The Inca: Andean Civilization in the Realm of the Four Parts

 The Land of the Inca
Find out how the potato changed history
 Cradle of Civilization Farm like an Inca
 Church and State Research an illustrated history of the Inca
 Agriculture Record your family history on a quipu
 Quipu Take a photographic tour of Peru
 The Qhapaq Ñan  
 History of the Empire  
 The Spanish Invasion  

The Inca were one of the great civilizations of the world, no matter how you measure it – in art, technology, wealth, military power, population, area controlled, or influence on world history.  Their empire was the largest ever created in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans – indeed, in 1500 CE, it was one of the largest territories anywhere in the entire world, ruling over twenty million people through a combination of military power and economic influence.  The Inca called their empire Tawantinsuyu in Quechua, which was their official language.  This can be translated as The Realm of the Four Parts. The empire was divided into four suyus, whose corners met at the capital of Cusco, in modern-day Peru.


The four suyus or quarters of the empire.

The tremendous success of the Inca was attained by harnessing and adapting the incredible achievements of the earlier peoples of the Andes, one of the six or so places in the world where civilization – literally, life as you know it, settled, with farms, cities, art, and government – developed independently, without copying some neighbor who’d already figured it out.  

From earlier Andean civilizations, the Inca inherited the potato, first discovered and domesticated by Andean peoples thousands of years earlier, and available in some four thousand varieties suited to different altitudes and growing conditions, and each packed with a different array of nutrients, so they’re practically an entire food group unto themselves.  The Inca inherited and innovated terraced agriculture, a technique adapted to the steep sides of the Andes mountains, which allowed these varieties of potatoes – and in turn large numbers of people – to thrive. Tawantinsuyu had no standard form of currency, so these people, the subjects of the Sapa Inca, the emperor, paid their taxes in the form of the mit’a, a public service or obligation to the empire.  These common people applied a rich base of knowledge passed down from their ancestors to build incredible feats of earthquake-resistant stone architecture, to create beautiful textiles, and to engineer innovations such as some of the first suspension bridges in the entire world.

The Land of the Inca

  1. Why the did Inca expand their power primarily north and south, not east and west?



The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world. They are a continual range of highlands along the western coast of South America. This range is about 7,000 km (4,300 mi) long, about 200 to 700 km (120 to 430 mi) wide (widest between 18° south and 20° south latitude), and of an average height of about 4,000 m (13,000 ft). The Andes extend from north to south through seven modern South American countries: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.

The Andes had a profound impact on the patterns of life in the Inca Empire.  The incredibly high Andes block the flow of moist air, locking most rainfall to the east of the mountains, and helping to create the Amazon rainforest.  This, combined with the thin, cold air, means that the Andes and the thin band of land between the Andes and the Pacific coast are very dry.  Most fresh water in this area is drawn from springs or from melting glaciers. Yet, through careful cultivation, the peoples of the Andes wrung the resources from this harsh environment to built a series of successful and populous civilizations that lasted for thousands of years, from around 4000 BCE to the present day.

The Inca’s exact homeland is unknown, but based on linguistic and other evidence, it is thought to be in the region of Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes Mountains, on a high plateau known as the Altiplano.  At the height of their power, the Inca controlled a tremendous empire extending through dozens of climates across all altitudes of the Andes and into the edges of Amazon rainforest.

Cradle of Civilization

  1. How did the climate and geography of the Andes shape the civilization that developed there?
  2. Why does Andean civilization receive less attention in most history textbooks than Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley civilizations?  What implicit message does it send to students to exclude the Andes from a list of cradles of civilization? 
The Six Cradles of Civilization.

The Six Cradles of Civilization – places where civilization is believed to have have arisen independently at different points in human history.

The Andes are one of the world’s cradles of civilization – where civilization as we know it was literally invented without the benefit of copying the example of some other nearby settled society.  The earliest evidence of agriculture in the Andean region dates to around 4700 BCE, and, not far away in modern Peru, the earliest city in the Americas, today called Norte Chico, emerged around 3200 BCE.  It is in places such as Norte Chico or Tiwanaku where inhabitants domesticated animals such as the llama and the guinea pig, built cities, created sophisticated art and religions, developed techniques for making pottery and using metals, and evolved complex social structures involving specialized labor and class systems.

The Andes is one of only six or so places in the world where all of these events have occurred independently.  Here, prehistoric Andean peoples domesticated crops such as quinoa and the potato, and animals such as the llama, alpaca, and guinea pig.  These ancient peoples developed systems for documenting and transmitting information, such as the quipu.  They devised techniques that allowed for the construction of incredible structures – palaces, temples, fortresses, granaries, and roads – built from megalithic stones weighing many multiple tons, all without reliance on cement or mortar, or for that matter beasts of burden – which did not exist in the Americas – to help move them into place.    Where Europeans relied on wood for the creation of bridges and boats, these high-altitude peoples had few trees, so devised similar technologies from local reeds and grasses.  Even the Inca’s religion incorporated aspects of beliefs that originated in these prehistoric times.


