The Inca Empire

The Incas were a civilisation which flourished from the 12th century until their conquest by the Spanish in 1533 in modern-day Peru and spreading to surrounding countries. With a centre in Cuzco in the Peruvian highlands, the Incas expanded into the largest pre-Columbian kingdom in the Americas, spreading across a diverse selection of climates such as the highlands of the Andes, plateaus and jungles. Famous for their advanced technology, opulent and magnificent art and impressive architecture, the Incas were nonetheless undermined by their lack of military technology and resistance to European diseases.


According to Inca beliefs, in the beginning, Viracocha came out of the Pacific Ocean and created the Sun and all ethnicities of people, who were buried in the Earth to emerge later. The Incas specifically were spawned first as Manco Capac and his sister (and wife) Mama Oqllu, followed by three more sibling pairs. In one legend, these were spawned as children of Viracocha, in another as children of the Sun god, Inti. In either case, the Incas saw themselves as special, the chosen representatives of either deity on Earth and hence destined to rule. The different legends could be explained by the fact that commoners could not utter the name of Viracocha.

There are also different legends about where the first Incas spawned. The earliest says they spawned from a cave at Tampu T’oqo or ‘The House of Windows’, which was located at Pacariqtambo, south of Cuzco. However, in another the Incas emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca onto the shore at Tiwanaku. This was a large but abandoned earlier Andean settlement in Bolivia, thought by the Incas to have been built by giants but who were later destroyed in a flood sent by Viracocha. This later myth may have been a way to link the Incas to the mysterious city and to bring the powerful local Aymara tribes under their control.

The siblings then set off with a golden staff, having been instructed to build a temple of the Sun where it sank into the ground. On the way, Manco Capac’s brothers die, in most stories killed by Maco Capac, before they reach Cuzco and here set up their capital.

Before the Incas

The Incas were only the latest in a series of Andean civilisations. Cuzco seems from archaeology to have been settled since possibly 4500 BC but was not important until the rise of the Incas in the 12th century. Before this, there were two major civilisations, that of Tiwanaku (300-c.1000 AD) and the Wari (600-c.1100AD), with Cuzco located quite centrally between the two. The Moche civilisation preceded even these two.

One of the reasons for the Incas’ success is thought to have been the pre-existing infrastructures and practices of these previous civilisations. Roads, hydraulic systems, and the agriculture of these civilisations were already in practice and were used by the Incas. As were their administrative practices, which involved creating several colonies and then integrating foreign settlements in between by keeping the local ruling systems but including them under their own administration. Non-reciprocal labour was also demanded as a form of tribute which explains how the colossal site of Tiwanaku could be created. The Incas both adopted the process of this labour tribute, and were inspired by the achievements of these former civilisations.


Sacsayhuaman Inca Ruins, Cusco

Sacsayhuaman Inca Ruins, Cusco, Pilot Productions

Cuzco was originally inhabited by the Killke people from 900-1200 AD who established the Sacsayhuaman, a fortress on the edge of Cuzco.

The Incas then incorporated this into the wider city of Cuzco, mostly under the reign of the Pachacuti, supposedly laid out in the shape of a puma, although some scholars believe this to be metaphorical. The Saksaywaman, with its own temple, road and aqueduct system, made up the head of the puma, and the imperial metropolis of Pumachupan made up the tail.

At its peak, the city may have had a population of 150,000. It was split into two main plazas, supposedly between the fore and hind legs, from each of which sprung two highways, extending to the four imperial quarters of the empire, called suyus. The wealth of the city was famous: it was dominated by the Coricancha complex (Temple of the Sun). The greatest temples were built to Inti, covered in 700 2kg sheets of gold, and to Mama Kilya, covered similarly in silver. There were also vast systems of parks, canals, irrigation, temples and fountains but most is now lost and remains only in the account of the Spanish and other European eye-witnesses.


Pachacuti is often credited as the first great ruler of the Incas, reorganising the small city kingdom into an empire. Pachacuti was the second-born son but earnt his succession to the throne when in 1438 he defended Cuzco from an army of the invading Chanka tribe, supposedly 40,000 strong, whilst his father and elder brother fled. Upon succeeding to the throne, Pachacuti continued the war against the Chanka, defeating them and the Collao.

The son of the king traditionally led the army, and Pachacuti appointed his son, Thupa Inca Yupanqui, as head of the army in 1463, who succeeded his father as king in 1471. He is credited with having expanded the empire by a massive 4,000 km (2,500 miles). His greatest victory was against the Chimor on the North-West Coast of modern Peru, the last remaining rivals to the Incas, but he also expanded south into modern Chile and Argentina. Succession proved a great issue, as Thupa died with 2 legitimate sons and 90 illegitimate children. He initially favoured the son of one wife, but then decided on his other son, who would become emperor Huayna Capac. This caused the first wife to poison him, resulting in her and her son’s death after Huayna’s accession.

