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Inca Empire

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"Inca" redirects here. For a general view of Inca civilization, people and culture, see Andean civilizations. For other uses, see Inca (disambiguation).
Inca Empire
Tawantinsuyu  (Quechua)

Banner of the Tawantinsuyu

The Inca Empire at its greatest extent
Capital Cusco
Languages Quechua (official), Aymara, Puquina, Jaqi family, Muchik and scores of smaller languages.
Religion Inca religion
Government Divine, Absolute Monarchy
Sapa Inca
 •  1438–1471 Pachacuti
 •  1471–1493 Túpac Inca Yupanqui
 •  1493–1527 Huayna Capac
 •  1527–1532 Huáscar
 •  1532–1533 Atahualpa
Historical era Pre-Columbian
 •  Pachacuti created the Tawantinsuyu 1438
 •  Civil war between Huáscar and Atahualpa 1529–1532
 •  Spanish conquest led by Francisco Pizarro 1533
 •  End of the last Inca resistance 1572
 •  1438[1] 800,000 km² (308,882 sq mi)
 •  1527 2,000,000 km² (772,204 sq mi)
 •  1438[1] est. 12,000,000 
     Density 15 /km²  (38.8 /sq mi)
 •  1527 est. 20,000,000 
     Density 10 /km²  (25.9 /sq mi)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Cusco
Governorate of New Castile
Governorate of New Toledo
Neo-Inca State
Today part of  Argentina

The Inca Empire (Quechua: Tawantinsuyu, lit. "The Four Regions"[2]), also known as the Incan Empire and the Inka Empire, was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America,[3] and possibly the largest empire in the world in the early 16th century.[4] The administrative, political and military center of the empire was located in Cusco in modern-day Peru. The Inca civilization arose from the highlands of Peru sometime in the early 13th century. Its last stronghold was conquered by the Spanish in 1572.

From 1438 to 1533, the Incas used methods including conquest and peaceful assimilation, to incorporate a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean mountain ranges. At its largest, the empire joined Peru, large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile and a small part of southern Colombia into a state comparable to the historical empires of Eurasia. Its official language was Quechua. Many local forms of worship persisted in the empire, most of them concerning local sacred Huacas, but the Inca leadership encouraged the worship of Inti—their sun god—and imposed its sovereignty above other cults such as that of Pachamama.[5] The Incas considered their king, the Sapa Inca, to be the "son of the sun."[6]


The Inca referred to their empire as Tawantinsuyu,[2] "the four suyu". In Quechua, tawa is four and -ntin is a suffix naming a group, so that a tawantin is a quartet, a group of four things taken together, in this case representing the four suyu ("regions" or "provinces") whose corners met at the capital. The four suyu were: Chinchaysuyu (north), Antisuyu (east; the Amazon jungle), Qullasuyu (south) and Kuntisuyu (west). The name Tawantinsuyu was, therefore, a descriptive term indicating a union of provinces. The Spanish transliterated the name as Tahuatinsuyo or Tahuatinsuyu.

The term Inka means "ruler" or "lord" in Quechua and was used to refer to the ruling class or the ruling family.[7] The Spanish adopted the term (transliterated as Inca in Spanish) as an ethnic term referring to all subjects of the empire rather than simply the ruling class. As such the name Imperio inca ("Inca Empire") referred to the nation that they encountered and subsequently conquered.



The Inca people were a pastoral tribe in the Cusco area around the 12th century. Incan oral history tells an origin story of three caves. The center cave at Tampu T'uqu (Tambo Tocco) was named Qhapaq T'uqu ("principal niche", also spelled Capac Tocco). The other caves were Maras T'uqu (Maras Tocco) and Sutiq T'uqu (Sutic Tocco).[8] Four brothers and four sisters stepped out of the middle cave. They were: Ayar Manco, Ayar Cachi, Ayar Awqa (Ayar Auca) and Ayar Uchu; and Mama Ocllo, Mama Raua, Mama Huaco and Mama Qura (Mama Cora). Out of the side caves came the people who were to be the ancestors of all the Inca clans.

Manco Cápac, First Inca, 1 of 14 Portraits of Inca Kings, Probably mid-18th century. Oil on canvas. Brooklyn Museum

Ayar Manco carried a magic staff made of the finest gold. Where this staff landed, the people would live. They traveled for a long time. On the way, Ayar Cachi boasted about his strength and power. His siblings tricked him into returning to the cave to get a sacred llama. When he went into the cave, they trapped him inside to get rid of him.

