The Inca Empire is, in some ways, one of the most iconic states in world history. It was by far the largest empire that Pre-Columbian America produced; and its tragic fate at the hands of a small group of Spaniards cannot fail to move those who read about it.
Yet perhaps what most fascinates is the question, “What might have been?” What would have happened if those Spaniards had not arrived and put a sudden end to what was a young and growing empire? Would the Inca Empire have survived for several centuries, or might it have soon been succeeded by something else – and if so what?
Historical Background to Inca origins
The Inca (sometimes written Inka) civilization was heir to a long line of cultures which had thrived in Peru for at least two millennia. On the coast, the Moche and Chimor had been built around thriving city-states, whilst in the highlands of the Andes the Chavin, and later the Wari and Tiwanaku, had been expansive societies which had spread their cultural influences over large areas.
Inca origins date back to the period, in the early centuries of the second millennium CE, when the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures in the Andes region were in decline, and the order that these two states had imposed was falling apart. Numerous small states were struggling for survival or dominance. It was in this context that the Inca began to build their empire.
Summary of Inca origin legends
Inca origins and early history are shrouded in legends. The Inca paqarina (the hole in the ground from which they believed they emerged into the world) was located about 15 miles south of Cuzco. Under their first leader, Manco Capac (usually dated to some time in the 13th century), the Inca were a small, wandering clan which moved from village to village in search of enough fertile land to sustain themselves. Eventually, they arrived at the fertile area around Cuzco, where they established themselves in a small fortified settlement.
Unsurprisingly, they were treated as hostile invaders by the peoples already living in the area, and had to defend themselves from constant attack. After a while, however, they got the upper hand and began forcing their neighbors to pay tribute in order to be safe from attack. From their earliest days they were an aggressive people!
Inca Mayta Capac
The demand for additional lands became more apparent during the reign of the fourth king, Mayta Capac (late 13th/early 14th century CE). It is possible that rainfall began to diminish slightly about this time throughout the central Andes. This placed some pressure on food resources, leading to competition and conflict between peoples in the region. For the Inca, this would have created a motive for acquiring more land and sources of water in neighboring parts of the Cuzco Valley.
This is apparently what Mayta Capac did. Legend indicates that quarrels with a neighboring group began because the Inca were taking water from them. The quarrel grew into a full-scale war, which the Inca won. They looted the homes of their enemies, took some of their lands, and probably imposed some sort of tribute on them, perhaps in labor.
The sixth emperor, Inca Roca (reigned c. 1350 – c. 1380), subjugated some groups that lived about 12 miles southeast of Cuzco. Legends suggest, however, that the Inca were no more powerful than several other groups in the area at this time. Inca Roca is credited with improving the irrigation system around Cuzco, which may have had some effect on strengthening the small kingdom.
Yahuar Huacac, the seventh emperor (reigned c. 1380-1410), apparently spent most of his time in Cuzco. His brothers Vicaquirao (Wika-k’iraw) and Apo Mayta (’Apu Mayta) were able military leaders and incorporated lands south and east of Cuzco into the Inca domain. After Yahuar Huacac’s murder and some power struggles within the royal family, the elders chose Viracocha Inca as his successor.
The Inca conquest began during the reign of Viracocha Inca (reigned c. 1410 – c. 1438).
Up to this time, neighboring ethnic groups were conquered and their lands taken, but no garrisons were stationed among them or Inca officials placed over them. They were left undisturbed until the Inca felt it necessary to attack them again.
This pattern of raiding and plundering changed during Viracocha Inca’s reign. He planned to establish permanent rule over these groups and was ably assisted by his uncles, Vicaquirao and Apo Mayta, who developed military tactics that made permanent conquest possible. These involved attacking enemies from two or more directions at once.
At first war of conquests were relatively small-scale campaigns, but made the Inca a political power in the Urubamba Valley, an important passageway between Cuzco and the Lake Titicaca Basin.
Power struggle amongst the Inca
During the early 15th century a group called the Chanca was emerging as a political power in the area west of Inca territory. Presumably, they too may have been feeling the effects of diminishing food resources and were trying to maintain their standard of living by acquiring land outside their home territory.