Saksaywaman is a citadel on the northern outskirts of the city of Cusco, Peru, the historic capital of the Inca Empire. Sections were first built by the Killke culture about 1100 CE. The complex was expanded and added to by the Inca from the 13th century; they built dry stone walls constructed of huge stones. Inca workers carefully cut the boulders to fit them together tightly without mortar.

This isn’t to say that nothing changed in the Andes between the rise of the Inca and the advent of civilization there in prehistoric times.  Far from it – there was great diversity among the peoples of the Andes, technologies such as metallurgy, weaving, stonework, and agriculture developed over time, and the Inca themselves innovated and created in numerous ways.  But these early Andean civilizations laid the foundations on which the Inca world was made.

Church and State

  1. Analyze the relationship between the Inca’s religion and government.  Compare and contrast this to the way that your country treats its leader.



Inti, the sun god of the Inca. The Inca emperor was considered to be his divine descendant.

Inti was the ancient Inca sun god. He was revered as the national patron of the Inca state.

Manco Cápac (Quechua: Manqu Qhapaq, "the royal founder"), was, according to some historians, the first governor and founder of the Inca civilization in Cusco, possibly in the early 13th century. He is also a main figure of Inca mythology, being the protagonist of the best known legends about the origin of the Inca, connecting him to the foundation of Cusco.

Manco Cápac (Quechua: “the royal founder”) was, by oral tradition, the founder of the Inca civilization in Cusco, possibly in the early 13th century. He is also a main figure of Inca mythology, being the protagonist of the best known legends about the origin of the Inca, connecting him to the foundation of Cusco.

According to Inca belief, Inti and his sister, Mama Killa, the Moon goddess were the parents of the Inca race. Their royal court was served by the Rainbow, the Pleiades, Venus, and others. The founder of the Inca kingdom, known as Manco Cápac, was thought to have been the son of Inti and Mama Killa. According to an ancient myth, Inti taught his son Manco Cápac and his daughter Mama Ocllo the arts of civilization.  They were sent to earth to pass this on to the many other peoples of the Andes.

Inti gave Manco Cápac a special golden staff and ordered him to settle where it would penetrate the rocky soil of the Andes. Incas believed that this happened in the city of Cusco – a Quechua word meaning naval, since, as your belly button is at the center of your body, Cusco would become the center of the four quarters of Tawantinsuyu.  Every Inca ruler was considered to be the successor of Manco Cápac – and the living representative of Inti on Earth.  This divine heritage was his primary source of authority, so the Inca required the worship of their gods among conquered peoples.

The divine mummy of the Sapa Inca travels by litter in this illustration by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala.

The divine mummy of the Sapa Inca travels by litter in this illustration by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala.

Given the Sapa Inca’s divine descent, his whole body was considered sacred.  Spanish observers claimed that Atahualpa, the Sapa Inca ruling at the time of their arrival in the empire, had attendants who collected his toenail clippings, his mealtime leftovers, and any other trace of his presence, storing them safely away in a vast storehouse to preserve their sanctity.  By the end of the empire, it was common for the emperor to marry his sister – for he could not produce a worthy heir with a mere mortal female.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of this imperial divinity was that upon his death, the Sapa Inca would be mummified – and continue to live with his wives and royal attendants in his palace in Cusco, participating in religious ceremonies and weighing in on the politics of the empire as if he were still alive.  Cusco, as well as the countryside surrounding it, was filled with such palaces and estates where life continued to center around the mummified remains of former Sapa Incas, who were dressed, were served meals, and moved around on golden litters long after their deaths.

Noble mummies from the Inca period. These are not the mummies of Sapa Inca themselves, as all such mummies were hunted down and destroyed by the Spanish in an effort stamp out paganism during the colonial period.

Noble mummies from the Inca period. These are not the mummies of Sapa Inca themselves, as all such mummies were hunted down and destroyed by the Spanish in an effort stamp out paganism during the colonial period.


Replica of the life-size, solid gold ear of maize in the ruins of Qurikancha, the Temple of Inti, in Cusco, Peru.

As the empire became more wealthy, the Sapa Inca would adorn himself in gold.  Thin sheets of gold leaf would cover his palace and whole temples dedicated to Inti.  But for the Inca, gold was not valuable in the European sense.  Rather it was sacred, treasured for its tendency to glitter and reflect the sunlight – a manifestation of Inti on Earth.   Ears of corn and llamas – life-sized and used in religious rituals marking the agricultural seasons – were fashioned out of pure gold and positioned in the temples.  A great golden disk representing Inti was discovered by the Spanish conquistadors in 1571 and sent to the pope via Spain.  Most of this wondrous gold work was destroyed by the Spanish, who cared little for its craftsmanship and who wished to repress the religion which it symbolized.

Aclla were virgins, chosen to keep the sacred fires burning in temples dedicated to Inti in Cusco and throughout the empire. Often teenage girls, the aclla were chosen for their beauty or perfection. Known as “wives of the Sun” or “wives of the Inca,” their other duties included brewing the beer of the Incas and on occasion serving as companions to the Sapa Inca.  They were also occasionally sacrificed as well- a great honor to the family of the aclla, as well as her local community, which served to bond the Inca ruling class to its conquered peoples. 