Ayar Uchu decided to stay on the top of the cave to look over the Inca people. The minute he proclaimed that, he turned to stone. They built a shrine around the stone and it became a sacred object. Ayar Auca grew tired of all this and decided to travel alone. Only Ayar Manco and his four sisters remained.

Finally, they reached Cusco. The staff sank into the ground. Before they arrived, Mama Ocllo had already borne Ayar Manco a child, Sinchi Roca. The people who were already living in Cusco fought hard to keep their land, but Mama Huaca was a good fighter. When the enemy attacked, she threw her bolas (several stones tied together that spun through the air when thrown) at a soldier (gualla) and killed him instantly. The other people became afraid and ran away.

After that, Ayar Manco became known as Manco Cápac, the founder of the Inca. It is said that he and his sisters built the first Inca homes in the valley with their own hands. When the time came, Manco Cápac turned to stone like his brothers before him. His son, Sinchi Roca, became the second emperor of the Inca.[9]

Kingdom of Cusco

Main article: Kingdom of Cusco

Under the leadership of Manco Cápac, the Inca formed the small city-state Kingdom of Cusco (Quechua Qusqu', Qosqo). In 1438, they began a far-reaching expansion under the command of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui, whose name literally meant "earth-shaker". The name of Pachacuti was given to him after he conquered the Tribe of Chancas (modern Apurímac). During his reign, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui brought much of the Andes mountains (roughly modern Peru and Ecuador) under Inca control.[10]

Reorganization and formation

The first image of the Inca in Europe, Pedro Cieza de León, Cronica del Peru, 1553

Pachacuti reorganized the kingdom of Cusco into the Tahuantinsuyu, which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provincial governments with strong leaders: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Kuntisuyu (SW) and Qullasuyu (SE).[11] Pachacuti is thought to have built Machu Picchu, either as a family home or summer retreat, although it may have been an agricultural station.[12]

Pachacuti sent spies to regions he wanted in his empire and they brought to him reports on political organization, military strength and wealth. He then sent messages to their leaders extolling the benefits of joining his empire, offering them presents of luxury goods such as high quality textiles and promising that they would be materially richer as his subjects.

Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli and acquiesced peacefully. Refusal to accept Inca rule resulted in military conquest. Following conquest the local rulers were executed. The ruler's children were brought to Cusco to learn about Inca administration systems, then return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate them into the Inca nobility and, with luck, marry their daughters into families at various corners of the empire.

Expansion and consolidation

Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, children of the Inti

Traditionally the son of the Inca ruler led the army. Pachacuti's son Túpac Inca Yupanqui began conquests to the north in 1463 and continued them as Inca ruler after Pachacuti's death in 1471. Túpac Inca's most important conquest was the Kingdom of Chimor, the Inca's only serious rival for the Peruvian coast. Túpac Inca's empire stretched north into modern-day Ecuador and Colombia.

Túpac Inca's son Huayna Cápac added a small portion of land to the north in modern-day Ecuador and in parts of Peru. At its height, the Inca Empire included Peru and Bolivia, most of what is now Ecuador and a large portion of what is today Chile, north of the Maule River. The advance south halted after the Battle of the Maule where they met determined resistance from the Mapuche. The empire's push into the Amazon Basin near the Chinchipe River was stopped by the Shuar in 1527.[13] The empire extended into corners of Argentina and Colombia. However, most of the southern portion of the Inca empire, the portion denominated as Qullasuyu, was located in the Altiplano.

The Inca Empire was an amalgamation of languages, cultures and peoples. The components of the empire were not all uniformly loyal, nor were the local cultures all fully integrated. The Inca empire as a whole had an economy based on exchange and taxation of luxury goods and labour. The following quote describes a method of taxation:

For as is well known to all, not a single village of the highlands or the plains failed to pay the tribute levied on it by those who were in charge of these matters. There were even provinces where, when the natives alleged that they were unable to pay their tribute, the Inca ordered that each inhabitant should be obliged to turn in every four months a large quill full of live lice, which was the Inca's way of teaching and accustoming them to pay tribute.[14]

Inca Civil War and Spanish conquest

Inca expansion (1438–1533)
Atahualpa, the last Sapa Inca of the empire, was executed by the Spanish on 29 August 1533

Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers explored south from what is today Panama, reaching Inca territory by 1526.[15] It was clear that they had reached a wealthy land with prospects of great treasure, and after another expedition in 1529 Pizarro traveled to Spain and received royal approval to conquer the region and be its viceroy. This approval was received as detailed in the following quote: "In July 1529 the queen of Spain signed a charter allowing Pizarro to conquer the Incas. Pizarro was named governor and captain of all conquests in Peru, or New Castile, as the Spanish now called the land."[16]

When they returned to Peru in 1532, a war of brothers between the sons of Huayna Capac, Huáscar and Atahualpa, and unrest among newly conquered territories weakened the empire. Perhaps more importantly, smallpox had spread from Central America. Pizarro did not have a formidable force. With just 168 men, one cannon, and 27 horses, he often talked his way out of potential confrontations that could have easily wiped out his party.

The Spanish horsemen, fully armored, had technological superiority over the Inca forces. The traditional mode of battle in the Andes was a kind of siege warfare where large numbers of usually reluctant draftees were sent to overwhelm opponents. The Spaniards developed one of the finest military machines in the premodern world, tactics learned in their centuries-long fight against Moorish kingdoms in Iberia. Along with their tactical and material superiority, the Spaniards acquired tens of thousands of native allies who sought to end the Inca control of their territories.

Their first engagement was the Battle of Puná, near present-day Guayaquil, Ecuador, on the Pacific Coast; Pizarro then founded the city of Piura in July 1532. Hernando de Soto was sent inland to explore the interior and returned with an invitation to meet the Inca, Atahualpa, who had defeated his brother in the civil war and was resting at Cajamarca with his army of 80,000 troops.

Pizarro and some of his men, most notably a friar named Vincente de Valverde, met with the Inca, who had brought only a small retinue. Through an interpreter Friar Vincente read the "Requerimiento" that demanded that he and his empire accept the yoke of King Charles I of Spain and convert to Christianity. Because of the language barrier and perhaps poor interpretation, Atahualpa became somewhat puzzled by the friar's description of Christian faith and was said to have not fully understood the envoy's intentions. After Atahualpa attempted further enquiry into the doctrines of the Christian faith, the Spanish became frustrated and impatient. They attacked the Inca's retinue and captured Atahualpa as hostage.

Atahualpa offered the Spaniards enough gold to fill the room he was imprisoned in and twice that amount of silver. The Inca fulfilled this ransom, but Pizarro deceived them, refusing to release the Inca afterwards. During Atahualpa's imprisonment Huáscar was assassinated elsewhere. The Spaniards maintained that this was at Atahualpa's orders; this was used as one of the charges against Atahualpa when the Spaniards finally executed him, in August 1533.[17]

Last Incas

Main article: Neo-Inca State
View of Machu Picchu

The Spanish installed Atahualpa's brother Manco Inca Yupanqui in power; for some time Manco cooperated with the Spanish while they fought to put down resistance in the north. Meanwhile, an associate of Pizarro, Diego de Almagro, attempted to claim Cusco. Manco tried to use this intra-Spanish feud to his advantage, recapturing Cusco in 1536, but the Spanish retook the city afterwards. Manco Inca then retreated to the mountains of Vilcabamba and established the small Neo-Inca State, where he and his successors ruled for another 36 years, sometimes raiding the Spanish or inciting revolts against them. In 1572 the last Inca stronghold was conquered and the last ruler, Túpac Amaru, Manco's son, was captured and executed.[18] This ended resistance to the Spanish conquest under the political authority of the Inca state.

After the fall of the Inca Empire many aspects of Inca culture were systematically destroyed, including their sophisticated farming system, known as the vertical archipelago model of agriculture.[19] Spanish colonial officials used the Inca mita corvée labor system for colonial aims, sometimes brutally. One member of each family was forced to work in the gold and silver mines, the foremost of which was the titanic silver mine at Potosí. When a family member died, which would usually happen within a year or two, the family was required to send a replacement.[citation needed]

The effects of smallpox on the Inca empire were even more devastating. Beginning in Colombia, smallpox spread rapidly before the Spanish invaders first arrived in the empire. The spread was probably aided by the efficient Inca road system. Within a few years smallpox claimed between 60% and 94% of the Inca population,[citation needed] with other waves of European disease weakening them further. Smallpox was only the first epidemic.[20] Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618 – all ravaged the Inca people.


