The Incas: History of Andean Empire
Villagers in Cuzco, Peru, dressed in colorful shawls, or chompas, mingle with city-folk and tourists during a festival..
Credit: Jesse Lewis

The Inca Empire was a vast empire that flourished in the Andean region of South America from the early 15th century A.D. up until its conquest by the Spanish in the 1530s. Even after the conquest, Inca leaders continued to resist the Spaniards up until 1572 when its last city, Vilcabamba, was captured.

The Incas built their empire without the wheel, powerful draft animals, iron working, currency or even what we would consider to be a writing system. One of the Inca civilization's most famous surviving archaeological sites is Machu Picchu, which was built as a retreat for an Incan emperor.

The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu, the “Land of the Four Corners,” and its official language was Quechua. The empire was divided up into four “suyu,” which intersected at the capital, Cuzco. These suyu in turn were divided into provinces. By the time of the Spanish conquest, much of the Inca Empire was made up of numerous non-Inca groups.

The empire reached its peak after the conquests of Emperor Huayna Capac, who reigned from 1493 until around 1527, when he apparently died of smallpox. At its peak, the empire extended from “the border of Ecuador and Colombia down to about 50 miles [80 kilometers] south of modern Santiago, Chile,” said Terence D'Altroy of Columbia University, in a 2007 PBS Nova interview. “In terms of square miles, we're probably talking something like 300,000 square miles [more than 775,000 square km],” he said, adding that its population was as high as 12 million people.

To support this empire, a system of roads stretched for almost 25,000 miles (roughly 40,000 km), about three times the diameter of the Earth.

As the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire, they were impressed by what they saw. “Inca cities were as large as those of Europe, but more orderly and by all accounts much cleaner and more pleasant places in which to live,” writes Gordon McEwan of Wagner College, in his book “The Incas: New Perspectives” (ABC-CLIO, 2006), also noting that the road and aqueduct systems the Spanish encountered in the Andes were superior to those in Europe.

The Inca Empire originated at the city of Cuzco in what is today southern Peru. It appears to have started out as a small local state until it rapidly expanded into a vast empire during the 15th century A.D.

The origins of the Inca are murky, but McEwan points that, in pre-Inca times, Cuzco was located at a nexus point between two earlier empires, one called the Wari and another based at the city of Tiwanaku. This central location gave the Inca a number of advantages when they were able to expand, one of the most important being the availability of infrastructure, which these earlier empires had already created. “The hydraulic and highway systems of the earlier empires would have provided the basis for rapid expansion of the early Inca state,” McEwan writes.

Inca oral history, recorded by the Spanish, suggests that the expansion of the Inca began in earnest during the reign of the emperor Pachacuti, who reigned 1438-1471. Oral traditions say that he became emperor after he halted an invasion of Cuzco that was being carried out by a rival group called the Chancas. Subsequently, he worked to expand the territory the Inca controlled, extending their influence beyond the Cuzco region.

D'Altroy notes that the Inca tried to get their rivals to surrender peacefully and only used military conquest as a last resort. They “worked very hard in diplomacy, negotiating relationships with neighbors or with people who were targets for incorporation into their expanding territory, and they tried to work out amicable relationships through gift exchanges, marital exchanges, or political alliances. Failing that, they would threaten those people with military conquest, and that having failed, they would actually undertake military conquest,” he said in the PBS interview.

While the Inca did not develop what we would consider a formal system of writing, they did use recording devices, the best known being quipu, a cord with strings suspended from it. While modern-day scholars are unable to read them, it is known that they would have been used for creating records such as a census. 

The Inca capital, Cuzco, was ordered rebuilt by Pachacuti, who allegedly had the city completely razed so that it could be rebuilt in the shape of a puma.

“The animal was represented in profile, with the residential blocks of the city forming its body … the great fortress or temple complex on the hill above Cuzco representing its head, and the confluence of the Tullu and Saphi rivers representing its tail,” McEwan writes, paraphrasing the account recorded by the Spanish chronicler Juan de Betanzos. “Between the fore and hind legs of the puma were located the two great plazas of Cuzco, where the highways to the four imperial quarters of the empire, called suyus, converged.”

McEwan adds that commoners were not allowed to live in the city and had to reside in the outlying settlements.

Perhaps the greatest religious sanctuary in Cuzco was a sun temple called “Coricancha.” The Spanish chronicler Bernabé Cobo wrote (in translation), “This temple was called Coricancha, which means ‘house of gold,’ because of the incomparable wealth of this metal which was embedded in the temple’s chapels and wall, its ceilings and altars.” (From “Ancient Cuzco” by Brian Bauer, University of Texas Press, 2004)

The presence of gold led the Spanish to plunder it thoroughly, but Cobo did record that it was dedicated to the Sun god Inti with other Inca deities also being honored in the temple.

