The Inca

The Inca People

The Inca Empire was the largest of the pre-Columbian mesoamerican empires.

Learning Objectives

Explain Inca agriculture, clothing, commodities, and architecture, and how these elements shaped their complex society.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Centered in Cusco, the Inca Empire extended from modern-day Chile to modern-day Colombia.
  • Inca society was sophisticated, and boasted around seventy different crops across the empire's various climates.
  • The Inca considered finely woven textiles to be an essential commodity, and  spun various grades of cloth from llama and vicuña wool.

Key Terms

  • quinoa: This grain crop produces edible seeds that are high in protein and played an essential role in the Inca diet.
  • awaska: A lower-grade textile woven from llama wool and used for everyday household chores and cleaning.
  • Machu Picchu: This Inca citadel was probably built for the emperor Pachacutec around 1450 CE in the Andes at a height of around 8,000 feet above sea level using dry stone masonry.

The Inca Empire, or Inka Empire, was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. The civilization emerged in the 13th century and lasted until it was conquered by the Spanish in 1572. The administrative, political, and military center of the empire was located in Cusco (also spelled Cuzco) in modern-day Peru. From 1438 to 1533, the Incas used a variety of methods, from conquest to peaceful assimilation, to incorporate a large portion of western South America. Beginning with the rule of Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui, the Inca expanded their borders to include large parts of modern Ecuador, Peru, western and south-central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and north-central Chile, and southern Colombia. This vast territory was known in Quechua (the language of the Inca Empire) as Tawantin Suyu, or the Four Regions, which met in the capital of Cusco.

image Inca Empire: From 1438 to 1533, the Inca Empire expanded significantly.

Architecture and Masonry

Architecture illustrates the sophistication and technical skill typical of the Inca Empire. The main example of this resilient art form was the capital city of Cusco, which drew together the Four Regions. The Inca used a mortarless construction technique, called dry stone wall, that fit stones together so well that a knife could not be fitted through the stonework. This was a process first used on a large scale by the Pucara (c. 300 BCE–300 CE) peoples to the south in Lake Titicaca, and later in the great city of Tiwanaku (c. 400–1100 CE) in present-day Bolivia. The rocks used in construction were sculpted to fit together exactly by repeatedly lowering one rock onto another and carving away any sections on the lower rock where there was compression or the pieces did not fit exactly. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable.

Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire. It is a rare example of this architectural building technique and remains in remarkable condition after many centuries. The construction of Machu Picchu appears to date from the period of the two great Inca emperors, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–1471) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–1493), and was probably built as a temple for the emperor Pachacutec. Machu Picchu was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest, possibly related to smallpox.

image Machu Picchu: This impressive mountain-top temple was built around 1450 CE using dry stone wall.

Textiles, Ceramics, and Metalwork

Textiles were one of the most precious commodities of the Inca culture and denoted a person's social status, and often their profession. The brightly colored patterns on a wool tunic represented various positions and achievements. For example, a black-and-white checkerboard pattern topped with a pink triangle denoted a soldier. Because textiles were so specific to a person's class and employment, citizens could not change their wardrobe without the express permission of the government. Textiles were also manufactured that could only be used for certain tasks or social arenas. A rougher textile, spun from llama wool and called awaska, was used for everyday household chores. On the other hand, a fine-spun, very soft cloth made from vicuña wool could only be used in religious ceremonies.

image Inca tunic: The complex patterns woven into most Inca textiles and made into tunics, like this one, denoted a person's position in society. 

Although textiles were considered the most precious commodity in Inca culture, Incas also considered ceramics and metalwork essential commodities of the economy and class system. Incan pottery was distinctive and normally had a spherical body with a cone-shaped base. The pottery would also include curved handles and often featured animal heads, such as jaguars or birds. These ceramics were painted in bright colors, such as orange, red, black, and yellow.

The Inca also required every province to mine for precious metals like tin, silver, gold, and copper. The intricate metalwork of the Inca was heavily influenced by the Chimú culture, which was conquered and absorbed into the Inca culture around 1470. This metalwork included detailed friezes and patterns inlaid into the metal. Fine silver and gold were made into intricate decorative pieces for the emperors and elites based on these Chimú metallurgy traditions, and often included animal motifs with butterflies, jaguars, and llamas etched into the metal. Skilled metallurgists also transformed bronze and copper into farming implements, blades, axes, and pins for everyday activities.