Image result for inca mummy girl

This mummy of an aclla, sacrificed high on a mountain in the Andes, is more than 500 years old.

In addition to Inti, the Inca believed in the concept of the huaca – the idea that there were spirits inside of many things in the natural world.  This included people and animals, but also mountains, springs, and the earth itself.  These huacas were to be respected and revered, honored and listened to, if the empire and indeed the world was to remain in order.  The sacrifice of aclla such as the girl pictured above was one important ritual in honor of the huacas.

Sapa Inca ceremonially planting the first crop of the year to ensure a fertile and productive growing season. Notice Inti in the sky above him.

Sapa Inca ceremonially planting the first crop of the year to ensure a fertile and productive growing season. Notice Inti in the sky above him.

As a result, there were carefully observed religious ceremonies performed by priests, acllas, and in some cases, the Sapa Inca himself to mark important occasions such as the beginning of the planting season, the solstice, or other celestially and spiritually resonant moments. The Sapa Inca also presided over ideologically important festivals, notably the Inti Raymi, or “warriors’ cultivation,” attended by soldiers, mummified rulers, nobles, clerics and the general population of Cusco beginning on the June solstice.  This important agricultural festival culminated nine days later with the Sapa Inca ritually breaking the earth using a foot plough, a ceremony which recalled the mythological foundation of Cusco by Manco Cápac.


  1. In terms of agriculture, how did the Inca adapt to the requirements of their environment?  How did the Inca adapt their environment to meet their requirements?

Farming isn’t always the most exciting topic for modern readers, but consider this: an adequate food supply is the number one most basic building block for any society.  It is what makes life as you know it possible.  So what made life for the Inca possible?

Inca civilization was a highly agricultural society, despite the sometimes harsh challenge posed by the climate and geography of the Andes.  The genius of the Inca lay in unifying otherwise limited agricultural zones through the power of their strong centralized state.  They organized production of a diverse range of crops from the coast, mountains, and jungle regions – a vertical archipelago throughout which they were able to redistribute to the produce of different altitudes and biomes.   The result was a wealthy empire the likes of which the Andes had never previously seen.  

These achievements in agriculture would not have been possible without the centralized government of the Inca.  There was a vast workforce within the empire that was at the disposal of the Sapa Inca, and the vast road system allowed the Inca to harvest crops and distribute them throughout their territory.  The Inca also constructed ample storehouses, allowing them to live through El Niño years, which brought unpredictable harvests, while some neighboring civilizations suffered.

Varieties of Potatoes cultivated under different conditions in the Andes, each offering different nutritional properties.

Varieties of potatoes cultivated under different conditions in the Andes, each offering different nutritional properties.


Chuño is a freeze-dried potato product traditionally made by Quechua and Aymara communities of Bolivia and Peru, and practiced throughout the Inca period. It is a five-day process, obtained by exposing a frost-resistant variety of potatoes to the very low night temperatures of the Andean Altiplano, freezing them, and subsequently exposing them to the intense sunlight of the day (this being the traditional process). The word comes from Quechua ch’uñu, meaning ‘frozen potato.’

It is estimated that the Inca cultivated around seventy crop species. The main crops were potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, chili pepperscotton, tomatoes, peanuts, an edible root called oca, and the pseudograins quinoa and amaranth. The crops developed by the Inca and preceding cultures makes South America one of the historic centers of crop diversity (along with the Middle East, India, Mesoamerica,Ethiopia, and the Far East). Many of these crops were widely distributed by the Spanish and are now important crops worldwide.

Ideal altitudes for the cultivation of various Andean crops.

Ideal altitudes for the cultivation of various Andean crops.

The Inca cultivated food crops on dry Pacific coastlines, high on the slopes of the Andes, and in the lowland Amazon rainforest. In mountainous Andean environments, they made extensive use of terraced fields which not only allowed them to put to use the mineral-rich mountain soil which other peoples left fallow, but also took advantage of micro-climates conducive to a variety of crops being cultivated throughout the year.

Perhaps the most renowned aspect of Inca architecture is the use of terraces to increase the land available for farming. These broad steps provided flat ground surface for food production while protecting city centers against erosion and landslides common in the Andes. The masons at Machu Picchu built these so well that they were still intact in 1912 when Hiram Bingham re-discovered the site.  In the South American Andes, farmers have used terraces, known as andenes, for over a thousand years to farm potatoes, maize, and other native crops. The terraces were built to make the most efficient use of shallow soil and to enable irrigation of crops. They provided the food necessary to support the populations of great Inca cities, temples, and grand palace complexes, such as Machu Picchu. 


Until 1492, the Americas were isolated from Europe, Asia, and Africa.  This meant that ancient Andeans had only indigenous species of animals and plants available to them for domestication.  Since the Americas lacked large animals suitable for domestication – such as horses, oxen, or cows, which all evolved in the Old World – people needed to invent agricultural tools such as the Chaki taklla, a human-powered foot plough that consists of a wooden pole with a curved sharp point, often made of stone or metal. Across the end of this pole ran another wooden crossbar, on which the farmer could put his foot to sink it into the earth and produce a furrow for planting potatoes. This tool is still used in some parts of the Andes.

