound when a musician blows into a tube or hollow chamber. Percussion instruments, such as bells or drums, produce a sound when a musician strikes the instrument. Drums and flutes were the most common instruments used by the Incas. Flutes came in many varieties. The panpipe–a series of cane or pottery flutes tuned to different notes and tied together in a row–are still common in the Andes today.

IV. Spanish Conquest

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The Inca civilization was at its height around 1493, as Spaniards began arriving in the Americas. In that year, the great ruler Topa Inca was succeeded by Huayna Capac, who continued to expand the empire. In about 1525 the Inca Empire survived an attack by a band of Chiriguano, Native American people from nearby Paraguay. The attackers were accompanied by Portuguese explorer Aleixo García, the first white man the Incas had ever seen. Then stories reached the Incas of other white men exploring the Pacific coast.

About 1525 both Huayna Capac and his appointed heir died within a few days of each other, probably from one of the European diseases that accompanied the arrival of the Spaniards. Their deaths set off a struggle for power between two of Huayna Capac's remaining sons, Huáscar and Atahualpa. Civil war weakened the empire until Atahualpa captured Huáscar and ordered his execution in 1532. That same year, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro and 180 Spanish soldiers landed on the coast of Peru. The Incas at first believed Pizarro to be their creator god Viracocha, just as the Aztecs of Mexico had associated the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés with their god Quetzalcoatl (see  Aztec Empire).

Pizarro, however, launched a surprise attack on Atahualpa's followers and seized the emperor. Atahualpa tried to buy his life by giving Pizarro enough gold to fill a room. His efforts were not successful; in 1533 the Spaniards executed Atahualpa by strangulation, and then they chopped off his head.

The Spaniards extended their control over Inca territory in the following years. Pizarro tried at first to maintain the appearances of a continued Inca state by placing Manco Capac II, a son of Huayna Capac, on the throne at Cusco. Disagreements soon broke out among the Spanish over how to divide the wealth taken from the Incas. Manco Capac II took advantage of this situation. He escaped from Cusco in 1536 and launched a revolt against Spanish rule.

The Spanish quickly defeated an attack by four Inca armies at Lima, Peru, which Pizarro had made his capital. After an unsuccessful three-month siege of Cusco by another Inca army, Manco Capac II and thousands of his followers took refuge in the mountainous region of Vilcabamba to the northwest of Cusco. There he created a new Inca state, from which he led his warriors in attacks on the Spanish.

The Inca kingdom at Vilcabamba survived for another 36 years, protected by the difficult terrain of the region. In 1572 the Spanish made a determined attempt to destroy the Inca stronghold. They overwhelmed the Inca forces and captured the last emperor of the Incas, Túpac Amaru. The Spanish beheaded Túpac Amaru in 1572, ending the Inca dynasty.

The conquerors then introduced the encomienda system, which put Native Americans to work at forced labor on great agricultural estates. Thousands died of European diseases, and many others fled the land of their ancestors, causing the population to drop rapidly. Today about 8 million descendants of the Incas inhabit the lands of the former empire, speaking the Quechuan language and following many of the ancient Inca beliefs and customs.

Contributed By:

William R. Fowler, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, Vanderbilt University. Author of El Salvador: Antiguas Civilizaciones. Editor of Ancient Mesoamerica.


"Inca Empire," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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