In about 1438 the Chanca attacked the Inca. Although the Inca inflicted heavy defeats on the Chanca, their state fell into civil war as Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui set himself on the throne in Cuzco in opposition to his father, Viracocha Inca, who had fled to Calca to escape the Chanca.
Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui therefore had to deal with two enemies at once—the Chanca and his father’s forces. The situation resolved itself when Viracocha died, soon after which the Inca were reunited under the rule of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (reigned c. 1438 – c. 1471).
Continuing struggles with the Chanca, and later with the powerful kingdom of Chimor, led to two major expeditions: one to conquer the peoples of the Titicaca Basin and protect the exposed southern flank, and the other to subdue the areas to the north. When the southern campaign was over, the Inca controlled all of the territory between Cuzco and the southern end of the lake basin.
The northern expedition and its aftermath led to the conquests as far north as Quito (Ecuador), and then to the conquest of the Chimor state. The Inca sacked the capital, Chan Chan, probably the largest city in South America at that time, and brought the whole coastal area of southern Ecuador and northern Peru under Inca control.
Administrative and religious reforms
With the rapid expansion of their empire, the Inca found themselves as a minority within their own states, ruling over a much large number of subjects. This led Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, and his son Topa Inca Yupanqui (reigned c. 1478 – c. 1493), to strengthen the core of the Inca empire by bringing about several important changes.
They rebuilt their capital, Cuzco, and upgraded its defenses; and they invested in a massive project to raise the agricultural productivity of the city’s hinterland in the Cuzco Valley. This involved channelling rivers, leveling the valley, and terracing the hillsides. While the work was being completed, the original inhabitants of the affected parts of the valley were relocated to other areas for several years.
They also strengthened the social cohesiveness of the Inca ruling group by ensuring that all the Inca had access to enough land to support themselves and fulfill their social and public obligations properly. At the same time they began the policy of forced resettlement of conquered peoples (mitma) from one part of the Inca empire to another. (For more on both these policies, see the section below on the Social and political structure in the Inca empire).
Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui installed the worship of a creator-god called Viracocha as the Inca’s special deity. Indeed, he seems to have propagated the idea that the Inca had a divine mission to take it to other peoples. Conquered groups, though not required to give up their own gods, had to worship this Inca god as well.
This religion thus became a potentially powerful force in bolstering Inca power throughout the empire.
About 1471, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui abdicated in favor of his son Topa Inca Yupanqui, thereby ensuring the peaceful succession to the throne.
Topa Inca Yupanqui was a great conqueror who was to bring most of the Central Andes region within the Inca empire.
His first military campaign, while not particularly successful, established diplomatic and trading relations with people of the nearby rain forests to the east of the Andes mountains.
His next campaign was to put down a revolt in the Titicaca Basin. He then turned southward, conquering all of highland Bolivia, northern Chile, and much of northwestern Argentina. He set the boundary markers of the Inca empire at the Maule River in central Chile.
At this point, the southern coast of Peru still had not been incorporated into the empire. In about 1476 Topa Inca Yupanqui therefore began bringing this region under his rule, valley by valley.
During the remainder of his reign, Topa Inca Yupanqui spent much of his time traveling throughout his territories, putting the Inca empire on a sound administrative footing.
After a tense succession, Huayna Capac’s reign (1493-1524) was mostly peaceful. He devoted much of his time to traveling, administering the empire, and suppressing small-scale revolts. He did however conquer parts of the mountainous country in northeastern Peru, and later northern Ecuador. During these campaigns, he pushed the frontiers of the Inca empire to the present-day boundary between Ecuador and Colombia.
During a campaign in northern Ecuador to wipe out isolated pockets of resistance, he learned that an epidemic was sweeping Cuzco and the surrounding countryside. He returned to his capital, but died from the disease in 1524. His death heralded the fall of the Inca empire.
The Inca called their realm “Tawantinsuyu”. They apparently considered the term “Inca” applied only to members of the twelve royal clans who were the descendants of one or other of their twelve kings. Some of the early kings were more or less legendary figures, so the term “Inca” did not necessarily imply close blood relationship. Nevertheless, these true Inca made up a comparatively small group, forming a privileged elite at the top of society within the Inca empire.
Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui had decreed that all the property of a dead ruler must pass to all his descendants except the new ruler or his children. This rule ensured that these lineage groups could have access to lands and laborers from which they could support themselves. As for the new ruler, he had to acquire new estates for his descendants to ensure that they also could adequately support themselves.
The purpose of this measure was probably to minimize struggle for resources between the descent groups, which endangered the position of the Inca ruling elite as a whole in relation to the increasing number of subject peoples.
Each of the descent groups formed its own corporation which owned and managed estates in the area around Cuzco and scattered throughout the Inca empire. They also maintained the ceremonies in honor of their dead ancestor, and performed other obligations to the state.
In addition to these descent groups, conquered groups could be incorporated into the ruling elite by being given the status of “Inca”. This privilege was apparently conferred on many of the inhabitants of the Cuzco basin who were conquered early on in the expansion of the Inca empire.
The subject peoples within the Inca empire
On the bases of the evidence in some Spanish sources, all of the conquered peoples were grouped into units of 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 households. These formed the basis for labor duties and military conscription.
To what extent this actually reflected the situation within the Inca empire is not known. Other sources suggest that conquered chiefs and headmen were kept in their positions of authority, so long as they fulfilled their obligations to their Inca lords. This mainly involved ensuring that their people were available to work on the Inca’s public projects and to fight in the Inca’s wars.
It is possible to reconcile the two strands of evidence if one is not dogmatic on exact numbers. A village (or ayllu, the basic social unit , a kin-group which held land communally) might have been designated a “hundred” (much like “hundreds” in Anglo-Saxon England, which represented a division of a county rather than an exact number of households). Similarly “500” might have been applied to a small district, and so on up to the “10,000” households of a tribe.
All these groupings may have remained under pre-Inca lords with varying degrees of power, or their descendants. There is evidence of chiefs leading contingents of their tribesmen within the larger Inca armies, sometimes fighting hundreds or even thousands miles away from their homelands.
Forced resettlement (mitma)
The Inca rulers routinely imposed a policy of forced resettled on their conquered peoples (mitma). The aim of this was primarily to ensure their loyalty to the Inca state; but a subsidiary aim was to enable a better use of land (at least so far as the Inca were concerned).
The policy involved moving some members of a conquered people from their homeland to a distant province. In their place, settlers from loyal districts would be brought in as colonists. In doing this, the conquered people were dispersed over different parts of the Inca empire, and so made it difficult for the inhabitants of an area, composed of different ethnic groups, to revolt successfully.
The Inca did not collect tribute from their conquered subjects in the form of money (there wasn’t any in Andean society) or in kind. Instead, they demanded labor from them, through the mit’a system.
In this, their traditional leaders organized the people in fulfilling their obligations. They were marched from their homelands to the lands where the state wanted them to work, and later marched back again.
This sounds like a wasteful policy, but in a society lacking in established market centers this may have been the only way to mobilize labor on a grand scale.
The Inca put the labor thus provided to a whole range of tasks. A major undertaking was aimed at feeding those segments of the population who were not engaged in food production – rulers, nobles, officials, priests, soldiers, craftsmen and so on. For example, peasants were required to work in rotation on large state- or temple-owned estates. Other work involved digging irrigation channels, constructing terraces, laying roads, building suspension bridges, carrying loads along highways, working in the state mines or fighting in the Inca army.
Each province was also required to provide Chosen Women to serve as temple attendants in Inca shrines, or to become the brides of soldiers who had distinguished themselves in combat.
The mit’a system allowed the Inca to engage in impressive projects. We noted above how Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui undertook a vast reclamation project in which rivers were channeled, the valley floor was leveled, and agricultural terraces were built on surrounding hillsides. Other large-scale projects of this type were undertaken in other parts of the Inca empire, and the Inca were able to construct an impressive road network which spanned their entire empire.
The Inca religion had its roots in pre-Inca times, and was influenced by contemporary Andean cultures. As such, it was polytheistic, worshipping a number of major gods and a a vast range of minor gods.
The Sun god, Inti, was the chief of the gods in the Inca pantheon. He was also considered the divine ancestor of the Inca. His wife was Mama Quilla (Mama-Kilya), the Moon Mother.
Another leading god was Apu Illapu, the rain giver. In times of drought, pilgrimages were made to his shrines, where sacrifices – often human – were made.
