The Inca Empire was the last and greatest of several civilizations that existed in South America prior to the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century. The Incas began as one of many small, warring chiefdoms in central Peru. At its height in 1532 CE, the empire stretched from central Ecuador to south central Chile, and encompassed high altitude grasslands, coastal deserts, and tropical forests.
The dates for the Inca Empire are under debate. From study of Spanish documents, the late John Rowe, professor of anthropology at University of California, Berkeley, determined that the Incas began their expansion out of the region of Cuzco, their capital, around 1438 CE. Although archaeological work has suggested that the expansion actually began before that, the fact remains that the Incas created their empire in a remarkably short time, less than two centuries.
The success of the Incas was based on two main factors, a large and well-disciplined army and an effective administrative system. The Inca army was made up of a core of seasoned troops augmented by a large number of part-time soldiers, all led by a group of outstanding generals. The Inca army was successful also because of an effective infrastructure. The Incas built or expanded earlier road systems to make up more than 40,000 kilometers of roads. At regular intervals were major centers where provisions were collected from conquered people.
The Incas required labor, but little else, from their subjects. A conquered group had their land divided into three parts: one part each for the use of the Inca state and Inca religion, the third part remaining for the people’s use. One labor obligation was working the Incas’ parts first. Every household was also required to provide labor service, called mit’a, for a certain period each year. This labor might entail warfare, craft production, carrying messages, or building activities. The Incas provided all the food and materials for the mit’a labor. They also moved communities all over the empire to maximize food production and for political reasons. In this way, the Incas created an agricultural base and vast labor pool for both expanding their empire and creating the material and luxury goods that were needed to run it.
The Incas never developed a writing system, but used a knotted cord device called a quipu to keep track of goods and labor. Specially trained individuals, called quipucamayocs, were in charge of maintaining these records. The Inca administrative system was a hierarchical one, and was based on a decimal system of counting. The empire was ruled by the king, and consisted of four unequal parts, called suyus, that originated at Cuzco. Each suyu was made up of provinces, which were ideally divided into two or three sayas, units of 10,000 families. The sayas might correspond to a conquered ethnic group, or be a combination of smaller ones. Suyus, provinces, and sayas all had separate leaders. Within each saya, households were organized into a series of progressively smaller administrative units, led by local curacas, or leaders. There were curacas in charge of 5,000, 1,000, 500, 100, 50, and 10 families. Their jobs were to organize labor and lead their units’ troops in battle. They were rewarded with gifts for jobs well done, and punished for doing poorly. Most of the curacas were local leaders who were incorporated into the lower levels of the social hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy were the Inca nobility, those who could claim ancestry from any of the original kings, and allied ethnicities, called “Inca-by-privilege,” who were granted Inca status. These two groups filled the highest administrative posts in the empire.
As with many ancient civilizations, Inca politics were intimately related to their religion. The Incas worshipped a host of deities of the earth and sky. In addition, the Incas revered a line of divine kings and held sacred any place that was considered imbued with supernatural power (huacas ). Both the Incas and their subjects lived in fear of the displeasure of gods and huacas, and so carried out many different rituals. Although most of these involved only offerings of food or llamas, extremely important events, such as the accession of a new ruler, or a major calamity such as an earthquake, could require human sacrifice. Some of the most important Inca gods required human sacrifices as well. These sacrifices were always physically perfect children, from all over the empire. The remains of such sacrifices have been found on many of the highest peaks in the Andes.
The daily work of a person depended on his or her age, gender, and status. Conquered children watched a family’s herds of llamas and alpacas. When children of both sexes achieved puberty and married, they took on other roles such as parents, warriors, and craftspeople. A boy would usually take the occupation of his father, and both males and females participated in agricultural work. Inca nobility probably had fewer domestic chores and more duties related to the empire than did their subjects. Some women served special duties in the empire as acllyacuna, or “chosen women.” They were taken from their homes at an early age and taught domestic arts, and then worked in the empire’s service at administrative centers. They made textiles and other crafts and performed many services.
Despite controlling a population estimated to be more than 10 million, the Inca Empire fell to a group of about 170 Spaniards led by Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541). This conquest was achieved as a result of three things: a civil war between two rivals to the throne, European diseases that were introduced from Mexico, and the quick capture of the last Inca king. The latter event allowed the Spaniards to rule through the king for several months before they executed him and marched to Cuzco. A rebellion by the Incas four years later nearly succeeded, but was finally suppressed. The Spaniards introduced many new institutions, foods, and Catholicism to Andean people, yet much of the indigenous way of life still exists in regions remote from major cities.
D’Altroy, Terence N. 2002. The Incas. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Morris, Craig, and Adriana Von Hagen. 1992. The Inca Empire and Its Andean Origins. New York: American Museum of Natural History.
Moseley, Michael E. 2001. The Incas and Their Ancestors. The Archaeology of Peru. Rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Rowe, John H. 1946. Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest. In The Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 2: The Andean Civilizations, ed. Julian H. Steward, 183–330. Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143.
Michael A. Malpass