In the Inca empire, llamas were the only beasts of burden, and many of the people dominated by the Inca had long traditions of llama herding. For the Inca nobility, the llama was significant symbol of prosperity, and llama figures were often buried with the dead. Alpacas were the close cousins of llamas, raised for their wool and meat.

Alpacas grazing.

Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to 5,000 m (16,000 ft) above sea level, throughout the year. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike llamas, they were not bred to be beasts of burden, but were bred specifically for their fiber. Alpaca fiber is used for making knitted and woven items, similar to wool. These items include blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks, coats and bedding in other parts of the world.

The guinea pig was first domesticated as early as 5000 BC for food by tribes in the Andean region of South America, some thousands of years after the domestication of the South American camelids. Statues dating from circa 500 BC to 500 AD that depict guinea pigs have been unearthed in archaeological digs in Peru and Ecuador. The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped animals and often depicted the guinea pig in their art. From about 1200 AD to the Spanish conquest in 1532, selective breeding resulted in many varieties of domestic guinea pigs, which form the basis for some of the modern domestic breeds. They continue to be a food source in the region; many households in the Andean highlands raise the animal, which subsists on the family’s vegetable scraps.

Guinea pigs intended for consumption, rural home, Peru, 2016.

Guinea pigs intended for consumption, rural home, Peru, 2016.


  1. What are quipu?  What kind of applications would this system have?  What limitations?  Could one use it effectively for multiplication?  To design a large building?  Pass a story from one generation to the next?

Quipu on display in Museo Larco, Lima, Peru, 2016.

The Inca had no written system of communication.  However, they did have one of the most unusual systems of record keeping in all world history – the quipu.  A quipu usually consisted of colored, spun, and plied cords made from alpaca fiber.  These strings were tied into knots, representing digits similar to modern tally system.  A quipu could have only a few or up to 2,000 cords.

Quipucamayocs, the accountants of the Inca Empire, created and deciphered quipu knots.

Inca with a quipu (knotted strings used by the Inca for counting), engraving from The first new chronicle and good government, by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (ca 1535-after 1616), South America, 16th century

Quipucamayocs, the accountants of the Inca Empire, created and deciphered quipu knots. Quipucamayocs could carry out basic arithmetic operations, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Using Quipu, they kept track of mit’a, a form of taxation. The quipucamayocs also tracked the type of labor being performed, maintained a record of economic output, and ran a census that counted everyone from infants to “old blind men over 80.”   According to Inca chronicler Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala, quipucamayocs could “read” the quipus with their eyes closed.

Inca historians used quipus when telling the Spanish about Tawantinsuyu history. Quipu literacy was probably not widespread, however – members of the ruling class and those who would join the empire’s bureaucracy were usually taught to read quipus in the Inca equivalent of a university, the yacha-huasi (literally, “house of teaching”), in the third year of schooling.  Unfortunately, today, most knowledge of how to read quipu has been lost, as the Spanish never bother to preserve it – and in some cases actively repressed it.

In Quipu, each cluster of knots is a digit.  Some data items are not numbers but what Ascher and Ascher call number labels. They are still composed of digits, but the resulting number seems to be used as a code, much as we use numbers to identify individuals, places, or things. Lacking the context for individual quipus, it is difficult to guess what any given code might mean. Other aspects of a quipu could have communicated information as well: color-coding, relative placement of cords, spacing, and the structure of cords and sub-cords.

In Quipu, each cluster of knots is a digit. Some data items are not numbers but what are called number labels. They are still composed of digits, but the resulting number seems to be used as a code, much as we use numbers to identify individuals in the form of social security numbers, places through ZIP codes, or items such as bar codes in a store. Lacking the context for individual quipus, it is difficult in the modern day to guess what any given code might mean. Other aspects of a quipu could have communicated information as well: color-coding, relative placement of cords, spacing, and the structure of cords and sub-cords.

The Qhapaq Ñan

  1. Why was an advanced road system so important to the administration of the Inca Empire? 
  2. What skills were required of a chasqui?
The Inca road system was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America. It was about 39,900 kilometers (24,800 mi) long.

The Inca road system (Click to enlarge.)

The Inca road system was the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Columbian South America. It was about 39,900 kilometres (24,800 mi) long, nearly enough to reach around the entire Earth, if laid end-to-end!  Smithsonian Magazine has described the Inca road network as, “arguably the biggest, most complex construction project ever undertaken.”  The Incas developed techniques to overcome the difficult territory of the Andes. On steep slopes they built stone steps resembling giant flights of stairs. In desert areas near the coast they built low walls to keep the sand from drifting over the road.

The Qhapaq Ñan (“the beautiful road”) constituted the principal north-south highway of the Inca Empire traveling 6,000 kilometers (3,700 mi) along the spine of the Andes. The Qhapaq Ñan unified this immense and heterogeneous land through a well-organized political system of power.

