World History 1 132 - 8.3.2 The Inca Empire

At around the same time the Aztec Empire was expanding across Mesoamerica, an equally impressive new civilization was on the rise in the Andes region of South America. Known today as the Inca, its cultural and technological roots extend back to the earlier Andean cultures of the Moche, Nazca, and Tiwanaku. The heart of what became the Inca Empire was the city of Cuzco, located more than eleven thousand feet above sea level in the central Andes and northwest of the shores of Lake Titicaca. But centuries before it became an imperial city, it was a relatively modest agricultural community where the predecessors of the Inca farmed potatoes and maize and raised llamas and guanacos.

According to one Andean tradition, the origin story of the Inca began with a great flood that displaced four brothers and their wives and sent them on a mission to find fertile land where they could settle. During the journey, one of the brothers acquired incredible and supernatural strength. Consumed with jealousy, the other brothers sealed him in a cave and left him to die. They continued on, somewhat remorseful, but on the outskirts of Cuzco, two were mysteriously turned to stone. This left only one brother, Ayar Manco, who reached Cuzco, dipped his golden cane into the ground, and founded the city (Figure 8.32).

A drawing is shown of a figure inside a circle decorated on the perimeter with dark designs. Across the top of the circle words are seen: Aiarmanoo Capac Primer Rey Del Cuzco. Inside the circle on a dark blue background a figure faces to the right looking at an orange and green bird in his left hand. He is dark skinned, wears a gold crown with a bull head at the front with large horns. A gold circular earring hangs from his ear. His robe is richly decorated with orange, blue, black and yellow colors with gold stitching on the edges. Gold sleeves show from beneath his robe. In his right hand he holds a scepter with a gold pointy top. Behind him a brown furry animal sticks its tongue out and licks the robe. The animal’s ear is close to his body and he has a large snout. The bottom of the circle encasing the figure is decorated with black, blue and red designs.
Figure 8.32 This eighteenth-century depiction of Ayar Manco, by Inca tradition the founder of the city of Cuzco, names him its first king and shows him with his golden staff. (credit: “Manco Capac, First Inca, 1 of 14 Portraits of Inca Kings” by Dick S. Ramsay Fund, Mary Smith Dorward Fund, Marie Bernice Bitzer Fund, Frank L. Babbott Fund, The Roebling Society, The American Art Council, Anonymous, Maureen and Marshall Cogan, Karen B. Cohen, Georgia and Michael deHavenon, Harry Kahn, Alastair B. Martin, Ted and Connie Roosevelt, Frieda and Milton F. Rosenthal, Sol Schreiber in memory of Ann Schreiber, Joanne Witty and Eugene Keilin, Thomas L. Pulling, Roy J. Zuckerberg, Kitty and Herbert Glantz, Ellen and Leonard L. Milberg, Paul and Thérèse Bernbach, Emma and J. A. Lewis, Florence R. Kingdon/Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The fantastical story of the Ayar brothers, with its descriptions of magic and supernatural events, is clearly partly fictional, and it is not the only origin myth about the Inca. However, it may preserve a kernel of truth about the early group that founded Cuzco, perhaps after some type of migration prompted by changes in climate. We may never fully know, but based on historical and archaeological evidence, we do know the people of Cuzco emerged as agricultural villagers by around 1000. Through both peaceful and violent means, they assumed a dominant position in the larger surrounding region. Over time, their numbers grew, and they became one of a number of small military powers in the Andean region, centered on the growing city of Cuzco. As master stonemasons, the Inca were capable of carefully carving stones so they fit tightly together (Figure 8.33). At its height in the early sixteenth century, Cuzco was an impressive stone city built high in the Andes.

A photo is shown of stone walls standing on green grassy lands with a cloudy blue sky in the background. There are two walls that stand alone while the wall in the background forms a corner and extends out to the end of the photo at the right. The wall stones are square and rectangular. The ends are rounder and the first wall in the forefront has grass growing on the top.
Figure 8.33 While many of the Inca-built parts of Cuzco were destroyed in later centuries, the sixteenth-century site of Sacsayhuamán nearby preserves its ancient walls of stones, so skillfully hewn as to fit together tightly without mortar. (credit: “Peru - Cusco Sacred Valley & Incan Ruins 005 – Sacsaywamán” by McKay Savage/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The leap to imperial expansion is explained by another Inca legend, this time telling of a military challenge from a rival group known as the Chanka and involving real historical figures. When the Chanka arrived at Cuzco, King Wiraqocha fled the city with his heir, leaving only a small group of nobles aligned with another son, Yupanki, to stand their ground. The defenders’ act of courage inspired the creator god of the Inca to intervene by transforming the surrounding stones into warriors who helped Yupanki defeat the Chanka. In the aftermath of the victory, the story goes on, Yupanki assumed the additional title of Pachacuti, meaning “cataclysm.” But the victory also led to an internal dispute between Pachacuti Yupanki and the reigning king, his father. This was ultimately resolved in Pachacuti Yupanki’s favor, and he assumed control of Cuzco and the Inca, whereupon he began a series of wars of expansion that gave birth to the Inca Empire.

