Incas, The

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Incas, The

When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in Peru in 1532, they found the major part of Andean South America under control of the empire of Tahuantinsuyu. The ethnic group that ruled this empire was known as the Incas, and their emperor was the Sapa Inca. Between 1438 and 1532 the Incas expanded their domain throughout the Andean region of modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwestern Argentina. They transformed the terrain through massive public works of engineering and architecture, and restructured society through social engineering. In the process, the Incas accumulated great wealth that eventually filled the coffers of the Spanish Empire. Inca domination of the Andes was brought to an end by the Spanish conquest led by Francisco Pizarro in 1532.


Inca history during the reigns of the emperors who preceded the Inca Pachacuti had been known largely from myths and legends. More recently archeologists have suggested that the Incas grew out of and on top of the Huari civilization. But it is the mythology and colonial chronicles that are best known. These accounts tell that around 1200 a small band of highlanders migrated into the valley of Cuzco in the southern Peruvian sierra. Over the next few centuries, the huge empire of the Inca was to spring from this small group. According to Inca legends, their place of origin was the town of Pacaritambo, a few miles southwest of Cuzco, where their ancestors had come forth into the world from three caves. This original group was led by the first Inca or ruler, Manco Capac, and was comprised of his three brothers and four sisters. After many adventures, Manco led his small band into the valley of Cuzco, where they established themselves by force of arms and brought order and civilization. Other stories held the place of origin to be an island in Lake Titicaca, south of Cuzco, from which the Incas were led by Manco north to the valley of Cuzco. Yet other accounts combined these two legends into one, having the Incas migrating underground from Lake Titicaca to Pacaritambo, where they emerged from the caves of origin.

Following their arrival in Cuzco, the Incas slowly increased their influence through intermarriage and by military raids against their neighbors during the reigns of the second through seventh Incas (Sinchi Roca, Lloque Yupanqui, Mayta Capac, Capac Yupanqui, Inca Roca, and Yahuar Huacac). The city of Cuzco probably grew from a preexisting settlement, but through the reign of the eighth Inca, it was little more than an ordinary Andean highland town. The turning point in the history of the city and the Incas themselves was the great Chanca war near the end of the reign of Inca Viracocha (1438). By this time, the Incas had increased their domain to include the whole of the valley of Cuzco, including the Oropesa and Lucre basins, and a large part of the neighboring Yucay valley. A powerful warlike confederation known as the Chanca began to expand to the south, probably from the Ayacucho basin, the earlier Huari imperial seat. Cuzco was threatened and the Inca forces very nearly defeated. The Inca Viracocha abandoned the city and fled to the neighboring valley, but at the last moment one of the royal sons, Inca Yupanqui, rallied the Inca armies and, in a heroic effort, defeated the Chanca forces. Following this victory he deposed his father, whose failure to defend Cuzco was viewed as a disgrace. Inca Yupanqui took the name Pachacuti and assumed the throne to become the first of the great Inca emperors and the first to be considered a true historical personage.


The name Pachacuti (or Pachacutec, as it is sometimes given in the chronicles) means "he who shakes the earth" or "cataclysm" in Quechua, the language of the Incas. It was an appropriate name for a man who literally reorganized the Inca world. His first acts as emperor included subduing the neighboring peoples in the Cuzco region. Whereas they had previously been associated rather loosely with the Incas, mostly by persuasion and family ties, they were now firmly brought under control as vassals of the lords of Cuzco. Pachacuti then launched a series of conquests that rapidly transformed what had been the tiny Inca domain into an expanding empire. He conquered large areas of the sierra, moving north into the central Peruvian highlands and south to the shores of Lake Titicaca. He also turned his attention to reorganizing and rebuilding the city of Cuzco and designing the empire.

Pachacuti set himself the task of reconstructing Cuzco as a suitable capital for the empire he envisioned. The city was constructed in the form of a puma, incorporating the fortress-temple of Sacsayhuaman as its head. The body was comprised of residential buildings and palaces laid out in a grid between the Tullumayo and Saphi rivers. Like so many New World peoples, the Incas held felines, especially the puma or mountain lion, to be sacred. The basic building unit of the city plan was an architectural form called the cancha, which was comprised of a series of small houses arranged within a rectangular enclosure. The cancha form and the grid plan of the city may have been derived from the old Huari imperial administrative center of Pikillacta, located in the lower end of the valley of Cuzco. Other architectural features, such as the double-jamb doorway, are seen earlier in the imperial style of Tiahuanaco. However, the distinctive style of stone working for which Inca architecture is justly famous, was purely a creation of the Incas. So skilled were their masons that walls laid without mortar achieved a near perfect fit between stones.

The city of Cuzco was conceived as the center of the empire where the four quarters into which it was divided came symbolically and physically together. Four highways, one coming from each of the four quarters (suyus) converged in the great central plaza of the city. From this four-part division the empire took its name of Tahuantinsuyu, meaning "the land of four quarters."