Agriculture and Diet

The Inca culture boasted a wide variety of crops, numbering around seventy different strains in total, making it one of the most diverse crop cultures in the world. Some of these flavorful vegetables and grains included:

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Maize
  • Chili peppers
  • Cotton
  • Tomatoes
  • Peanuts
  • Oca
  • Quinoa
  • Amaranth

image Terraced farmland in Peru: Terraces allowed Inca farmers to utilize the mountainous terrain and grow around seventy different crops.

These crops were grown in the high-altitude Andes by building terraced farms that allowed farmers to utilize the mineral-rich mountain soil. The quick change in altitude on these mountain farms also utilized the micro-climates of each terrace to grow a wider range of crops. The Inca also produced bounties in the Amazon rainforest and along the more arid coastline of modern-day Peru.

Alongside vegetables, the Inca supplemented their diet with fish, guinea pigs, camelid meat, and wild fowl. They also fermented maize, or corn, to create the alcoholic beverage chicha.

Administration of the Inca Empire

The Inca Empire utilized complex road systems, recording tools, and a hierarchical rule of law to oversee the administration of its vast population.

Learning Objectives

Understand the importance of the governing bodies, road system, recording tools, and social hierarchy of the Inca Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Inca Empire utilized a complex road system with about 25,000 miles of roads that relayed messages and goods throughout the society.
  • Inca administrators used brightly colored knotted strings called quipus to keep precise records of labor, taxes, and goods.
  • The Inca had no written legal code, but relied on magistrates and inspectors to keep people in line with established social customs.

Key Terms

  • quipus: Brightly colored knotted strings that recorded numerical information, such as taxes, goods, and labor, using the base number of 10 to record data in knots.
  • ayllu: A clan-like family unit based upon a common ancestor.
  • suyus: Distinct districts of the Inca Empire that all reported back to the capital of Cusco. There were four major districts during the height of the empire.


The Inca Empire was a hierarchical system with the emperor, or Inca Sapa, ruling over the rest of society. A number of religious officials and magistrates oversaw the administration of the empire directly below the emperor. Kurakas were magistrates that served as the head of an ayllu, or clan-like family unit based on a common ancestor. These leaders mitigated between the spiritual and physical worlds. They also collected taxes, oversaw the day-to-day administration of the empire in their regions, and even chose brides for men in their communities. Some of the privileges kurakas enjoyed included exemption from taxation, the right to ride in a litter, and the freedom to practice polygamy.

Society was broken into two distinct parts. One segment was comprised of the common people, including those cultures that had been subsumed by the Inca Empire. The second group was made up of the elite of the empire, including the emperor and the kurakas, along with various other dignitaries and blood relations. Education was vocationally based for commoners, while the elite received a formal spiritual education.

There was no codified legal system for people that broke with the cultural and social norms. Local inspectors called okoyrikoq, or “he who sees all," reported back to the capital and the emperor and made immediate decisions regarding punishment in cases where customs were not honored. Many times these local inspectors were blood relatives of the emperor.

Road System

The Inca civilization was able to keep populations in line, collect taxes efficiently, and move goods, messages, and military resources across such a varied landscape because of the complex road system. Measuring about 24,800 miles long, this road system connected the the regions of the empire and was the most complex and lengthy road system in South America at the time. Two main routes connected the north and the south of the empire, with many smaller branches extending to outposts to the east and west. The roads varied in width and style because often the Inca leaders utilized roads that

already existed to create this powerful network. Common people could not use these official roads unless they were given permission by the government.

These roads were used for relaying messages by way of chasqui, or human runners, who could run up to 150 miles a day with messages for officials. Llamas and alpacas were also used to distribute goods throughout the empire and ease trade relations. The roads also had a ritual purpose because they allowed the highest leaders of the Inca Empire to ascend into the Andes to perform religious rituals in sacred spaces, such as Machu Picchu.

image Chasqui carrying a quipu on official state business: Chasquis were highly agile long-distance runners who used the complex road systems to relay messages and goods between cities.