While this story was partly contrived, there is no doubt that Inca expansion did occur, and Pachacuti appears to have been a real leader. The empire’s growth began in earnest around 1430 during his reign, and as king he oversaw the conquest of much of modern Peru. His successors, Thumpa and Wayna Qhapaq, further expanded the empire by adding territory far to the south in today’s Chile and Argentina, to the east in the edges of the Amazon basin, and to the north in Ecuador and Colombia. These wars were costly in lives and material, but they were also important for sharpening the skills of the Inca military.

Inca warriors wore helmets and cloth armor, carried shields, and were equipped with weapons like clubs, spears, slings, and axes (Figure 8.34). Typically, they could use their great numbers to overwhelm and awe the enemy into capitulation. If that failed, they rushed into the fray, often with little discipline but with great courageous resolve. Apart from the sheer power of numbers, the Inca military excelled in its ability to move swiftly along the empire’s complicated highland road systems to surprise the enemy and put down any emerging rebellions.

A black and white drawing is shown of two groups of figures facing each other. At the left stand four figures in short robes, long hair, barefoot, holding spears in their hands. Behind them can be seen more heads and spears, but no details. At the right facing the first group stands a soldier in a short decorated robe, shoes, leg wraps, feathered helmet, and holding a shield. Behind him are two other soldiers in helmets and holding weapons and a shield. Above their heads can be seen spears, whips, and axes.
Figure 8.34 The Inca armies could use their vast numbers to intimidate rivals into capitulation. In this seventeenth-century image by Huamán Poma de Ayala, a Peruvian chronicler of the Spanish conquest, the Inca soldiers in their feathered helmets are on the right, and their enemy faces them on the left. (credit: “Huamán Poma de Ayala’s picture of the confrontation between the Mapuches (left) and the Incas (right)” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The empire created through conquest was divided into four administrative regions controlled by close relatives of the emperor (Figure 8.35). Each region was then broken down into a number of provinces, organized generally along ethnic lines and ruled by an imperial governor selected from the Inca nobility. A great variety of crops were produced across the empire including potatoes, coca, cotton, and maize. Surpluses were held in large storehouses to feed the armies and provide sustenance in times of famine. The subjects of the empire were also expected to provide labor for the construction of roads, bridges, palaces, and religious structures and to serve as messengers, transport food to storehouses, or serve in the military. Certain members of each household submitted their labor tax while others stayed home to manage the family’s affairs.

A map of South America is shown with blue and gray lines crisscrossing all over the continent. The Pacific Ocean is labeled to the west and the Atlantic Ocean is labeled to the east. The equator crosses the northern part of the continent, and the Tropic of Capricorn crosses the middle of the continent. Along the northwestern coast a large rectangle area is highlighted orange and labeled “Chinchansuyu.” South of that along the coast is a small triangular shaped area highlighted yellow labeled “Cuntinsuyu.” Going east there is a long thin strip of land highlighted purple labeled “Antisuyu.” South of that is a large “Y” shaped area along the coast labeled “Collasuyu.”
Figure 8.35 At its height in the early sixteenth century, the Inca Empire controlled an enormous area that reached from modern Columbia down into modern Chile and Argentina. It was divided into four administrative regions: Chinchansuyu, Antisuyu, Cuntinsuyu, and Collasuyu. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In Their Own Words

Inca Quipus: Writing with String

Unlike the Maya, the Inca did not have a writing system that could be inked into a codex or carved in stone. But they did have an ingenious recordkeeping and communication system that relied on a portable device called a quipu (“kee-poo”), made of a great number of knotted strings (Figure 8.36).

