This article focuses on the origins of the Inca people, their religion, and system of government of the Inca. For information about the achievements and material culture of the Inca, ranging construction techniques and agriculture to quipu and iconic sites such as Machu Picchu, please see The Inca: The Highest Achievements of Andean Civilization.
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The Inca were one of the great civilizations of the world, no matter how you measure it – in terms of 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 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
- 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 in total have 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 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
- How did the climate and geography of the Andes shape the civilization that developed there?
- 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 Andes are one of the world’s cradles of civilization – where settled, agriculturally based society 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 known places in the world where all of these developments have arisen independently, without significant borrowing from neighboring cultures. 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.
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
- Analyze the relationship between the Inca’s religion and government. Compare and contrast this to the way that your country treats its leader.
Inti was the ancient Inca sun god. He was revered as the national patron of the Inca state.
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.
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.
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 sacrificed on occasion – 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.
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 a particularly important huaca.
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.
History of the Empire
- Who are several of the important leaders from Inca history? Why are they so important?
- 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.
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, Pachacuti 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, Pachacuti 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.
Pachacuti 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; Pachacuti’s son Túpac Inca began conquests to the north in 1463, and continued them as Inca after Pachacuti’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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- Take a guided visual tour through modern day Peru with this curated photo essay.
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.
You can actually visit the parts of the world featured in this lesson:
- Adventure Blog.
- A Guided Tour of Bolivia, 2016 – Explore the streets of La Paz and El Alto, scramble through the 500 year-old silver mines of Potosi, or race across the barren salt flats of Uyuni. Supplementary photos and information on Bolivia, past and present.
- A Guided Tour of Peru, 2016 – Explore the streets of Cusco and Lima, scramble through Inca ruins from Machu Picchu on down, take a slow boat up the Amazon River from Iquitos, and an even slower boat across Lake Titicaca to the floating man-made islands of the Uros. Supplementary photos and information on Peru, past and present.
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