Civil War

Huayana ruled over the peak of the Inca Empire, expanding further south into Chile and Argentina, and north into Ecuador and Colombia, most importantly absorbing Quito in Ecuador by marriage to its queen. But the symptoms of the Incas’ fall began to become apparent: Huayana died in c.1524, many suspect from a European disease, spreading from the first Spanish Conquistadors in Central America, against which the Incas had no immune defence and so died in their thousands.

Succession also proved an issue as Huayana split his empire in two between his two sons: the North and Quito to Atahualpa and the South and Cuzco to Húascar. Peace lasted for 5 years despite rivalry before Húascar gained the favour of the Canari tribe, a powerful group in the Northern Empire who resented Atahualpa. Civil war ensued in 1529 in which Atahualpa was initially defeated and captured, losing an ear in captivity, before escaping. Bitter war continued with several cities razed to the ground and many leading Incas tortured and executed. But Atahualpa’s favour with his father’s generals turned the tide, as he gradually pushed south and captured Cuzco. However, Atahualpa stayed behind the front line and consulted the oracle of the Huaca Catequil, who prophesied that Atahualpa’s advance would end poorly. And just at this moment, the Spanish began their encroachment into Inca territory.

Spanish Invasion and Collapse

Francesco Pizarro had obtained permission from King Charles I and Queen Isabel of Spain to launch a conquest of what was known as Peru and marched into Incan territory in 1532 with a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry. Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizarro near Cajamarco in what is now the Inca baths. Atahualpa refused to become a Christian and tributary of Spain, not fearing the small Spanish force having brought 6,000 of his 80,000 strong army. However, Pizarro had planned an ambush hiding cavalry, musketeers and artillery in nearby buildings, technology the Incas had never faced and had no defence against. Pizarro launched and succeeded in his ambush, capturing Atahualpa. Atahualpa offered to fill the room he was imprisoned in with gold and twice that amount of silver, which he duly did, treasures being shipped from throughout the empire. However, Pizarro broke his word, eventually executing Atahualpa for treason against Spain and the assassination of his brother.

Inca baths, Cajamarca, Pilot Productions

Inca baths, Cajamarca, Pilot Productions

In the meantime, the war continued. Most of the Incan forces and the best generals were to the south near Cuzco, finishing the Civil War – a grave disadvantage. The Spanish armour and weapons were also a great advantage but defeat for the Incas was not inevitable. Pizarro could not be reinforced due to rebellion in Mexico and what was the Aztec Empire. He was forced to ally himself to local tribes, such as the Wanka tribe, who resented Inca rule. The Incas also failed to use guerrilla warfare as the Mapuche in the Amazon would successfully hold off the Spanish with. Finally, European diseases, such as smallpox and typhus, wiped out thousands of the native South Americans, spelling their downfall.

The Last Incas

In 1533, Atahualpa’s brother Manco Inca Yupanqui was installed as king and for a time cooperated with the Spanish before retaking Cuzco. He resisted four counter-attacks and killed 500 Spanish before being forced out of the city. He retreated to the remote mountain jungles of Vilcabamba and set up the ‘Neo-Inca’ state.

Here the Incas adopted some Spanish weaponry and tactics, especially crossbows and cavalry. The new state lasted for 36 years before an incident on the border caused the death of two Spanish ambassadors, triggering the final Spanish invasion in 1572. Despite spirited resistance, the Incas could not break the siege and abandoned their final cities, retreating to the jungle.

The final king, Tupac Amaru, was found and executed. The remaining Incas were forced into labour for the Spanish, with one male from each family being forced to mine precious metals. Such men usually died after a year or two, and another male was expected to replace them. Moreover, disease outbreaks such as typhus in 1546, smallpox in 1558-9, diptheria in 1614 and measles in 1618 killed many.


The Inca empire was known as the Tahuantinsuyu, which consisted of an administrative centre of Cuzco, with four highways leading to four provincial suyus: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Kuntisuyu (SW) and Qullasuyu (SE).

The Inca king (Sapa Inca) was the centre of the Empire. Supposedly he drank from gold and silver cups, wore silver shoes, and living in a palace furnished with the finest textiles. The Incas also mummified their rulers and stored them in the Coricancha temple in Cuzco. These were sometimes brought outside, especially in November, ‘the month of the dead’, wearing their finest regalia. They were given offerings of their favourite food and drink, and ‘consulted’ for their opinion on pressing state affairs.

The Incas had no laws but three moral principles: Ama sua: Do not steal; Ama llulla: Do not lie; Ama quella: Do not be lazy. The Incas achieved great success by not conquering local tribes but indoctrinating them and allowing their local elites to continue ruling. However, the families of these elites were often held as hostages and the most important roles were reserved for Incas. Colonies were also dotted through the empire to ensure Inca control and garrisons throughout. The Incas used no currency, so tribute existed either in the form of labour or in the mode of goods such as textiles and luxury items.


Quecha was the official language of the Incan Empire. It was not only an Incan language but existed before in many areas and was indoctrinated in all conquered territories. Special privileges were given to those who could speak the language. However, regional dialects were maintained and some areas maintained their own language such as Aymara, still spoken in Bolivia. Quecha is in fact still spoken by over 8 million people.


At its peak the Incan empire contained nearly 12 million people. Most were farmers and existed in agricultural communities but the Spanish were greatly impressed by the Incan cities. Eyewitnesses described that they were as large as European cities but generally more pleasant to live in, for the road and water systems were superior in South America to Europe.

The Incas divided their lives up into various stages. Until 3, children were known as wawa, a near void description given the common infant mortality rate. At 3, a ceremony occurred where a child was welcomed into life; the whole family would be invited and given a lock of the child’s hair before it was shaved. The child was now warma, a stage of ignorance, before reaching 14 and the first stage of puberty and gender realisation.

The Incas had strong but equal gender roles. Boys’ coming-of-age ceremonies included dancing, fasting, and tasks to display strength. Girls’ main ceremony was the onset of menstruation, upon which they would go into the forest until the bleeding stopped. Both would then be given new clothes and taught how to live as a man or woman. A ‘folly’ stage then occurred, allowing sex without being a parent, before marriage and full maturity. Old age was described as a decline, particularly the final phase of Ruku, or decrepitude from the age of 90.

The Incas were uniquely adapted to high altitude: slower heart rate, high lung volume, and larger haemoglobin amounts to transfer oxygen. Incan nobility also adopted the practice of wrapping the heads of new-born in tight fabric to mould their heads into conical shapes, designed to set them apart as nobility.


Religion was of great importance to the Incas and strongly linked with the movement of the constellations as seen from Cuzco, thought to be the centre of the world. These were normally observed in special sanctuaries, huacas, positioned in spectacular places. The most important deities were Inti, the sun god, and Viracocha, the creator god. On Lake Titicaca there was an island temple devoted to Inti. But the Incan pantheon was vast, and adopted many foreign deities as their own, as well as allowing the worship of local religions in conquered territories. One such example was the scared city of Pachacamac, named after a god of the same name, with a wooden statue considered to be an oracle, which attracted many visitors.

The Incas believed in reincarnation in another world and so the worship of ancestors was of great importance. It was important that no body was burnt, as this would destroy their vital force. The ancient sites of previous civilisations, particularly Tiwanaku, were head in special reverence. Mummies were also frequently displayed and ‘fed’, either with food or libations of chicha beer, as part of ancestor worship. The most gruesome form of worship was sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice. 4,000 servants and officials were supposedly sacrificed upon the death of Huayna Capac in 1527. In 1999, archaeologists in Argentina even found the remains of three sacrificed children in a huaca on a volcano, specially fed maize and dried llama meat and drugged with coca leaves and alcohol.

Science and Technology

The Incas were an advanced civilisation, especially given the lack of a written language. In place of this, they developed the Quipu knot system. A series of differently coloured and lengthed string would hang from a wooden bar, with knots tied at different heights. Sometimes the ropes were interwoven, with larger quipus containing as many as 1500 ropes, suggesting a great complexity of meaning some scholars suggest as an alternative to written text. How to interpret these quipus has sadly been lost and will remain a mystery.

The Inca also made impressive medical discoveries, achieving 80-90% survival rate in skull surgery and using coca leaves as anaesthetic, lessen hunger and give energy.


Inca Weaver in Cumbe Mayo, Cajamarca, Pilot Produtions

Weaver in Cumbe Mayo, Cajamarca, Pilot Produtions

Inca art is most evident in luxury items. Precious metals were beautifully worked to mark their near divine status – gold as sweat of the sun, silver as tears of the moon. However, textiles, especially cumpi, made of alpaca or vicuna wool and cotton, or sometimes more exotic materials such as bat hair or hummingbird down, were the prize items. Designs often used repeated geometric patterns, such as chequer boards, and often special designs designated specific ethnicities to mark out their tributary contributions.



Incan architecture was their most impressive development. Without using any mortar, the Incas were able to build large buildings in extraordinary locations, by incorporating the natural landscape and using stones that were cut to perfectly fit together. One scholar even wrote a razor blade could not be fit between. As a result, many structures still remain despite the frequency of earthquakes in the region, most spectacularly at Machu Picchu, a mountain citadel most commonly thought to have been built as an estate for Pachacuti.

Macchu Picchu, Inca Empire

Macchu Picchu, Pilot Productions

The most common buildings were qollqa, one room warehouses to store potatoes and other foodstuffs. One major cause of Incan success was their ability to store potatoes, freeze-dried in the freezing outdoor night-time conditions and then stored in such qollqa. Most buildings were one room, with the kancha the most normal dwelling: a single room with a thatched roof. Terraces were also developed as a key part of Incan architecture as way of farming in the steep Andes.

But the most vital building of the Incas were roads which spanned across the empire and transported messengers with great speed, as well as llama caravans. Some estimates state the road system consisted of almost 25,000 miles of road – three times the Earth’s diameter.


The Incas were a spectacular and advanced civilisation that dazzled even the Spanish explorers who conquered them. Even with their fall, their influence carries on today in their art, monuments and language which still survive as a key part of Peruvian and South American identity.

More information:

Download: Bazaar – Peru

Read: Horsetrekking the Inca Trail

Read: The Andes Before The Incas

By Wilfred Sandwell