Main articles: Inca society and Inca education


The number of people inhabiting Tawantinsuyu at its peak is uncertain, with estimates ranging from 4-37 million. In spite of the fact that the Inca kept excellent census records using their quipu, knowledge of how to read them was lost and almost all of them were destroyed by the Spaniards.[21]


Main article: Quechua languages

Since the Inca Empire lacked a written language, the main form of communication and recording in the empire were quipus, ceramics and spoken Quechua, the language the Incas imposed upon the peoples within the empire. The plethora of civilizations in the Andean region provided for a general disunity that the Incas had to subdue in order to maintain control. While Quechua had been spoken in the Andean region, including central Peru, for several centuries prior to the expansion of the Inca civilization, the dialect of Quechua the Incas imposed was an adaptation from the Kingdom of Cusco (an early form of "Southern Quechua" originally named Qhapaq Runasimi, or 'the great language of the people'), or what some historians define as the Cusco dialect.[22][23]

The language imposed by the Incas diverted from its original phonetics as some societies formed their own regional varieties. The diversity of Quechua at that point and even today does not come directly from the Incas, who were just a part of the reason for Quechua's diversity. The civilizations within the empire that had previously spoken Quechua kept their own variety distinct from the Quechua the Incas spread. Although these dialects of Quechua had a similar linguistic structure, they differed according to the region in which they were spoken.[23]

Although most of the societies within the empire accepted Quechua, the Incas allowed several societies to keep their original languages, such as Aymara, which remains in use in contemporary Bolivia, where it is the primary indigenous language and in various regions surrounding Bolivia. The linguistic body of the Inca Empire was thus varied. The Inca's impact outlasted their empire, as the Spanish continued the use of Quechua.[23]


Diorite Inca sculpture from Amarucancha

Inca myths were transmitted orally until early Spanish colonists recorded them; however, some scholars claim that they were recorded on quipus, Andean knotted string records.[24]

The Inca believed in reincarnation.[25] Death was a passage to the next world that was full of difficulties. The spirit of the dead, camaquen, would need to follow a long road and during the trip the assistance of a black dog that could see in the dark was required. Most Incas imagined the after world to be like that of the European notion of heaven, with flower-covered fields and snow-capped mountains.

It was important to the Inca that they not die as a result of burning or that the body of the deceased not be incinerated. Burning would cause their vital force to disappear and threaten their passage to the after world. Those who obeyed the Inca moral code – ama suwa, ama llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy) – "went to live in the Sun's warmth while others spent their eternal days in the cold earth".[citation needed] The Inca nobility practiced cranial deformation.[26] They wrapped tight cloth straps around the heads of newborns to shape their soft skulls into a more conical form, thus distinguishing the nobility from other social classes.

The Incas made human sacrifices. As many as 4,000 servants, court officials, favorites and concubines were killed upon the death of the Inca Huayna Capac in 1527.[27] The Incas performed child sacrifices around important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca or during a famine. These sacrifices were known as qhapaq hucha.[28]


The Incas were polytheists who attempted to please many gods. These included:

Viracocha, is the great creator god in Inca mythology
  • Viracocha (also Pachacamac) – Created all living things
  • Apu Illapu – Rain God, prayed to when they need rain
  • Ayar Cachi – Hot-tempered God, causes earthquakes
  • Illapa – Goddess of lightning and thunder (also Yakumama water goddess)
  • Inti – sun god and patron deity of the holy city of Cusco (home of the sun)
  • Kuychi – Rainbow God, connected with fertility
  • Mama Killa – Wife of Inti, called Moon Mother
  • Mama Occlo – Wisdom to civilize the people, taught women to weave cloth and build houses
  • Manco Cápac – known for his courage and sent to earth to become first king of the Incas. Taught people how to grow plants, make weapons, work together, share resources and worship the Gods.
  • Pachamama – The Goddess of earth and wife of Viracocha. People give her offerings of coca leaves and beer and pray to her for major agricultural occasions
  • Quchamama – Goddess of the sea
  • Sachamama – Means Mother Tree, goddess in the shape of a snake with two heads
  • Yakumama – Means mother Water. Represented as a snake. When she came to earth she transformed into a great river (also Illapa).