Record Keeping

TheInca utilized a complex recording system to keep track of the administration of the empire. Quipus (also spelled khipus) were colorful bunches of knotted strings that recorded census data, taxes, calendrical information, military organization, and accounting information. These “talking knots” could contain anything from a few threads to around 2,000, and used the base number of 10 to record information in complex variations of knots and spaces.

image Inca quipu: These complex recording devices allowed officials to keep track of taxes, labor, and goods in a precise fashion.

The Spanish burned the vast majority of existing quipus when they arrived in South America. However, there is some evidence to suggest that these tools were also used to record stories and language for posterity, and were not only numerical recording devices.


and Economics

Trade and the movement of goods fed into what is called the vertical archipelago. This system meant that all goods produced within the empire were immediately property of the ruling elites. These elites, such as the emperor and governors, then redistributed resources across the empire as they saw fit.

Taxes and goods were collected from four distinct suyus, or districts, and sent directly to the ruling emperor in Cusco. This highly organized system was most likely perfected under the emperor Pachacuti around 1460.

image The Four suyus of the Inca Empire: The economic system linked together four large suyus, or districts, that all reported back to the capital of Cusco. 

This system also required a minimum quota of manual labor from the general population. This form of labor taxation was called mita. The

populations of each district were expected to contribute to the wealth of the empire by mining, farming, or doing other manual labor that would benefit the entire empire. Precious metals, textiles, and crops were collected and redistributed using the the road system that snaked across the land, from the ocean to the Andes.

Religion in the Inca Empire

The Inca Empire worshipped the Sun god Inti, and expanded its hold on outlying areas by incorporating other deities into the religious system.

Learning Objectives

Learn about the forms of worship of the Sun god Inti, the religious hierarchy, and the cultural assimilation of outlying clans in the Inca Empire

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Inca rulers worshipped the Sun god Inti and built the central temple, Qurikancha, in Cusco.
  • The Inca elite incorporated the varied populations into the empire by allowing the worship of other deities.
  • Various festivals celebrated the different aspects of the Sun. The most important of these festivals was Inti Raymi, which focused on abundance.

Key Terms

  • Pachamama: The Earth goddess worshipped by many clans in outlying areas of the Inca Empire. Inca rulers enforced a religious system that favored Inti, but they incorporated the Earth goddess as a lesser deity.
  • Inti: The central Sun god the Inca worshipped. He represented abundance, harvests, and fertility, and was considered more important than any other deity worshipped in the region.
  • Inti Raymi: The most important religious festival of the Inca year. It means "Sun Festival" and occurred close to the winter solstice, which happens in June in South America.

The Inca religious system utilized oral traditions to pass down the mythology of their Sun god, Inti. This benevolent male deity was often represented as a gold disk with large rays and a human face. Golden disks were commonly displayed at temples across the Inca Empire and were also associated with the ruling emperor, who was supposed to be a direct descendent of Inti, and divinely powerful. Inti was also associated with the growth of crops and material abundance, especially in the high Andes, where the Inca centered their power.

Some myths state that this benevolent entity, along with Mama Killa, the Moon goddess, had children. Inti ordered these children, named Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, to descend from the sky and onto Earth with a divine golden wedge. This wedge penetrated the earth, and they built the capital of Cusco and civilization on that very spot.

Inti Worship

Royalty were considered to be direct descendants of Inti and, therefore, able to act as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual realms. The

high priest of Inti was called the Willaq Umu. He was often the brother or a direct blood relation of the Sapa Inca, or emperor, and was the second most powerful person in the empire. The royal family oversaw the collection of goods, spiritual festivals, and the worship of Inti. Power consolidated around the cult of the Sun, and scholars suggest that the emperor Pachacuti expanded this Sun cult to garner greater power in the 15th century.

image An illustrated representation of the Sun god Inti: This image of Inti appears at the center of Argentina's modern-day flag.

Conquered provinces were expected to dedicate a third of their resources, such as herds and crops, directly to the worship of Inti. Each province also had a temple with male and female priests worshipping the Inti cult. Becoming a priest was considered one of the most honorable positions in society. Female priests were called mamakuna, or “the chosen women,” and they wove special cloth and brewed chicha for religious festivals.