To span the steep valleys of the Andes, the Inca used natural fibers found within the local vegetation to build bridges. These fibers were woven together creating a strong enough rope and were reinforced with wood creating a cable floor. Each side was then attached to a pair of stone anchors on each side of the canyon with massive cables of woven grass linking these two pylons together. Adding to this construction, two additional cables acted as guardrails. The cables which supported the foot-path were reinforced with plaited branches. This multi-structure system made these bridges strong enough to even carry the Spaniards while riding horses after they arrived. The design naturally sags in the middle.

Rope bridge built in the traditional Inca style, Peru, 2010s.Part of the bridge’s strength and reliability came from the fact that each cable was replaced every year by local villagers as part of their mit’a public service or obligation. In some instances, these local peasants had the sole task of maintaining and repairing these bridges so that the Inca highways or road systems could continue to function.

Chasquis were agile and highly-trained, physically fit messengers that were in charge of carrying quipus, messages, and gifts throughout the Inca empire along its vast system of roads. A message could travel up to 100 miles per day through the chasquis relay system. Chasquis were not just messengers (those were young boys who were just used to pass along basic information), the chasquis were trained to be able to read and translate quipus to each other and higher authorities. 

Chasqui playing a pututu (conch shell) and carrying a quipu

Chasqui playing a pututu and carrying a quipu.

Each chasqui carried two items, a quipu and a pututu.  Chasquis were educated, able to read, translate, and transfer the information on quipus.  A quipu was useless without the chasqui who delivered it – since the quipu held primarily numeric information and was not a true alphabet, he carried the oral message that provided context for the information encoded in the quipu. The pututu was a conch shell used as a trumpet, meant to signal to other chasquis that one runner was approaching the tambo – the next chasqui should prepare to run.

Tambos, or relay stations, were used for the chasquis to stop and transfer messages to the next chasqui.  Found along Incan roads, tambos typically contained supplies, served as lodging for itinerant state personnel, and were depositories of quipu-based accounting records. Individuals from nearby communities within the Inca empire were conscripted to serve in the tambos, as part of the mit’a labor system.  Chasquis would start at one tambo and run to the next tambo where a rested chasqui was waiting to carry the message to the next tambo.

The Incas built many tambos when they began to upgrade the road system during the reign of Thupa Inka Yupanki from 1471 to 1493. Scholars estimate that there were 2,000 or more tambos. Given this amount, the sheer variety of tambo size and function are hard to fully describe. At a minimum, tambos would contain housing, cooking facilities, and storage facilities.

The smallest tambos served as relay stations for the chasquis. Larger tambos could provide other functions as well. For example, larger tambos would have larger storehouses that could provide supplies and some lodging for armies on the move. The largest and most luxurious tambos were generally used to lodge the traveling Inca and his entourage (typically wives and state officials).



  1. Describe the techniques used by the Inca to construct buildings that remain standing more than five hundred years after their original construction.  Compare those techniques to those used to construct your school and your home – will these more modern structures last as long?  Why or why not?
  2. Why did the Spanish destroy or build churches on top of many Inca sacred structures?  In what ways might this be considered not just to the Inca and their descendants, but to all of humanity as well?
Twelve angle stone, in the Hatun Rumiyoc street of Cusco, is an example of Inca masonry.

Twelve angle stone, in the Hatun Rumiyoc street of Cusco, is an example of finely detailed work achieved by Inca masons.

The Inca built their cities with locally available materials, usually including limestone or granite. To cut these hard rocks the Inca used stone, bronze or copper tools, usually splitting the stones along the natural fracture lines. Without the wheel the stones were rolled up wood beams on earth ramps. Extraordinary manpower would have been necessary.  The ‘secret’ to the production of fine Inca masonry was the social organization necessary to maintain the great numbers of people creating such energy-consuming monuments – without the authority of the Sapa Inca to command labor from his people, such extraordinary construction could never have been completed.

Interior of an Inca building, featuring trapezoidal windows and doors for greater stability in an earthquake.

Interior of an Inca building at Machu Picchu, featuring trapezoidal windows and doors for greater stability in an earthquake.

The Andes are a seismically active region, prone to many earthquakes.  While the Inca would not have understood the scientific reasons why earthquakes occurred, they developed many techniques to build structures that could resist damage from these earthquakes.  Many Inca structures stand today just as they did when they were constructed five hundred years ago – surviving dozens or hundreds of quakes in between.   Inca walls have many stabilizing features: doors and windows are trapezoidal, narrowing from bottom to top; corners usually are rounded; inside corners often incline slightly into the rooms; and outside corners were often tied together by “L”-shaped blocks; walls are offset slightly from row to row rather than rising straight from bottom to top.  During an earthquake with a small or moderate magnitude, masonry was stable, and during a strong earthquake stone blocks were “ dancing ” near their normal positions and lay down exactly in right order after an earthquake.

The most common structure in Inca architecture was the rectangular building without any internal walls, roofed with wooden beams and thatch.


Machu Picchu, a well-preserved example of Inca architecture, is the most well-known symbol of the whole civilization.