A picture of a long dark string running across the top of the image is shown. From the string hang down varying lengths of frayed strings tied to the original string at the top with knots in them at various locations on the string. Two small loose piece of string are seen at the bottom and a tag is seen at the top with black lines running vertically with numbers below.
Figure 8.36 The quipu of knotted string was a complex but portable Inca recording device. This fragment was made between 1400 and 1600. (credit: “Quipu fragment” by Yale University Art Gallery/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

While many were destroyed by the Inca and later the Spanish, and much knowledge necessary to decipher them has been lost, surviving quipus have been carefully studied. They could record quantitative information like census and tax data, land allocations, the movements of armies, and astronomical observations. They also held qualitative information like ideas and possibly even poems. Different-colored strings and different types of knots that could be tied, untied, and retied made many thousands of combinations possible.

The Spanish were reluctant at first to believe that quipus accurately preserved information. The sixteenth-century explorer Pedro de Cieza de Léon reported:

When I was at Marcavillca, in the province of Xauxa, I asked the lord Guacarapora to explain it in such a way as that my mind might be satisfied, and that I might be assured that it was true and accurate. He ordered his servants to bring the quipus, and as this lord was a native, and a man of good understanding, he proceeded to make the thing clear to me. He told me to observe that all that he, for his part, had delivered to the Spaniards from the time that the governor Don Francisco Pizarro arrived in the valley, was duly noted down without any fault or omission. Thus I saw the accounts for the gold, the silver, the clothes, the corn, sheep, and other things; so that in truth I was quite astonished.

Pedro de Cieza de Léon, The Second Part of the Chronicle of Peru, translated by Clements R. Markham

According to Garcilasco de la Vega, born in the sixteenth century to Spanish and Inca parents, quipus could even record poems:

They were composed in accordance with a fable they had, as follows: they say that the Creator placed a maiden, the daughter of a king, in the sky with a pitcher full of water which she spills when the earth needs it, and that one of her brothers breaks it occasionally, and the blow causes thunder and lightning. . . . The fable and verses, Padre Blas Valera says he found in the knots and beads of some ancient annals in threads of different colors.

Garcilasco de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru, translated by Harold V. Livermore

  • Why might the Spanish have destroyed many quipus?
  • How would you go about translating a quipu? What methods might you employ?

Apart from military violence and an organized imperial administration system, the Inca used religious symbolism to hold their empire together. A complex ritual calendar was overseen by religious experts whom the king and nobles regularly consulted before making political or military decisions. The Inca used human sacrifice in some rituals, but apparently not as readily as the Aztec of Mesoamerica. Among their most important deities was the sky god, who could manifest in a number of different forms such as the creator god Wiraqocha, the thunder god Illapa, and the sun god Inti. Inti was of particular importance because Inca rulers claimed direct descent from him. They constructed temples to Inti around the empire, encouraged his worship, and incorporated representations of conquered peoples into Inti’s key temple in Cuzco. In this way, the Inca cemented stronger ties between their rulers and the large and diverse empire they had created.

Link to Learning

In the fifteenth century, the Inca built a large palace complex high in the mountains above Cuzco that is now called Machu Picchu. You can tour the impressive ruins of Machu Picchu at this link.

One of the empire’s most important features, and one that held its expansive territory together, were the many roads and bridges that laced through its vast domains. Unlike the Aztec Empire, which expanded across a far more topographically consistent landscape, the Inca Empire included large mountain ranges, canyons, deserts, and narrow coastal valleys. Travel and communication were difficult in this extreme landscape and necessitated a technologically sophisticated road and bridge system. While elements of the network predated the Inca, it was under Inca rule that the larger network was expanded and greatly improved. At the height of the empire, the system may have included as many as twenty-five thousand miles of roads. These roads were as diverse as the landscape itself, including straight passages across flat land, winding paths and staircases around and up mountains, and numerous canyon-spanning bridges made of rope, stone, and wood (Figure 8.37). On them the Inca armies traveled, and goods produced in the provinces made their way to the imperial storehouses.

A photo is shown of a hilly landscape with a green bushes along the bottom. A white rocky path is shown in the forefront.
Figure 8.37 The mountainous terrain of the Inca Empire necessitated roads like this one to connect the many important cities and regions.(credit: “Stone steps and mountains on the Inca Trail” by “Mx._Granger”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Like the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire had just reached its height on the eve of the Spanish arrival in the early 1530s. Diseases brought by Europeans had already weakened it by then, even leading to the untimely death of Emperor Wayna Qhapaq in 1528. Just a few years later, the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro reached Ecuador with his small army. There he found new Inca subjects eager to ally themselves with a possible enemy of the empire, while the Inca themselves were in the midst of a minor civil war over who would ascend the newly vacated throne. By 1532, the Spanish had entered the conflict and emerged masters of the empire, upon which they constructed their own system.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax