Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui

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Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui

Died 1471

Inca emperor

"Although his father and some other predecessors may have been at least partly legendary, Pachacuti was a real person, the actual founder of the Inca Empire and perhaps the greatest man produced in ancient America."

Jonathan Norton Leonard, Ancient America

P achacutec Inca Yupanqui, sometimes referred to as Pachacuti, was not the first emperor of the Inca people in South America, but he was the first one whose existence is firmly established in history. More important, he was the greatest of the Inca rulers, an empire builder who began with a kingdom of perhaps twenty-five square miles and shaped it into a vast realm. He initiated a system of roads and a highly organized government that ruled its people efficiently and—by the standards of premodern America—with justice.

The achievements of Pachacutec were all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he was not his father's chosen successor, and that severe technological and administrative limitations faced the Incas. Not only did they lack the use of the wheel or of most pack animals, a handicap in their high mountain environment, but unlike the Aztecs or Maya, they did not even have a written language.

Roots of the Inca people

Though the term Inca is used to describe an entire nation, it was actually the name for its rulers. Thus the full name of their greatest emperor was Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (pah-chah-KOO-tek ING-kuh yoo-PAHNG-kee). As for the Inca people, they emerged as a civilization in about 1100, when they established a capital named Cuzco (KOOZ-koh), or "navel of the world."

Perhaps because of the challenges imposed by the high Andes (AN-deez) Mountains where they lived in Peru, the Incas were not quick to begin building an empire. Only in the mid-1400s, during the reign of the semi-legendary Viracocha (veerah-KOH-kah)—whose name was taken from that of the Incas' principal deity, or god—did they begin to expand, and then only to an area about twenty-five miles around Cuzco.

Not the favorite son

Pachacutec was the son of Viracocha, but he was not his first or favorite son; still, his name meant "he who transforms the Earth," and he was destined to fulfill its promise. Due to the lack of written records, little is known about Pachacutec's life in general, much less his early life. Even the date of his birth is unknown.

At some point in the 1430s, the Incas were attacked by a neighboring tribe, and both Viracocha and his designated heir fled Cuzco for the safety of the mountains. Pachacutec, however, held his ground, and marshaled his army to drive back the invaders. With victory secured, he took the throne in 1438. That year is the beginning of Inca history, inasmuch as events after that point can be dated with relative certainty.

Building an empire

The Inca had no knowledge of other civilizations, even the Maya and Aztec, let alone those of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Nonetheless, Pachacutec's early career was much like that of Genghis Khan (see entry): first he rallied his supporters to deal with an outside threat, then he kept marching and built an empire.

Pachacutec set about strengthening his hold on the region around Cuzco, then his troops swept down the mountains

into a valley along the mighty Amazon River. They next marched northward along the highlands, conquering tribes as they went, before turning south to win the area around Lake Titicaca high in the Andes.

There was a purpose in Pachacutec's actions. He was not simply fighting battles; he was building a strong and unified empire. Wherever possible, he and his advisors won over neighboring tribes through diplomacy, or the art of negotiation. If other groups failed to listen to reason, however, they faced the wrath of the great Inca army, for which there was no equal in the region. Most tribes wisely agreed to bloodless conquest by the Incas.

Uniting the people

It was one thing to build an empire, and quite another to hold it together—something the descendants of Genghis Khan, for instance, failed to do. Given their lack of a written language, it was all the more important for Pachacutec to impose a single spoken language on the people he conquered as a way of knitting them together. Soon the Incas' language, Quechua (KECH-oo-ah), became the region's lingua franca, a common language for people whose native languages differed.

Jayavarman VII

The name Pachacutec is hardly a household word for most Westerners, even in America, though it deserves to be—and much the same can be said of Cambodia's Jayavarman VII (c. 1120–c. 1219). Just as Pachacutec built, but did not establish, the Inca Empire, so Jayavarman took the already established Khmer (k'MEER) or Angkor (AHNG-kohr) Empire to a much greater level than before. Not only was he—again like Pachacutec—an empire-builder in the sense that he conquered other lands, he too built in the literal sense. As Pachacutec rebuilt Cuzco after its destruction by enemies, Jayavarman built up two of the world's most extraordinary monuments, the temple cities of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (TOHM).

The Khmers, as the Cambodians of medieval times were known, had long been in contact with India, and had adopted the Hindu religion from the latter. The first powerful Khmer king, Jayavarman II (ruled c. 790–850), founder of the empire, established Hinduism as the state religion. Some time after 900, the Khmers carved Angkor Thom out of the jungle. Angkor Thom covered some five square miles, and included a moat, high walls, temples, palaces, and a tower, all carved in detail with images of Hindu gods.

Suryavarman II (ruled 1113–50) began the building of Angkor Wat, which is the more famous—though actually the smaller—of the two temple cities. He also conquered a number of surrounding kingdoms, but after his death the empire went into a period of decline when it was ruled first by the father and then the brother of Jayavarman VII.

Little is known about Jayavarman's early life, though it is clear he grew up as a member of the royal family in Angkor. His first wife was a devout Buddhist who strongly influenced him, but given the many similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism—including its belief in reincarnation, or the cycle of repeated death and rebirth—this did not bring him into conflict with the established religion. After the death of his first wife, he married her sister, also a strong Buddhist.

Meanwhile, the empire weakened under his brother's rule, and the Champas in what is now Vietnam took the opportunity to invade. They even occupied Angkor Wat until Jayavarman VII drove them out in 1181. After achieving victory, he was crowned emperor at the age of sixty-one.

Jayavarman would live for thirty more years, during which time he expanded the empire into parts of what is now Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, and Burma. Despite these conquests, however, he devoted most of his attention to extensive programs of building and rebuilding. Much of the glory of Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat are a result of his efforts to expand and beautify those cities; in addition, he built a large network of highways complete with rest houses, as well as some one hundred hospitals.

The pace of Jayavarman's building projects was extremely quick, and in some cases the workmanship shows this fact. It is likely that he felt a sense of urgency due to his advanced age. It is also possible that he suffered from leprosy, a dreaded disease involving gradual wasting of muscles, deformity, and paralysis, which was relatively common until modern times. Whatever the case, he lived to the age of ninety-one.

When he died, Jayavarman left behind considerable physical evidence that he had once ruled a great and mighty empire—an empire that, like the Incas', was doomed to be overtaken by outside invaders, in this case from Thailand. In 1431, about the time Pachacutec was beginning his career, the Thais completed their conquest of the Angkor Empire.

To reduce threats from potentially hostile groups, Pachacutec sometimes ordered tribes to relocate. Thus he separated them from their homelands, where they might develop a base of support for future resistance. In line with his policy of not making Inca rule too harsh on the conquered peoples, however, Pachacutec's government pursued its relocation policy with care, for instance not moving people from the lowlands to the high mountains where the thin air and cold climate might cause deaths.

A highly organized state

Roads were another key element of Pachacutec's program to solidify his empire. Under his reign, the Incas constructed some 2,500 miles of stone roads, many of them across high mountain passes and others through steaming swamps. Though they were extremely well built, with tightly fitted stones, these were not roads as Europeans would understand them: most were only about three feet wide, which was sufficient to accommodate travelers on foot or load-bearing llamas (YAHM-uz). The latter, a relative of the camel, constituted the Incas' principal form of pack animal, though llamas could not carry anything like the weight supported by camels.

Along with the roads, the Incas built way stations placed at intervals equal to a day's travel, so that travelers could rest and obtain supplies. Trained runners traversed the road system, keeping the emperor abreast of events throughout his empire. Compared to the slow postal system of Europe (which, like that of the Inca Empire, was only for the use of the government, not ordinary citizens), the Incas' messenger service was extraordinarily fast and efficient. Thanks to the relay runners, who could transport a message at the rate of 140 miles a day, Pachacutec's army was never caught unawares by rebellions on their borders. In addition, the emperor kept troops stationed throughout the empire, ready to go into action whenever the alert was sounded.

It is hard to understand how the Incas managed to achieve their mighty feats of organization, given their lack of a written language. In order to run a government, it is necessary to keep records, particularly of inventory or supplies. In place of written records, the Incas under Pachacutec used an ingenious system of strings in varying lengths and colors, with which they recorded numerical information. For mathematical calculations, they made use of the abacus, an early form of calculator that used movable beads strung along parallel wires within a frame.

Turning over leadership to Topa

After years of administering his empire, Pachacutec turned over the reins of leadership to his son Topa. He continued to be actively involved in governmental affairs, however, particularly a program to rebuild Cuzco from the devastation of earlier attacks. He created a plan for the city and initiated vast building projects, including a huge central plaza surrounded by temples.

Topa, who ruled from 1471 to 1493, built on the gains made by his father, and his son Huayna Capac (WY-nuh KAH-pahk; ruled 1493–1525) controlled the empire at its height. By then the Incas held an area equal to that of the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, the coastal states from Maine to Florida. Under their rule were some 16 million people—an impressive number compared, for instance, to the population of England at the time, which was just 5 million.

The empire would not last long beyond Huayna Capac's time, and the arrival of Spanish explorers in 1533 signaled the beginning of a swift and merciless end to the Inca Empire. While it stood, however, it was one of the medieval world's most efficient, well-organized governments, and for this Pachacutec—whom many historians consider among the greatest rulers of all time—deserves much of the credit.

For More Information


Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya. Photographs by Michel Zabé. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Brittan, Dolly. The People of Cambodia. New York: PowerKids Press, 1997.

Gonzalez, Maya Christina. Inca Civilization. Translated by Deborah Kent. Chicago: Children's Press, 1993.

Leonard, Jonathan Norton. Ancient America. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1967.

Macdonald, Fiona. Inca Town. Illustrated by Mark Bergin, created and designed by David Salariya. New York: F. Watts, 1998.

Newman, Shirlee Petkin. The Incas. New York: F. Watts, 1992.

Web Sites

"Cambodia-Web: Origin of the Cambodians." Cambodia-Web. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Historical Summary of Cambodia." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Incas." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).