The most famous Inca structure of all is probably Machu Picchu.  Machu Picchu  is a 15th-century Inca citadel situated on a mountain ridge 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level. It is located in the Cusco Region, Urubamba ProvinceMachupicchu District in Peru, above the Sacred Valley, which is 80 kilometers (50 mi) northwest of Cusco and through which the Urubamba River flows.

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472).  The Incas built the estate around 1450 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.

Sunrise at Machu Picchu, a few days after the winter solstice, 2016.  Given their worship of Inti, the Inca often constructed temples and other important buildings to align dramatically with the sun on this important date.

Sunrise at Machu Picchu, a few days after the winter solstice, 2016. Given their worship of Inti, the Inca often constructed temples and other important buildings to align dramatically with the sun on this important date.

Inti Watana at Machu Picchu.

Inti Watana at Machu Picchu.

One notable feature of Machu Picchu is the Inti Watana.  Inti Watana is a notable ritual stone – a sundial – associated with the astronomic clock or calendar of the Inca in South America resembling many once found throughout the empire.  It was aligned with the sun’s position during the winter solstice, which takes place in the southern hemisphere on June 21.

In the late 16th century, the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo and the clergy destroyed those inti watana which they could find. They did so as they believed that the Incas’ religion was a blasphemy. The inti watana of Machu Picchu was found intact by Bingham in 1911, indicating that the Spanish conquerors never not found it.

The sacred Inca temple of Qurikancha became the foundation of the Spanish convent of Santo Domingo during the colonial period.

The sacred Inca temple of Qurikancha became the foundation of the Spanish convent of Santo Domingo during the colonial period. The Inca walls seen here were once covered in sheets of gold and glittered in the sunlight, honoring the god Inti.

Qurikancha (Quechua: quri gold, kancha enclosure, enclosed place, yard, a frame, or wall that encloses,) originally named Inti Kancha (Quechua inti sun) or Inti Wasi (Quechua for “sun house”), was the most important temple in the Inca Empire, dedicated primarily to Inti, the Sun God. It was one of the most revered temples of the capital city of Cusco.

After overseeing the expansion of the Inca Empire, a triumphant Pachacuti rebuilt Qurikancha, enriching it with more oracles and edifices. He provided vases of gold and silver for the Mama-cunas – the nuns who tended the temple – to use in the veneration services. Finally, he took the bodies of the seven deceased Incas, and enriched them with masks, head-dresses, medals, bracelets, scepters of gold, placing them on a golden bench.

The walls were once covered in sheets of solid gold, and its adjacent courtyard was filled with golden statues. Spanish reports tell of its opulence that was “fabulous beyond belief”. When the Spanish required the Inca to raise a ransom in gold for the life of the leader Atahualpa, most of the gold was collected from Qurikancha.

Qurikancha, 2016.The Spanish conquerors built the Church of Santo Domingo on the site, demolishing the temple and using its foundations for the cathedral. Construction took most of a century. This is one of numerous sites where the Spanish incorporated Inca stonework into the structure of a colonial building. Major earthquakes severely damaged the church, but the Inca stone walls, built out of huge, tightly-interlocking blocks of stone, still stand due to their sophisticated stone masonry.

Another Spanish convent built atop the palace of a Sapa Inca, Cusco, 2016.

Spanish convent built atop the palace of a Sapa Inca, Cusco, 2016.

History of the Empire

  1. Who are several of the important leaders from Inca history?  Why are they so important?
  2. What are some of the challenges of documenting the history of a society that had no written form of language?  What sources can be used instead of writing to learn about such a society?

The Inca had at least four different myths explaining their origins. The knowledge of these myths is due to oral tradition, since the Incas did not have writing.  The mythical founder of the Inca, Manco Cápac, probably did exist, despite lack of solid evidence. The archaeological evidence seems to indicate that the Inca were a relatively unimportant tribe until the time of Sinchi Roca, who is the first figure in Inca mythology whose existence can be supported historically. The Incas were destroyed by the Spanish making it hard to find helpful clues about the Incas.

The Inca people began as a tribe in the Cusco area around the 12th century AD. Under the leadership of Manco Cápac they formed the small city-state of Cusco.


Pachacutec was the ninth Sapa Inca (1438–1471/1472) of the Kingdom of Cusco which he transformed into the Inca Empire (Tawantinsuyu). In Quechua, Pachakutiq means “he who overturns space and time.” He began an era of conquest that, within three generations, expanded the Inca dominion from the valley of Cusco to nearly the whole of western South America. Most archaeologists now believe that the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu was built as an estate for Pachacutec.

In 1438 AD, under the command of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacutec, whose name meant “world-shaker,” they began a far-reaching expansion. The land Pachacuti conquered was about the size of the Thirteen Colonies of the United States in 1776, and consisted of about half the Andes mountain range.

National Geographic vividly recounts this turning point in the history of the Inca:

Seated on a shimmering litter, Pachacutec issued the order to attack. Playing panpipes carved from the bones of enemies and war drums fashioned from the flayed skins of dead foes, his soldiers advanced toward the Colla forces, a moving wall of terror and intimidation. Then both sides charged. When the fog of battle lifted, Colla bodies littered the landscape.

