World of the Incas

Edited by: Robert Guisepi


Author: Schwartz, Stuart B.

Date: 1992

A History of the Inca

Twantinsuyu: World Of The Incas

Almost at the same time that the Aztecs extended their control over much

of Mesoamerica, a great imperial state was rising in the Andean highlands, and

it eventually held sway over an empire some 3000 miles in extent. The Inca

Empire incorporated many aspects of previous Andean cultures but fused them

together in new ways - and with a genius for state organization and

bureaucratic control over peoples of different cultures and languages, it

achieved a level of integration and domination previously unknown in the


Throughout the Andean cultural hearth, during the period following the

breakup or disintegration of the large "horizon" states of Tihuanaco and Huari

(c. A.D. 550-1000), a number of smaller regional states continued to exercise

some power. Rather than the breakdown of power that took place in postclassic

Mesoamerica, in the Andean zone a number of relatively large states continued

to be important. Some states in the Andean highlands on the broad open areas

near Lake Titicaca, and those states along rivers on the north coast, such as

in the Moche valley, remained centers of agricultural activity and population

density. This time in the ultimate development of the Andean imperial state

was a period of considerable warring between rival local chiefdoms and small

states and in some ways was an Andean parallel to the post-Toltec militaristic

era in Mesoamerica. Of these states the coastal kingdom of Chimor, centered on

its capital of Chan Chan, emerged as the most powerful. Between 900 and its

conquest by the Incas in 1465, it gained control of most of the north coast of


The Inca Rise To Power

While Chimor spread its control over 600 miles of the coast, in the

southern Andean highlands where there were few large urban areas, ethnic

groups and polities struggled over the legacy of Tihuanaco. Among these groups

were a number of related Quechua-speaking clans or ayllus living near Cuzco,

an area that had been under the influence of Huari but had not been

particularly important. Their own legends stated that ten related clans

emerged from caves in the region and were taken to Cuzco by a mythical leader.

Wherever their origins, by about A.D. 1350 they resided in and around Cuzco

and by 1438 they had defeated their hostile neighbors in the area. At this

point under their ruler, or Inca, Pachacuti (1438-1471), they launched a

series of military alliances and campaigns that brought them control of the

whole area from Cuzco to the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Over the next 60 years Inca armies were constantly on the march,

extending control over a vast territory. Pachacuti's son and successor, Topac

Yupanqui (1471-1493) conquered the northern coastal kingdom of Chimor by

seizing its irrigation system, and he extended Inca control into the southern

area of what is now Ecuador. At the other end of the empire, Inca armies

reached the Maule River in Chile against stiff resistance from the Araucanian

Indians. The next ruler, Huayna Capac (1493-1527) consolidated these conquests

and suppressed a number of rebellions on the frontiers. By the time of his

death, the Inca Empire - or as they called it, Twantinsuyu - stretched from

what is now Colombia to Chile and eastward across Lake Titicaca and Bolivia to

northern Argentina. Between nine and 13 million people of different ethnic

backgrounds and languages came under Inca rule, a remarkable feat given the

extent of the empire and the technology available for transportation and


Conquest And Religion

What impelled the Inca conquest and expansion? The usual desire for

economic gain and political power that we have seen in other empires provides

one suitable explanation, but there may be others more in keeping with Inca

culture and ideology. The cult of the ancestors was extremely important in

Inca belief. Deceased rulers were mummified and then treated as intermediaries

with the gods, paraded in public during festivals, offered food and gifts, and

consulted on important matters by special oracles. From the Chimor kingdom the

Incas adopted the practice of royal "split inheritance" in which all the

political power and titles of the ruler went to his successor, but all his

palaces, wealth, land, and possessions remained in the hands of his male

descendants who used them to support the cult of the dead Inca's mummy for

eternity. Each new Inca, then, in order to ensure his own cult and place for

eternity, needed to secure land and wealth, and these normally came as part of

new conquests. In effect, the greater the number of past Inca rulers, the

greater the number of roya courts to support and the greater the demand for

labor, lands, and tribute. This system created a self-perpetuating need for

expansion, tied directly to ancestor worship and the cult of the royal

mummies, as well as tensions between the various royal lineages. In a way, the

cult of the dead weighed increasingly heavily on the living.

Inca political and social life was infused with religious meaning. Like

the Aztecs, the Incas held the sun to be the highest deity and considered the

Inca to be the sun's representative on earth. The magnificent Temple of the

Sun in Cuzco was the center of the state religion, and in its confines the

mummies of the past Incas resided. The cult of the sun was spread throughout

the empire, but the Inca did not prohibit the worship of local gods.