Further information: Vertical archipelago and Mit'a
Illustration of Inca farmers using a chakitaqlla (Andean footplough)

The Inca Empire employed central planning. The Inca Empire traded with outside regions, although they did not operate a substantial internal market economy. While axe-monies were used along the northern coast, presumably by the provincial mindaláe trading class,[29] most lived in a traditional economy in which households were required to pay taxes both in kind (e.g., crops, textiles, etc.) and in the form of the mit'a corvée labor and military obligations,[30] though barter (or trueque) was present in some areas.[31] In return, the state provided security, food in times of hardship through the supply of emergency resources, agricultural projects (e.g. aqueducts and terraces) to increase productivity and occasional feasts. The economy rested on the material foundations of the vertical archipelago, a system of ecological complementarity in accessing resources[32] and the cultural foundation of ayni, or reciprocal exchange.[33][34]


Main article: Inca Government


The Sapa Inca was conceptualized as divine and was effectively head of the state religion. The Willaq Umu (or Chief Priest) was second to the emperor. Local religious traditions continued and in some cases such as the Oracle at Pachacamac on the Peruvian coast, were officially venerated. Following Pachacuti, the Sapa Inca claimed descent from Inti, who placed a high value on imperial blood; by the end of the empire, it was common to incestuously wed brother and sister. He was "son of the sun," and his people the intip churin, or "children of the sun," and both his right to rule and mission to conquer derived from his holy ancestor. The Sapa Inca also presided over ideologically important festivals, notably during the Inti Raymi, or "warriors' cultivation," attended by soldiers, mummified rulers, nobles, clerics and the general population of Cusco beginning on the June solstice and culminating nine days later with the ritual breaking of the earth using a foot plow by the Inca. Moreover, Cusco was considered cosmologically central, loaded as it was with huacas and radiating ceque lines and geographic center of the Four Quarters; Inca Garcilaso de la Vega called it "the navel of the universe".[35][36][37][38]

Organization of the empire

The Inca Empire's southern border defined by the Maule or Maipo River (scholars differ).[39] Inca troops never crossed the Bío Bío River.[40]

The Inca Empire was a federalist system consisting of a central government with the Inca at its head and four quarters, or suyu: Chinchay Suyu (NW), Anti Suyu (NE), Kunti Suyu (SW) and Qulla Suyu (SE). The four corners of these quarters met at the center, Cusco. These suyu were likely created around 1460 during the reign of Pachacuti before the empire reached its largest territorial extent. At the time the suyu were established they were roughly of equal size and only later changed their proportions as the empire expanded north and south along the Andes.[41]

Cusco was likely not organized as a wamani, or province. Rather, it was probably somewhat akin to a modern federal district, like Washington, D.C. or Mexico City. The city sat at the center of the four suyu and served as the preeminent center of politics and religion. While Cusco was essentially governed by the Sapa Inca, his relatives and the royal panaqa lineages, each suyu was governed by an Apu, a term of esteem used for men of high status and for venerated mountains. Both Cusco as a district and the four suyu as administrative regions were grouped into upper hanan and lower hurin divisions. As the Inca did not have written records, it is impossible to exhaustively list the constituent wamani. However, colonial records allow us to reconstruct a partial list. There were likely more than 86 wamani, with more than 48 in the highlands and more than 38 on the coast.[42][43][44]


The four suyus or quarters of the empire.

The most populous suyu was Chinchaysuyu, which encompassed the former Chimu empire and much of the northern Andes. At its largest extent, it extended through much of modern Ecuador and into modern Colombia.

The largest suyu by area was Qullasuyu, named after the Aymara-speaking Qulla people. It encompassed the Bolivian Altiplano and much of the southern Andes, reaching Argentina and as far south as the Maipo or Maule river in Central Chile.[39] Historian José Bengoa singled out Quillota as perhaps the foremost Inca settlement.[45]

The second smallest suyu, Antisuyu, was northwest of Cusco in the high Andes. Its name is the root of the word "Andes."[46]

Kuntisuyu was the smallest suyu, located along the southern coast of modern Peru, extending into the highlands towards Cusco.[47]


The Inca state had no separate judiciary or codified laws. Customs, expectations and traditional local power holders governed behavior. The state had legal force, such as through tokoyrikoq (lit. "he who sees all"), or inspectors. The highest such inspector, typically a blood relative to the Sapa Inca, acted independently of the conventional hierarchy, providing a point of view for the Sapa Inca free of bureaucratic influence.[48]