In the years that followed, Pachacutec and his descendants subdued all the southern lords. “The conquest of the Titicaca Basin was the jewel in the crown of the Inca Empire,” says Charles Stanish, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. But military victory was only the first step in the Inca’s grand strategy of empire building. Officials next set about establishing civil control.

If provinces mounted resistance, Inca sovereigns reshuffled their populations, deporting restive inhabitants to the Inca heartland and replacing them with loyal subjects. Residents of remote walled villages were moved to new Inca-controlled towns sited along Inca roads—roads that sped the movement of Inca troops. Inca governors ordered the construction of roadside storehouses for those troops and commanded local communities to fill them with provisions. “The Inca were the organizational geniuses of the Americas,” says Stanish.

Under Inca rule, Andean civilization flowered as never before. Inca engineers transformed fragmentary road networks into interconnected highways. Inca farmers mastered high-altitude agriculture, cultivating some 70 different native crops and often stockpiling three to seven years’ worth of food in vast storage complexes. Imperial officials excelled at the art of inventory control, tracking storehouse contents across the realm with an ancient Andean form of computer code—colored and knotted cords known as quipus. And Inca masons raised timeless architectural masterpieces like Machu Picchu, which continues to awe visitors today.

Pachacutec reorganized the kingdom of Cusco into an empire, the Tahuantinsuyu, a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provincial governments with strong leaders: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Kuntisuyu (SW), and Qullasuyu (SE). Pachacuti is also thought to have built Machu Picchu, either as a family home or as a Camp David-like retreat.

Pachacutec would send spies to regions he wanted in his empire who would report back on their political organization, military might and wealth. He would then send messages to the leaders of these lands extolling the benefits of joining his empire, offering them presents of luxury goods such as high quality textiles, and promising that they would be materially richer as subject rulers of the Inca. Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli and acquiesced peacefully. The foreign ruler’s children would then be brought to Cusco to be taught about Inca administration systems, then return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate the former ruler’s children into the Inca nobility, and, with luck, marry their daughters into families at various corners of the empire, cementing their dominance.

It was traditional for the Inca’s son to lead the army; Pachacutec’s son Túpac Inca began conquests to the north in 1463, and continued them as Inca after Pachucutec’s death in 1471. His most important conquest was the Kingdom of Chimor, the Inca’s only serious rival for the coast of Peru. Túpac Inca’s empire stretched north into modern-day Ecuador and Colombia.

The mita system.

The mit’a system.

Túpac Inca’s son Huayna Cápac added significant territory to the south. At its height, Tahuantinsuyu included Peru and Bolivia, most of what is now Ecuador, a large portion of modern-day Chile, and extended into corners of Argentina and Colombia. Tahuantinsuyu was a patchwork of languages, cultures and peoples. The components of the empire were not all uniformly loyal, nor were the local cultures all fully integrated.  For instance, the Chimú used money in their commerce, while the Inca empire as a whole had an economy based on exchange and taxation of luxury goods and labor (it is said that Inca tax collectors would take the head lice of the lame and old as a symbolic tribute).

The Inca did not use currency, economic exchanges were by reciprocity and took place in markets called catus.  Economic productivity was based on collective labor which was organized in order to benefit the whole community. The ayni – reciprocity or mutualism among people of the Andean mountain communities – was used to help individual members of the community in need, such as the sick or widowed. The minka – communal work in the Andes in favor of the whole community, paid back in kind to one’s neighbors – represented community service.  The mit’a was the tax paid to the Inca in the form of labor.


Coca chewing may originally have been limited to the eastern Andes before its introduction to the Inca. As the plant was viewed as having a divine origin, its cultivation became subject to a state monopoly and its use restricted to nobles and a few favored classes (court orators, couriers, favored public workers, and the army) by the rule of the Topa Inca (1471–1493). As the Inca empire declined, the leaf became more widely available.

The Incas revered the coca plant as sacred/magical. Its leaves were used in moderate amounts to lessen hunger and pain during work, but were mostly used for religious and health purposes. The Spaniards took advantage of the effects of chewing coca leaves. The Chasqui, messengers who ran throughout the empire to deliver messages, chewed coca leaves for extra energy. Coca leaves were also used as an anaesthetic during surgeries.


The Inca army was the most powerful at that time, because they could turn an ordinary villager or farmer into a soldier. Every male Inca had to take part in war at least once to prepare for warfare again when needed. By the time the empire reached its largest size, every section of the empire contributed in setting up an army for war.

The Incas had no iron or steel and their weapons were not much better than those of their opponents. They went into battle with drums beating and trumpets blowing. Their armor included:


  • Helmets made of wood, copper, bronze, cane, or animal skin; some were adorned with feathers
  • Round or square shields made from wood or hide
  • Cloth tunics padded with cotton and small wooden planks to protect the spine.