The main temple in the Inca Empire, called Qurikancha, was built in Cusco. The temple housed the bodies of deceased emperors and also contained a vast array of physical representations of Inti, many of which were removed or destroyed when the Spanish arrived. Qurikancha was also the main site of the religious festival Inti Raymi, which means “Sun Festival.” It was considered the most important festival of the year, and is still celebrated on the winter solstice in Cusco. It represents the mythical origin of the Inca and the hope for good crops in the coming year as the winter sun returns from darkness.

image The festival of Inti Raymi: This festival is celebrated in late June in the capital of Cusco every year. Thousands of visitors arrive to see the procession and rituals.

Religious Expansion

Religious life was centered in the Andes near Cusco, but as the Inca Empire expanded its sphere of influence, they had to incorporate a wide array of

religious customs and traditions to avoid outright revolt. Ayllus, or family clans, often worshipped very localized entities and gods. The ruling Inca often incorporated these deities into the Inti cosmos. For example, Pachamama, the Earth goddess, was a long-worshipped deity before the Inca Empire. She was incorporated into Inca culture as a lower divine entity. Similarly, the Chimú along the northern coast of Peru worshipped the Moon, rather than the Sun, probably due to the hot, arid climate and their proximity to the ocean. The Inca also incorporated the Moon into their religious myths and practices in the form of Mama Killa.

Sacrifice and the Afterlife

The Inca believed in reincarnation. 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 dark road. The trip required the assistance of a black dog that was able to see in the dark. Most Incas imagined the after world to be very similar to the Euro-American notion of heaven, with flower-covered fields and snow-capped mountains. It was important for the Inca to ensure they did not die as a result of burning or that the body of the deceased did not become incinerated. This is because of the underlying belief that a vital force would disappear and this would threaten their passage to the after world. Those who obeyed the Inca moral code (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."

image Skull showing signs of artificial cranial deformation: Although this skull predates the Inca Empire, and is from the Nazca culture, Inca elites would reshape infants' skulls in a similar manner to illustrate a higher class status.

Human sacrifice has been exaggerated by myth, but it did play a role in Inca religious practices. As many as 4,000 servants, court officials, favorites, and concubines were killed upon the death of the Inca uayna Capac in 1527, for example. The Incas also performed child

sacrifices during or after important events, such as the death of the Sapa Inca or during a famine. These sacrifices were known as capacocha.

The Inca also practiced cranial deformation. They achieved this by wrapping tight cloth straps around the heads of newborns in order to alter the shape of their soft skulls into a more conical form; this cranial deformation distinguished social classes of the communities, with only the nobility having it.

The Spanish Conquest

The Inca Empire already faced instability due to the Inca Civil War, European diseases, and internal revolt when explorer Francisco Pizarro began the conquest of Inca territory.

Learning Objectives

Learn about the contributing factors that allowed the Spanish explorers to overpower the Inca Empire and establish control of the region

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Inca War of Succession began after the emperor Huayna Capac died around 1528 and his two sons both wanted to seize power.
  • Internal instability allowed Francisco Pizarro and his men to find allies within the Inca Empire.
  • Spanish forces ousted the last Inca holdout of Vilcabamba in 1572 and enforced a harsh rule of law on the local population.

Key Terms

  • mita: A form of labor tax that required one person from each family to work in the mines. The Spanish enforced this heavy labor tax once they gained control of the region.
  • Viceroyalty of Peru: The Spanish forces gave the newly seized Inca region this title and started to collect taxes and labor from the local people.
  • Inca Civil War: This internal dispute started around 1528 between two sons of the deceased emperor who both wanted control, causing instability in the Inca Empire.

Spanish Arrival

The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro, along with a small military retinue, landed on South American soil around 1526. The Spanish recognized the wealth and abundance that could be had in this territory; at this point the Inca Empire was at its largest, measuring around 690,000 square miles. In 1528 Pizarro went back to Spain to ask for the official blessing of the Spanish crown to the conquer the area and become governor. He returned with his blessings around 1529 and began the official takeover of the region.