Inti, as represented by José Bernardo de Tagle of Peru

Colonial sources are not entirely clear or in agreement about Inca government structure, such as exact duties and functions of government positions. But the basic structure can be broadly described. The top was the Sapa Inca. Below that may have been the Willaq Umu, literally the "priest who recounts", the High Priest of the Sun.[49] However, beneath the Sapa Inca also sat the Inkap rantin, who was a confidant and assistant to the Sapa Inca, perhaps similar to a Prime Minister.[50] Starting with Topa Inca Yupanqui, a "Council of the Realm" waas composed of 16 nobles: 2 from hanan Cusco; 2 from hurin Cusco; 4 from Chinchaysuyu; 2 from Cuntisuyu; 4 from Collasuyu; and 2 from Antisuyu. This weighting of representation balanced the hanan and hurin divisions of the empire, both within Cusco and within the Quarters (hanan suyukuna and hurin suyukuna).[51]

While provincial bureaucracy and government varied greatly, the basic organization was decimal. Taxpayers – male heads of household of a certain age range – were organized into corvée labor units (often doubling as military units) that formed the state's muscle as part of mit'a service. Each unit of more than 100 tax-payers were headed by a kuraka, while smaller units were headed by a kamayuq, a lower, non-hereditary status. However, while kuraka status was hereditary and typically served for life, the position of a kuraka in the hierarchy was subject to change based on the privileges of superiors in the hierarchy; a pachaka kuraka could be appointed to the position by a waranqa kuraka. Furthermore, one kuraka in each decimal level could serve as the head of one of the nine groups at a lower level, so that a pachaka kuraka might also be a waranqa kuraka, in effect directly responsible for one unit of 100 tax-payers and less directly responsible for nine other such units.[52][53][54]

Kuraka in Charge[55][56] Number of Taxpayers
Hunu kuraka 10,000
Pichkawaranqa kuraka 5,000
Waranqa kuraka 1,000
Pichkapachaka kuraka 500
Pachaka kuraka 100
Pichkachunka kamayuq 50
Chunka kamayuq 10

Arts and technology

Monumental architecture

We can assure your majesty that it is so beautiful and has such fine buildings that it would even be remarkable in Spain.

Francisco Pizarro

Architecture was the most important of the Incan arts, with textiles reflecting architectural motifs. The most notable example is Machu Picchu, which was constructed by Inca engineers. The prime Inca structures were made of stone blocks that fit together so well that a knife could not be fitted through the stonework. These constructs have survived for centuries, with no use of mortar to sustain them.

This process was first used on a large scale by the Pucara (ca. 300 BC–AD 300) peoples to the south in Lake Titicaca and later in the city of Tiwanaku (ca. AD 400–1100) in present-day Bolivia. The rocks were sculpted to fit together exactly by repeatedly lowering a rock onto another and carving away any sections on the lower rock where the dust was compressed. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable, despite the ongoing challenge of earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Measures, calendrics and mathematics

Inca tunic
Tokapu. Textiles worn by the Inca elite consisting of geometric figures enclosed by rectangles or squares. There is evidence that the designs were an ideographic language[citation needed]
Quipu, 15th century. Brooklyn Museum

Physical measures used by the Inca were based on human body parts. Units included fingers, the distance from thumb to forefinger, palms, cubits and wingspans. The most basic distance unit was thatkiy or thatki, or one pace. The next largest unit was reported by Cobo to be the topo or tupu, measuring 6,000 thatkiys, or about 7.7 km (4.8 mi); careful study has shown that a range of 4.0 to 6.3 km (2.5 to 3.9 mi) is likely. Next was the wamani, composed of 30 topos (roughly 232 km or 144 mi). To measure area, 25 by 50 wingspans were used, reckoned in topos (roughly 3,280 km2 or 1,270 sq mi). It seems likely that distance was often interpreted as one day's walk; the distance between tambo way-stations varies widely in terms of distance, but in far less in terms of time to walk that distance.[57][58]