The Inca weaponry included:

  • Bronze or bone-tipped spears
  • Two-handed wooden swords with serrated edges
  • Clubs with stone and spiked metal heads
  • Woolen slings and stones
  • Stone or copper headed battle-axes
  • Bolas (stones fastened to lengths of cord)

The Spanish Invasion

  1. What factors might have made it possible for such a small group of Spanish to take control of the empire?

Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro explored south from Panama, reaching Inca territory by 1526. It was clear that they had reached a wealthy land with prospects of great treasure, and after one more expedition (1529), Pizarro traveled to Spain and received royal approval to conquer the region and be its viceroy.

At the time they returned to Peru, in 1532, a war of succession between Huayna Capac’s sons Huáscar and Atahualpa and unrest among newly conquered territories—and perhaps more importantly, smallpox, which had spread from Central America—had considerably weakened the empire.

Pizarro did not have a formidable force; with just 170 men, 1 cannon and only 27 horses, he often needed to talk his way out of potential confrontations that could have easily wiped out his party. Their first engagement was the battle of Puná, near present-day Guayaquil, Ecuador; Pizarro then founded the city of Piura in July 1532. Hernando de Soto was sent inland to explore the interior, and returned with an invitation to meet the Inca, Atahualpa, who had defeated his brother in the civil war and was resting at Cajamarca with his army of 80,000 troops.

Depiction of Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, moments before pulling Inca emperor Atahualpa off the throne at Cajamarca, Peru, 16 November 1532.

Depiction of Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, moments before pulling Inca emperor Atahualpa off the throne at Cajamarca, Peru, 16 November 1532.

Pizarro met with the Inca, who had brought only a small retinue, and through interpreters demanded that he convert to Christianity. A widely disputed legend claims that Atahualpa was handed a Bible and threw it on the floor, the Spanish supposedly interpreted this action as adequate reason for war. Though some chroniclers suggest that Atahualpa simply didn’t understand the notion of a book, others portray Atahualpa as being genuinely curious and inquisitive in the situation. Regardless, The Spanish attacked the Inca’s retinue (see Battle of Cajamarca), capturing Atahualpa.

The so-called ransom room, located in Cajamarca, Peru.

The so-called ransom room, located in Cajamarca, Peru.

Pizarro used the capture to gain gold as a ransom. Atahualpa offered the Spaniards enough gold to fill the room he was imprisoned in, and twice that amount of silver. The Incas fulfilled this ransom. Over four months, almost 8 tons of gold was collected. Pizarro was supposed to let the ruler of the Incas free once the ransom was paid, but he refused to release the Inca after that and instead had him strangled in public. During Atahualpa’s imprisonment Huáscar was assassinated. The Spanish maintained that this was at Atahualpa’s orders; this was one of the charges used against Atahualpa when the Spanish finally decided to put him to death, in August 1533.

The Spanish installed his brother Manco Inca Yupanqui in power; for some time Manco cooperated with the Spanish, while the Spanish fought to put down resistance in the north. Meanwhile, an associate of Pizarro’s, Diego de Almagro, attempted to claim Cusco for himself. Manco tried to use this intra-Spanish feud to his advantage, recapturing Cusco (1536), but the Spanish retook the city.

Manco Inca then retreated to the mountains of Vilcabamba and founded the Neo-Inca State, where he and his successors ruled for another 36 years, sometimes raiding the Spanish or inciting revolts against them. In 1572 the last Inca stronghold was discovered, and the last ruler, Túpac Amaru, Manco’s son, was captured and executed, bringing the Inca empire to an end.


  1. Andean culture is one of the world’s most ancient, but it may not immediately be apparent how it has impacted your life.  Consider one small aspect: the potato, the Inca’s staple crop, domesticated in the Andes about eight thousand years ago.  Research and report on the question: How has the potato changed world history?
  2. Andes culture developed many novel techniques to overcome the challenges presented by their natural environment, from the steep mountainsides around them to the lack of plow animals native to South America.  Try your hand at building a working Chaki taklla.  Document the process and use it to plant a garden in your backyard or schoolyard.
  3. Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala (ca. 1535 – after 1616) was a Quechua nobleman who produced the book, El primer nueva corónica [sic] y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government), a 1,189-page documentary of life in Peru under the Spanish.  Written between 1600 and 1615 and addressed to King Philip III of Spain, the Corónica outlines the injustices of colonial rule and argues that the Spanish were foreign settlers in Peru. “It is our country,” he said, “because God has given it to us.” The king never received the document, and it sat in storage, lost and ignored until the 1900s, when it became a valuable resource for historians interested in the Inca.  It features 398 full-page drawings depicting the history and culture of the Inca.  Browse the document and choose one illustration to research in greater depth, presenting a report on the event or cultural practice depicted.
  4. Make a quipu recording the biographical facts of your family – birthdays, ages, and any other information you can encode.  As you work, consider, what are the benefits and drawbacks to this system of record keeping?  
  5. Take a guided visual tour through modern day Peru with this curated photo essay.

Further Reading

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.

The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming.

What Endures From the Ancient Civilizations That Once Ruled the Central Andes? by Charles C. Mann

This lesson was made possible through a generous grant from Fund for Teachers.




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