Inca Civil War

Although Pizarro had a small force behind him, many problems within the Inca Empire worked to his  advantage between 1528 and 1533. Foremost

among these was the Inca Civil War, which is also known as the War of Succession or the War of Two Brothers. It began to brew just one year after Pizarro first landed in the region. Around 1528, the ruling Inca emperor, Huayna Capac, and his designated heir, Ninan Cuyochic, died of disease. It was most likely smallpox, which had quickly traveled down to South America after the arrival of Spanish explorers in Central America. Brothers Huascar and Atahualpa, two sons of the emperor Huayna Capac, both wanted to rule after their father's death.

image Inca Emperor Atahualpa: Although Atahualpa successfully won the Inca Civil War and ruled as emperor, he was soon captured by the Spanish and killed in 1533.

Initially, Huascar captured the throne in Cusco, claiming legitimacy. However, Atahualpa had a keen military mind and close relations with the military generals at the time, and proved to be the deadlier force. Between 1529 and 1532 the two brothers' armies waged warfare, with one or the other gaining a stronger foothold for a time. Atahualpa initially garnered favor with northern allies and built a new capital for his forces in Quito. By 1532, Atahualpa had overpowered his brother's forces via intrigue and merciless violence, scaring many local populations away from standing up to his power. This civil war left the population in a precarious position by the time it ended.

Spanish Colonization

Around the same time that Atahualpa seized the throne in 1532, Pizarro returned to Peru with blessings from the Spanish crown. The Spanish forces went to meet with Atahualpa and demanded he take up the “true faith” (Catholicism) and the yoke of Charles I of Spain. Because of the language barrier, the Inca rulers probably did not understand much of these demands, and the meeting quickly escalated to the Battle of Cajamarca. This clash left thousands of native people dead. The Spanish also captured Atahualpa and kept him hostage, demanding ransoms of silver and gold. They also insisted that Atahualpa agree to be baptized. Although the Inca ruler was mostly cooperative in captivity, and was finally baptized, the Spanish killed him on August 29, 1533, essentially ending the potential for larger Inca attacks on Spanish forces.

image An engraved representation of the Battle of Cajamarca: This battle began in 1532, leaving thousands of native people dead and ending with the capture of Atahualpa.

Even though the Inca Civl War made it easier for the Spanish armies to gain control initially, many other contributing factors brought about the demise of Inca rule and the crumbling of local populations. As scholar Jared Diamond points out, the Inca Empire was already facing threats:

  • Local unrest in the provinces after years of paying tribute to the Inca elite created immediate allies for the Spanish against the Inca rulers.
  • Demanding terrain throughout the empire made it even more difficult to keep a handle on populations and goods as the empire expanded.
  • Diseases that the population had never been exposed to, such as smallpox, diphtheria, typhus, measles, and influenza, devastated large swaths of the population within fifty years.
  • Superior Spanish military gear, including armor, horses, and weapons, overpowered the siege warfare more common in the Inca Empire.

The Last Incas

After Atahualpa died and the Spanish seized control, they placed Atahualpa's brother Manco Inca Yupanqui in charge of Cusco as a puppet ruler while they tried to reign in the north. After a failed attempt to recapture the city from greater Spanish rule during this time, Manco retreated to Vilcabamba and built the last stronghold of the Inca. The Inca continued to revolt against totalitarian Spanish rule until the year 1572. In that year the Spanish conquered Vilcabamba and killed the last Inca emperor, Tupac Amaru, after a summary trial.

image An image of the Spanish executing Tupac Amaru: The last Inca ruler, Tupac Amaru, was killed by Spanish forces in 1572, effectively ending any potential for an Inca uprising. 

Spanish Rule

The Spanish named this vast region the Viceroyalty of Peru and set up a Spanish system of rule, which effectively suppressed any type of uprising from local communities.

The Spanish system destroyed many of the Inca traditions and ways of life in a matter of years. Their finely honed agricultural system, which utilized tiered fields in the mountains, was completely disbanded. The Spanish also enforced heavy manual labor taxes, called mita, on the local populations. In general, this meant that every family had to offer up one person to work in the highly dangerous gold and silver mines. If that family member died, which was common, the family had to replace the fallen laborer. The Spanish also enforced heavy taxes on agriculture, metals, and other fine goods. The population continued to suffer heavy losses due to disease as Spanish rule settled into place.

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