In addition to rebuilding Cuzco, Pachacuti initiated building projects in the environs of Cuzco and on his royal estates in the Urubamba valley. The most famous of these is the "lost city" of Macchu Picchu; he also built royal estates at Ollantaytambo, Patallacta, and many smaller sites in the valley.

Other building projects initiated by Pachacuti included the famous royal highway of the Inca. It provided for communication within the expanding empire and supplied a means of rapidly moving the army wherever it was needed. Following and expanding the routes of the old highways of the earlier Huari empire, standardized highways, often walled and paved, linked the various regions of the growing empire to Cuzco. Storehouses (qolqa) and rest stops (tambos) were built to provision and serve the army as it marched. A system of relay runners (chasqui) formed an effective postal system for the transmission of verbal messages and instructions. Towns and provincial administrative centers were built by Pachacuti and his successors in the various conquered territories as the empire expanded.


Pachacuti's son, Topa Inca, succeeded him as emperor in 1471 and continued to expand the empire. Topa Inca moved the imperial frontier north into what is now Ecuador and south into what is now Bolivia, northern Chile, and northwestern Argentina. By 1476 he had achieved the conquest of the Chimú, the last serious rivals for total control of the Andean area. The absorption of the Chimú had an important impact on Inca art, especially on gold-work. Chimú artisans were brought to the capital at Cuzco to create golden vessels for the royalty. On the north coast, a hybrid Chimú-Inca art style developed with stylistic elements from both cultures. Topa Inca reigned until 1493 and was succeeded by his son Huayna Capac.


Huayna Capac continued to expand the boundaries of the empire to the north and east, incorporating much of what is modern Ecuador and the northeastern Peruvian Andes. Compared with his father, however, his conquests were modest. Huayna Capac spent so much time on his difficult northern campaign that severe strains began to grow in the social fabric of the empire. He was absent for many years at a time. Surrogates had to stand in for him at important festivals and ceremonies, and the people of Cuzco began to feel out of touch with their emperor. A new and potentially rival court grew up around him at his northern headquarters at Tomebamba in Ecuador. Administratively the empire had become difficult to govern. Decisions from the emperor took a long time to reach Cuzco and even longer to be disseminated to the rest of the empire. Controlling the far-flung outposts of empire became increasingly difficult.

A severe crisis finally came when Huayna Capac suddenly died of what may have been smallpox in 1527. The disease, introduced by Europeans, preceded the Spanish conquistadores as they journeyed across South America. Thousands died in a very short space of time, including Huayna Capac's appointed heir, who survived his father by only a few days. The confusion about the succession created even more strain on Inca society, and finally a civil war broke out between two brothers who were rival claimants for the throne.


Huascar, one of the two rival brothers, had succeeded to the throne in Cuzco in 1527. He was challenged by Atahualpa, who had been with his father and the imperial army in Ecuador at the time of Huayna Capac's death. A large part of the army rallied behind Atahualpa, and a bloody war ensued. The forces of Atahualpa, which took the city of Cuzco in 1532, eventually prevailed. Huascar was captured and imprisoned.

As Atahualpa moved south to Cuzco with a large army, he was met by the Spanish forces led by Francisco Pizarro at the town of Cajamarca in the northern highlands. In a stunning surprise move, Pizarro and his small band of 168 men attacked and captured Atahualpa in the midst of his huge army (November 1532). Pizarro held the emperor captive for nearly eight months, waiting for the ransom that would secure Atahualpa's release. The emperor had offered to fill a room once with golden objects and twice with silver. This treasure chamber measured twenty-two feet by seventeen feet and was filled to a height of over eight feet. In all, almost eleven tons of treasure was collected throughout the empire and sent to Cajamarca. While he was in captivity, Atahualpa had secretly sent orders to have the Inca Huascar killed. He eliminated his rival, but to no avail, since he himself was killed by the Spaniards shortly thereafter, in July 1533. With the death of Atahualpa, the last of the independent Inca rulers had fallen. The Incas continued to resist the Spanish for many years thereafter, but the Inca Empire ceased to exist.


Most of what is known of Inca society is based on the Spanish chronicles, some of which were eyewitness accounts. Inca history viewed the great emperor Pachacuti as the founding genius of the Inca state. His reconstruction of the Inca capital coincided with a complete reorganization of Inca society. At the apex was the emperor himself, called the Sapa Inca, and the noble families of pure Inca blood. This lineage or extended family owned the empire. All of the important governmental posts, the governors of each of the four quarters of the empire, the army, and the religious institutions were held by pure-blooded Incas. There were never more than about 500 adult males, and perhaps 1,800 people in all who carried pure Inca blood. Below them were the Incas by adoption, or Hahua Incas, comprised of neighboring peoples held in high enough esteem by the pure-blood Incas to be trusted with important positions when there were not enough royal Incas to fill these posts.