Inca calendars were strongly tied to astronomy. Inca astronomers understood equinoxes, solstices and zenith passages, along with the Venus cycle. They could not, however, predict eclipses. The Inca calendar was essentially lunisolar, as two calendars were maintained in parallel, one solar and one lunar. As 12 lunar months fall 11 days short of a full 365-day solar year, those in charge of the calendar had to adjust every winter solstice. Each lunar month was marked with festivals and rituals.[59] Apparently, the days of the week were not named and days were not grouped into weeks. Similarly, months were not grouped into seasons. Time during a day was not measured in hours or minutes, but in terms of how far the sun had travelled or in how long it takes to perform a task.[60]

The sophistication of Inca administration, calendrics and engineering required facility with numbers. Numerical information was stored in the knots of quipu strings, allowing for compact storage of large numbers.[61][62] These numbers were stored in base-10 digits, the same base used by the Quechua language[63] and in administrative and military units.[53] These numbers, stored in quipu, could be calculated on yupanas, grids with squares of positionally varying mathematical values, perhaps functioning as an abacus.[64] Calculation was facilitated by moving piles of tokens, seeds or pebbles between compartments of the yupana. It is likely that Inca mathematics at least allowed division of integers into integers or fractions and multiplication of integers and fractions.[65]

According to mid-17th-century Jesuit chronicler Bernabé Cobo,[66] the Inca designated officials to perform accounting-related tasks. These officials were called quipo camayos. Study of khipu sample VA 42527 (Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin)[67] revealed that the numbers arranged in calendrically significant patterns were used for agricultural purposes in the "farm account books" kept by the khipukamayuq (accountant or warehouse keeper) to facilitate the closing of accounting books.[68]

Ceramics, precious metals and textiles

Camelid Conopa, 1470–1532, Brooklyn Museum, Small stone figurines, or conopas, of llamas and alpacas were the most common ritual effigies used in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia. These devotional objects were often buried in the animals' corrals to bring protection and prosperity to their owners and fertility to the herds. The cylindrical cavities in their backs were filled with offerings to the gods in the form of a mixture including animal fat, coca leaves, maize kernels and seashells.

Ceramics were painted using the polychrome technique portraying numerous motifs including animals, birds, waves, felines (popular in the Chavin culture) and geometric patterns found in the Nazca style of ceramics. In a culture without a written language, ceramics portrayed the basic scenes of everyday life, including the smelting of metals, relationships and scenes of tribal warfare. The most distinctive Inca ceramic objects are the Cusco bottles or "aryballos".[69] Many of these pieces are on display in Lima in the Larco Archaeological Museum and the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History.

Almost all of the gold and silver work of the Incan empire was melted down by the conquistadors.

Communication and medicine

The Inca recorded information on assemblages of knotted strings, known as Quipu, although they can no longer be decoded. Originally it was thought that Quipu were used only as mnemonic devices or to record numerical data. Quipus are also believed to record history and literature.[70]

The Inca made many discoveries in medicine.[citation needed] They performed successful skull surgery, by cutting holes in the skull to alleviate fluid buildup and inflammation caused by head wounds. Many skull surgeries performed by Inca surgeons were successful. Survival rates were 80–90%, compared to about 30% before Inca times.[71]


Coca leaves

The Incas revered the coca plant as sacred/magical. Its leaves were used in moderate amounts to lessen hunger and pain during work, but were mostly used for religious and health purposes.[72] The Spaniards took advantage of the effects of chewing coca leaves.[72] The Chasqui, messengers who ran throughout the empire to deliver messages, chewed coca leaves for extra energy. Coca leaves were also used as an anaesthetic during surgeries.

Weapons, armor and warfare

The Battle of the Maule between the Incas (right) and the Mapuches (left)

The Inca army was the most powerful at that time, because they could turn an ordinary villager or farmer into a soldier. Every male Inca had to take part in war at least once to prepare for warfare again when needed. By the time the empire reached its largest size, every section of the empire contributed in setting up an army for war.

The Incas had no iron or steel and their weapons were not much better than those of their opponents. They went into battle with drums beating and trumpets blowing. Their armor included:[citation needed]

  • Helmets made of wood, copper, bronze, cane, or animal skin; some were adorned with feathers
  • Round or square shields made from wood or hide
  • Cloth tunics padded with cotton and small wooden planks to protect the spine.

