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Inca Empire


INCA EMPIRE. The imperial Inca state was built upon thousands of years of cultural history and diverse elaborate statecraft of the Andean region of western South America, beginning in the thirteenth century c.e. Though the empire was short-lived (it was conquered by Spain in the sixteenth century), the Inca of the Cuzco valley brought together hundreds of groups, including speakers of many mutually exclusive languages from the dry western South American coasts to the verdant Amazonian foothills, from warm and moist valleys of modern Columbia to the dry Atacama Desert of Chile and the dry mountains of northwestern Argentina. They conquered this territory in less than sixty years. Among their many tools for statecraft were food production, storage, and feasting. When they conquered they divided the lands for the state, for the sun (the focus of their religion), and for local use. In this way the conquered people had to work all of the land, though most of the produce was for the Inca rulers; produce was taken to and stored in highly regularized storage buildings called qolqa placed at administrative centers (tambo ) throughout the empire. Food had great cultural value and carried the histories of the consumers in every meal. The recipe and type of plant variety used identified a person's background, much as clothing did. The Inca encouraged these differences, to keep account of the groups that they codified in a hierarchical record-keeping organization, with the local leaders reporting to Inca administrators.

All social events were marked with food and gift exchanges. These feasting activities occurred at the conquest of new peoples, but also at the renewal of group allegiances and all religious ceremonies. John Rowe notes that the value of crops was so great that at the start of planting season, between September and November, when the rains began, the Sapa Inca (king) himself would join the religious assembly to make the first hole in the ground for maize (corn) planting in a sacred field of the religious authorities. While men had to make the holes in the ground, women had to place the seed in the earth. Singing accompanied this activity, recounting major military victories. After this planting was begun, beer was provided to all workers. The crops were tended throughout the rainy season, to keep animals from eating them, until harvest, which began around May when the rains tapered off. In the highlands, harvest was accompanied by large cooked meals, primarily of potatoes, in the fields, to repay helpers.

When the Inca arrived on the borders of a group they wanted to conquer, they would send emissaries ahead to ask if the group wanted to join the Inca state or would rather fight. If the group chose to join and not fight, a date would be set for a ceremony. On that date, the Inca military leaders would arrive in the territory bearing gifts of fine clothing, elaborate imperial ceramics, and jewelry, for the new local leaders to take on the emblems of the Inca state. If the local leaders accepted these gifts and their takeover, there would be a feast of beer and meat. These events focused on specific dishes, ceramics, and cuisine. Tamara Bray reports that there were three highly standardized receptacles to present food at these state occasions; a jar or arybaloid, a plate, and a cup or keru. The jar was to serve liquid, always a fermented beer called chicha in Quechua, the Inca language. This vessel shape is the oldest ceramic shape in the Andes. This beverage could be made out of many plant items, the strongest being the fruit from a leguminous tree of the warm valleys and coasts, Schinus molle, called molle. Chicha could also be made from quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa ), an annual grain that grows in the high mountains, but the most common and of highest value was chicha from maize (Zea mays ). (In fact, it is clear that the Inca made maize the state crop and focused much of their conquests on the warmer intermontane valleys and coasts.) This beer would be consumed in highly decorated tumbler-shaped cups made of ceramic or wood. This vessel probably became an important item used in ritual consumption in the earlier Middle Horizon states. The plate was an innovation for dry food presentation in the Andes. This would be how the dried camelid meat (charqui ), boiled potatoes (papa), or toasted corn kernels (kamcha ) would have been presented. Outside of the imperial Inca feasts such dried foods would have been presented on nicely woven cloth, as is still done in the countryside in the early twenty-first century. The Inca controlled hunting of large game, primarily two kinds of deer (loyco and taroka ) and guanaco, for their pleasure, making these species a less common foodstuff than in earlier times.

Most of the populace typically ate something quite different. There were two main meals a day. The first was a thick soup eaten out of bowls in the midmorning after early tending of herds. It was made of potatoes, quinoa, or maize in the highlands, depending on the elevation of the farmer, and of lima beans or maize on the coast. The highland evening meal at dusk was consumed after a day in the fields and usually was solid food consisting of beans or boiled potatoes with a spicy sauce of chili peppers and wild herbs, eaten out of a common cooking jar with wooden spoons or on woven cloth. Meat was sometimes included, but it was usually only reserved for feast days. This would often be llamas or alpacas (camelids) in the higher areas, or guinea pigs (cuyes ), and less often wild ducks, rabbits, and other small animals caught in the fields. Along the coast, fish, shellfish, and also seaweed would have been a common soup base as well as an addition to the evening meal, again spiced with chili peppers and wild herbs.

See also Beer: From Late Egyptian Times to the Nineteenth Century ; Central America ; Maize ; Mexico ; Mexico and Central America, Pre-Columbian ; South America .


Bray, Tamara. "To Dine Splendidly." Paper presented at "The Culinary Equipment of Early States: The Political Dimensions of State Pottery Symposium" at the 65th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Philadelphia, 2000.

Rowe, John Howland. "Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest." In Handbook of the South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 19461959.

Christine A. Hastorf

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