Below these were provincial nobility, who were local ethnic lords confirmed by the Inca administration. At the bottom of the social pyramid were the hatun runa (big men), the common heads of households (the family being the basic taxpaying unit). Hatun runa were organized in groups of 10, 50, 100, 500, 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 families for administrative purposes. Each decimal division had an official responsible for its administration. This organization was the key to the success of the empire. Each family provided a set amount of labor or service to the state rather than wealth in the form of material goods. The state, in turn, used this labor to generate wealth through the production of goods, cultivation of lands, construction projects, or military conquest of new territory.

The social organization of the empire was based on a complex series of reciprocal obligations between the rulers and the ruled. Taxes were paid to the imperial government in labor service by the hatun runa. In return, the government provided social services to protect the population in times of want and natural disaster. Food and other goods were collected and stored to form a surplus for use during times of drought or famine. Some income from government lands was set aside for widows and orphans. Maize beer and food were provided for ritual feasting on holidays. The imperial government ensured that every citizen was fed and clothed.


Pachacuti organized Inca religion into an imperial institution. The major gods of the various peoples incorporated into the empire were included in the Inca pantheon, and appropriate temples and shrines for them were built and maintained. In addition to the Inca patron, Inti the sun god, there were Illapa, the god of thunder; Pachamama, the earth-mother goddess; Mamacocha, the sea goddess; and Mamaquilla, the moon goddess. Above all was Viracocha, the great creator deity of the Andean peoples. In a separate category were deities called Huacas, animistic spirits that inhabited everything in nature. Their specific manifestations occurred in mountain peaks, unusual natural phenomena, odd-shaped stone outcrops, mummies, and stone idols.

Inca religion emphasized ritual and organization rather than mysticism or spirituality. Religious rites focused chiefly on ensuring the food supply and curing disease. Divination was also of considerable importance. The Incas maintained an elaborate ritual calendar of public ceremonies and festivals, most associated with stages in the agricultural cycle such as plowing, planting, and harvesting. Others were related to solstice observations, puberty rites, and new year celebrations.

Inca society was highly stratified, and upward mobility was very limited. The only way in which a person could improve his position was through success as a warrior or by being attached as a servant to an important noble household or being selected as an aclla (chosen woman). The state controlled most aspects of the lives of its citizens, and a strict code of law applied more harshly to the nobility than to the commoners. Travel and dress were strictly regulated; no one could move about the empire or change from his native costume without the state's permission. The basic social unit beyond the immediate biological family was called the Ayllu. Land was held communally by the members of the ayllu, and decisions were often taken collectively.

Inca culture was the culmination of thousands of years of Andean civilization. From their predecessors they had inherited a body of statecraft and much of the physical infrastructure for the empire. This does not in any way diminish their achievement, however. It was the peculiar Inca genius for organization that allowed them to make profitable use of their cultural inheritance. They alone of the late Andean societies were able to weave together the disparate elements of the many Andean cultures through military prowess and extraordinary statecraft, and through drawing on thousands of years of cultural inheritance. In terms of geographical extension, military power, and political organization, the Inca created the greatest of the pre-Columbian empires.

See alsoArchaeology; Ayllu; Cuzco; Indigenous Peoples; Inti; Machu Picchu; Mamaquilla; Precontact History: Andean Region.


The best single source for Inca culture and history is in the classic article by John H. Rowe, "Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest," in Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 2 (1946), pp. 183-330. Additional sources include Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Empire of the Inca (1963) and The Lords of Cuzco: A History and Description of the Inca People in Their Final Days (1967). The definitive study of the Inca economy is John Victor Murra, The Economic Organization of the Inca State (1980). On the Spanish conquest, see John Hemming, The Conquest of the Incas (1970). For a discussion of Inca origin myths, see Gary Urton, The History of a Myth: Pacariqtambo and the Origin of the Incas (1990). The two most important and accessible Spanish chronicles are The Incas of Pedro de Cieza de León, translated by Harriet de Onís (1959); Bernabé Cobo, History of the Inca Empire, translated by Roland Hamilton (1979). One chronicle written from an Incan perspective is Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca's Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru (2006) and another, from a Quechuan but non-Inca perspective is Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala's Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (2005).

Additional Bibliography

Bauer, Brian S. Ancient Cuzco: Heartland of the Inca. Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long series in Latin American and Latino art and culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

Covey, R. Alan. How the Incas Built Their Heartland: State Formation and the Innovation of Imperial Strategies in the Sacred Valley, Peru. History, Languages, and Cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese Worlds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

Ramirez, Susan Elizabeth To Feed and Be Fed: The Cosmological Bases of Authority and Identity in the Andes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. Historia del Tahuantinsuyu. Lima: IEP, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1999.

                                       Gordon F. McEwan