However, it was Viracocha who functioned as the special deity of the Inca, at least since the days of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui.
Viracocha was the creator god and culture hero (he had taught people various techniques and skills), who had been worshipped in pre-Inca times but who, under the Inca, was especially venerated. Indeed, the Inca seem to have felt that they had a divine mission to establish his cult amongst other peoples, and the Inca armies conquered in the name of the creator god. Priests were appointed and temples were built throughout the empire. Conquered groups did not have to give up their own religious beliefs, but they had to incorporate the worship of Viracocha into their religion and provide his temples and priests with food, land and laborers.
Temples and shrines
Despite the Inca’s special devotion to Viracocha, it was the Sun god, Inti, who remained the chief of the gods. The Temple to the Sun in Cuzco was the best-known and most magnificent of all the Inca temples. It had a circumference of more than 1,200 feet and was built of beautifully cut stone. Within the temple was huge image of the Sun.
Other well-known temples were at Vilcashuman, which was regarded as the geographic center of the empire; and near Mount Aconcagua in Argentina (the highest mountain in South America), at the southern limit of the Inca empire. On Titicaca Island, in Lake Titicaca, there was another famous temple of the sun.
As the Inca conquered new territories, temples were erected in the new lands. In Caranqui, Ecuador, for example, one such temple was described by a Spanish chronicler as being “filled with great vessels of gold and silver”.
Along with the shrines and temples, huacas (sacred sites) were widespread. These could be a man-made temple, a mountain, a river, or even a bridge. A huaca might also be a mummy, especially if it was that of a famous Inca lord.
Priests resided at all important shrines and temples. The chief priest in Cuzco was of noble lineage, and held his post for life. He enjoyed authority on a par with that of the Inca emperor himself, and controlled all the shrines and temples in the empire, along with their priests.
Sacrifice was offered on a daily basis: for example, the ritual of the Sun’s appearance; and great public sacrifices were offered on festival days and on important occasions, such as a new king’s accession to the throne. Every month of the year had its own festival, and these were important occasions for sacrifice.
Sacrifices commonly offered were animals such as guinea pigs and llamas, and valued plants such as coca leaves and chicha (an intoxicant). Humans also were sacrificed, when the need was extreme. Defeats, drought and disease all called for human blood. When a new Inca ruler assumed the throne, 200 children would be killed. Chosen Women from the Sun Temple might be sacrificed. Sacrificed persons were chosen from those without any blemish or deformity.
Many people destined for sacrifice were chosen from the conquered provinces as part of their regular tribute.
Nothing of importance was undertaken, no decisions made, without recourse to divination. It was also used to diagnose diseases, and to determine guilt in crimes.
Divination was undertaken by watching the meanderings of spiders and the pattern of coca leaves in a dish; by drinking ayahuasca, a psychedelic drink; by studying the lungs of a sacrificed white llama; and by other means. Divination was conducted within the context of sacred ritual; and indeed the whole of Inca religion was bound up in complex ceremonial. If disaster struck, it was believed that there had been a failure to observe the strict rules by which ceremonies were governed.
As the Inca empire expanded, it brought more and more peoples of many different environments and cultures into contact with each other. Techniques originating in any particular ethnic group were able to spread across a wide area.
The most common style of building in the Inca empire was a simple, single-story rectangular structure. It was built of stone and mortar, had a thatched roof laid over wooden beams, and the walls were often covered in adobe plaster.
This form was used in a variety of different contexts – in temples, palaces, fortresses, storehouses and dwellings, both large and small.
Public buildings or larger dwellings would consist of three such structures laid out in a symmetrical pattern around a central courtyard.
Variations of this simple design were often built, but the austere simplicity of Inca architecture is a common feature.
This austere simplicity was sometimes enhanced by dispensing with mortar to bind the stones together. In such cases, the stones were highly polished, so that they fit together in a precise way to form a very strong structure.
The best examples of this can be seen today at the Inca capital, Cuszco, or at Machu Picchu, the astonishing (and world-famous) complex of buildings located on a high mountain ridge about 50 miles north of Cuzco.