The Inca weaponry included:

  • Bronze or bone-tipped spears
  • Two-handed wooden swords with serrated edges
  • Clubs with stone and spiked metal heads
  • Woolen slings and stones
  • Stone or copper headed battle-axes
  • Bolas (stones fastened to lengths of cord)

Roads allowed quick movement (on foot) for the Inca army and shelters called tambo were built one day's distance in travelling from each other, so that an army on campaign could always be fed and rested. This can be seen in names of ruins such as Ollantay Tambo, or My Lord's Storehouse. These were set up so the Inca and his entourage would always have supplies (and possibly shelter) ready as they traveled.


Banner of the Incas

Chronicles and references from the 16th and 17th centuries support the idea of a banner. However, it represented the Inca (emperor), not the empire.

Francisco López de Jerez[73] wrote in 1534:

... todos venían repartidos en sus escuadras con sus banderas y capitanes que los mandan, con tanto concierto como turcos.
(... all of them came distributed into squads, with their flags and captains commanding them, as well-ordered as Turks.)

Chronicler Bernabé Cobo wrote:

The royal standard or banner was a small square flag, ten or twelve spans around, made of cotton or wool cloth, placed on the end of a long staff, stretched and stiff such that it did not wave in the air and on it each king painted his arms and emblems, for each one chose different ones, though the sign of the Incas was the rainbow and two parallel snakes along the width with the tassel as a crown, which each king used to add for a badge or blazon those preferred, like a lion, an eagle and other figures.
(... el guión o estandarte real era una banderilla cuadrada y pequeña, de diez o doce palmos de ruedo, hecha de lienzo de algodón o de lana, iba puesta en el remate de una asta larga, tendida y tiesa, sin que ondease al aire, y en ella pintaba cada rey sus armas y divisas, porque cada uno las escogía diferentes, aunque las generales de los Incas eran el arco celeste y dos culebras tendidas a lo largo paralelas con la borda que le servía de corona, a las cuales solía añadir por divisa y blasón cada rey las que le parecía, como un león, un águila y otras figuras.)
-Bernabé Cobo, Historia del Nuevo Mundo (1653)

Guaman Poma's 1615 book, El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno, shows numerous line drawings of Inca flags.[74] In his 1847 book A History of the Conquest of Peru, "William H. Prescott ... says that in the Inca army each company had its particular banner and that the imperial standard, high above all, displayed the glittering device of the rainbow, the armorial ensign of the Incas."[75] A 1917 world flags book says the Inca "heir-apparent ... was entitled to display the royal standard of the rainbow in his military campaigns."[76]

In modern times the rainbow flag has been wrongly associated with the Tawantinsuyu and displayed as a symbol of Inca heritage by some groups in Peru and Bolivia. The city of Cusco also flies the Rainbow Flag, but as an official flag of the city. The Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo (2001–2006) flew the Rainbow Flag in Lima's presidential palace. However, according to Peruvian historiography, the Inca Empire never had a flag. Peruvian historian María Rostworowski said, "I bet my life, the Inca never had that flag, it never existed, no chronicler mentioned it".[77] Also, to the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, the flag dates to the first decades of the 20th century,[78] and even the Congress of the Republic of Peru has determined that flag is a fake by citing the conclusion of National Academy of Peruvian History:

"The official use of the wrongly called 'Tawantinsuyu flag' is a mistake. In the Pre-Hispanic Andean World there did not exist the concept of a flag, it did not belong to their historic context".[78]
National Academy of Peruvian History


Sacsayhuamán, the Inca stronghold of Cusco

Andean civilization probably began c. 7600 BCE. Based in the highlands of Peru, an area now called the punas, the ancestors of the Incas probably began as a nomadic herding people. Adaptation to the altitude led to distinctive physical developments. Short and stocky, men averaged 1.57 m (5'2") and women 1.45 m (4'9"). Compared to other humans, the Incas had slower heart rates, almost one-third larger lung capacity, about 2 L (4 pints) more blood volume and double the amount of hemoglobin, which transfers oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. While the Conquistadors may have been slightly taller, the Inca had the advantage of coping with the extraordinary altitude.

Permanent habitations have been found as high as 5,300 m (17,400 ft) above sea level in the temperate zone of the high altiplanos. In the Lake Titikaka region, Tiwanaku is recognized by Andean scholars as one of the most important precursors to the Inca Empire, flourishing as the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power for approximately 500 years. Previous cultures left no written record, but their architecture, ceramics and state government were inherited by the Inca.

See also

Important Incan archeological sites

Historical states
in present-day




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External links