After the Spanish conquered Cuzco, they built a new city in its place, one that survives to present day.

[Gallery: Tracing the Ancient Incan Empire]

The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.
The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.
Credit: dreamstime

The Inca pantheon had an array of gods that, McEwan notes, included the creator god Viracocha, sun god Inti, thunder god Illapa and earth-mother goddess Pachamama, among others. There were also regional deities worshipped by people whom the Inca conquered.

He notes that the Inca gods could be honored in many ways, including prayers, fasting and animal sacrifice, but the most powerful form was that of human sacrifice, typically those of children and teenagers.

In 1999, archaeologists discovered the mummies of three children who had been left as sacrifices at a shrine near the summit of a volcano in Argentina. A teenage girl whom we call “the maiden” appears to have been the main sacrifice with the other two, a boy and girl, being her attendants. Recent research has revealed that, in the year before their sacrifice, the three consumed a special diet rich in maize and dried llama meat and were drugged with coca leaves and alcohol. 

The mummification of individuals was an important part of Inca funerary rites, even for those who were commoners.

After the Spanish conquest, a man named Guaman Poma, who spoke Quechua and was native to the Andes, published a chronicle that described November as being the “month of carrying the dead,” a time when people would try to feed the mummies of their ancestors.

“In this month they take their dead out of their storehouses which are called pucullo and they give them food and drink and they dress them in their richest apparel ... and they sing and dance with them … and they walk with them from house to house and through the streets and the plaza,” (In translation, from the book “Food, Power and Resistance in the Andes” by Alison Krögel, Lexington Books, 2011).

Krögel notes that while the mummies of commoners were only fed on special occasions those of royalty “received their own specially prepared meals [including corn beer] on a daily basis.”

Maize and meat were generally considered the elite food of the Incas and were consumed by the “maiden” and her attendants in the year before they were sacrificed. In addition to these elite food products, other goods consumed in the Inca diet include sweet potatoes, quinoa, beans and chili peppers.

In exchange for labor, the Inca government was expected to provide feasts to the people at certain times of the year, acting as a form of payment in a society that lacked currency.

“The requirements of reciprocity dictated that large feasts be held at different times of the year in various parts of the empire to ensure cooperation and goodwill at all levels,” writes Tamara Bray in her book “The Archaeology and Politics of Food and Feasting in Early States and Empires” (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003). “Inca state-sponsored feasts were held in open plazas, while food preparation was carried out in narrow chambers that flanked them.”

The “most unusual aspect of the Inca economy was the lack of a market system and money,” writes McEwan, with only a few exceptions there were no traders in the Inca Empire. “Each citizen of the empire was issued the necessities of life out of the state storehouses, including food, tools, raw materials, and clothing, and needed to purchase nothing.”

There were no shops or markets, McEwan notes and, as such, “there was no need for a standard currency or money, and there was nowhere to spend money or purchase or trade for necessities.”

Objects made out of gold and silver survive from the Inca Empire but the most striking examples of Inca art were its textiles. “Cloth, above all else, was especially prized by the Incas and represents their greatest artistic achievement,” writes McEwan. Textile making is popular among Andean cultures, and the Inca were no exception.

McEwan notes that the Inca grew cotton, sheared wool and used looms to create elaborate textiles. The finest grade of cloth was called cumpi, being reserved for the emperor and nobility. “Made of alpaca or vicuna wool and cotton, or sometimes more exotic materials such as bat hair or hummingbird down, it was a tapestry weave decorated with complex multicolored designs,” he writes.

Inca stone-working is also considered to be very fine. Their “craftsmen fitted building stone together perfectly without using any mortar, such that an object as thin as a razor blade could not be inserted between the stones,” writes Peter V. N. Henderson in his book “The Course of Andean History” (University of New Mexico Press, 2013).

Today, many of the traditions the Inca carried out live on in the Andes. Textile making is still popular, the foods they ate are consumed around the world, archaeological sites like Machu Picchu are popular tourist attractions and even their official language, Quechua, is still widely spoken.

“Today, Quechua, or runa simi (‘people’s speech’), is the most widely spoken of the indigenous tongues surviving in the Americas,” writes Judith Noble and Jaime Lacasa in their book “Introduction to Quechua: Language of the Andes” (Dog Ear Publishing, 2007).

“Six to ten million people in the Andean area from southern Columbia through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, to northwestern Argentina and northern Chile use Quechua as their everyday tongue.”

Owen Jarus