It was probably either Pachacuti Inca or his son Topa Inca who built the citadel of Machu Picchu. It was built as a palace-fortress for the emperor’s personal use, and was located on territory that formed part of the private domain of the emperor. It illustrates the Inca’s astounding mastery of construction techniques, as well as the logistical capabilities required to undertake such a project in the most challenging of environments.
There was no system of writing, like those which emerged in Eurasia, or indeed in Mesoamerica. This prompts the question, how was long-distance communication achieved?
One answer must surely be the accurate oral transmission of messages. This, however, would have been an inefficient means of storing information, and for here we have to look at the use of fibre technology.
The Inca officials who managed the complex mit’a system (see above) used quipu to record labor service obligations. These were strings on which were tied complex sequences of knots which represented different numbers and “words”. These could record quantitive information very effectively, but were also apparently used for qualitative information as well.
Woven textiles were also used for calendars and ceremonial accounting.
One of the best-known features of the Inca empire was its remarkable road system; it amounted to over 15,500 miles in length.
The network was based on two parallel highways, one in the highlands and the other on the coast. Some of the roads dated to before Inca times, but the Inca greatly extended the network and unified it into a single system. The road traversed the most challenging terrains, especially in the mountain regions, and perhaps their most striking features were the rope suspension bridges crossing the steep gorges which punctuated the highlands. Some of these are still in use, maintained on a regular basis by local villages.
The roads had two purposes as far as the Inca rulers were concerned. Firstly, they enabled messages to travel quickly over hundreds of miles, so that the emperor could keep in contact with his commanders and officials in different parts of the empire. The Inca rulers maintained teams of runners who were trained to remember and pass on messages; or perhaps to carry quipu records.
Secondly, troops could march speedily along them to deal with military crises as they occurred.
Way stations were located at a day’s travel interval along the highways. These had rest houses, warehouses and barracks. The maintenance of a length of highway, plus keeping the warehouses fully stored, was the responsibility of the local communities undertaking their mit’a service.
Fibre of various kinds was used as the basis for a wide range of items, including in record keeping (quipu) and suspension bridges (see above). The main use for fibre, though, was in textiles.
In the highlands very few example of textiles from Pre-Columbian times have been preserved because of the humidity, but on the coastal desert many burial cloths from widely different periods have been located and studied. Museums throughout the world have numerous examples of such cloths, which reveal the great beauty and sophistication which Inca craftsmen and their predecessors could achieve.
The Inca state maintained major weaving centers, one of which, on the northeastern shore of Lake Titicaca, was said to have employed a thousand workers. Government centers along the Inca highway housed groups of women weavers.
Before Inca times, metals – gold, silver, copper, and their alloys—were used mainly for ornamentation. Under the Inca, bronze tools, including crowbars, chisels, axes, knives, and club-heads, became widespread after the Inca conquest.
The last of the great Inca rulers, Hyana Capac, died of an epidemic in 1524. To judge from its symptoms, this was either measles or smallpox. If so, it was a European disease which had arrived in the Americas with the early Spanish settlers, and to which local populations had no immunity. They died in droves.
The disease had already killed Hyana Capac’s son and heir-apparent, so the Inca empire was left without a clear succession. A struggle for power between two of Hyana Capa’s younger sons ensued, which lasted until 1532. As is often the case in such times, the struggle between the Inca ruling group was the signal for subject peoples to attempt to throw off the imperial yoke.
It was into this volatile situation that the tiny Spanish force led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru. At about the same time one of the Inca rivals, Atahualpa, decisively defeated his brother and emerged victorious from the civil war, and Pizarro asked for a meeting with him. This was granted, and the Spaniards kidnapped Atahualpa. This was in accordance with a well-tried tactic they had used on previous Indian rulers, notably the Aztec emperor Montezuma.
The Spaniards at first tried to exercise power through Inca puppet rulers, but the situation was too volatile for this to succeed for long. In any case, the Inca empire was fast fragmenting amongst numerous local rulers.
By 1535 the Inca empire had effectively vanished, though a small rump state survived in the mountains for a few years.
Related TimeMaps articles:
What’s it like to travel the Inca road today – an article by the Smithsonian Museum describes the road to Machu Picchu
We thought the Inca couldn’t write – an article in the New Scientist looks at the Quipu system of writing
Inca religion – a useful summary of Inca beliefs and practices.