Other deities were also worshiped as part of the state religion.

Viracocha, a creator god, was a favorite of Inca Pachacuti and remained

important. Popular belief was based on a profound animism that endowed many

natural phenomena with spiritual power. Mountains, stones, rivers, caves, or

tombs and temples were considered to be huacas, or holy shrines. At these

places, prayers were offered and sacrifices of animals, goods, and humans were

made. In the Cuzco area imaginary lines running from the Temple of the Sun

organized the huacas into groups for which certain ayllus took responsibility.

The temples were served by many priests and women dedicated to the preparation

of cloth and food for sacrifice. The temple priests were mainly responsible

for the great festivals and celebrations and for divinations upon which state

actions often depended.

The Techniques Of Inca Imperial Rule

The Inca were able to keep control over their vast empire by using of a

number of techniques and practices that assured either cooperation or

subordination. The empire was ruled by the Inca who was considered virtually a

god. He ruled from his court at Cuzco, which was also the site of the major

temple; the high priest was usually a close relative. Twantinsuyu was divided

into four great provinces, each under a governor, and then divided again. The

Incas developed a state bureaucracy in which almost all the nobility played a

role - while some chroniclers spoke of a state organization based on decimal

units of 10,000; 1,000; 100; and smaller numbers of households to mobilize

taxes and labor, recent research reveals that many local practices and

variations were allowed to continue under Inca rule. Local rulers, or curacas,

were allowed to maintain their position and were given privileges by the Inca

in return for their loyalty. The curacas were exempt from tribute obligations

and usually received labor or produce from those under their control. For

insurance, the sons of conquered chieftains were taken to Cuzco for their


The Incas intentionally spread the Quechua language as a means of

integrating the empire. The Incas also made extensive use of mitmaq, or

colonists. Sometimes Quechua-speakers from Cuzco might be settled in a newly

won area to provide an example and a garrison. On other occasions, a restive

conquered population was moved to a new home. Throughout the empire, a complex

system of roads was constructed with bridges and causeways when needed. Along

these roads, way stations, or tambos, were placed about a day's walk apart to

serve as inns, storehouses, and supply centers for Inca armies on the move.

Tambos also served as relay points for the system of runners who carried

messages throughout the empire. The Inca probably maintained over 10,000


The Inca Empire functioned to extract land and labor from subject

populations. Conquered peoples were enlisted in the Inca armies under Inca

officers and were rewarded with goods from new conquests. Subject peoples

received access to goods not previously available to them, and the Inca state

undertook large projects of building and irrigation that formerly would have

been impossible. In return the Incas demanded loyalty and tribute. The state

claimed all resources and redistributed them. The Incas divided conquered

areas into lands for the people, lands for the state, and lands for the sun -

that is, for religion and the support of priests. There were also private

estates held by some nobles.

With few exceptions the Incas, unlike the Aztecs, did not demand tribute

in kind, but rather exacted labor on the lands assigned to the state and the

religion. Communities were expected to take turns working on state and church

lands and sometimes on building projects or in mining. These labor turns, or

mita, were an essential aspect of Inca control. In addition, the Inca required

women to weave high-quality cloth for the court and for religious purposes.

The Incas provided the wool, but each household was required to produce cloth.

Woven cloth, a great Andean art form, had political and religious

significance. Some women were taken as concubines for the Inca and others were

selected as servants at the temples, the so-called "Virgins of the Sun." In

all this, the Inca had an overall imperial system, but remained sensitive to

local variations so that its application accommodated regional and ethnic


In theory, each community aimed at self-sufficiency and depended on the

state for goods difficult to acquire. The ayllus of each community controlled

the land, and the vast majority of the male population were peasants and

herdsmen. Women aided in the fields, wove cloth, and cared for the household.

Roles and obligations were gender specific and theoretically equal and

interdependent. Andean peoples recognized parallel descent, so that property

rights within the ayllus and among the nobility passed in both the male and

female lines. Women passed rights and property to daughters, men to sons.

Whether in pre-Inca times women may have served as leaders of ayllus is open

to question, but under the Incas this seems to have been uncommon. Inca

emphasis on military virtues reinforced the inequality of men and women even

though an ideology of complementarity of the sexes was very strong.

The concept of close cooperation of men and women was also reflected in

the Inca view of the cosmos. Gods and goddesses were worshiped by men and

women but women felt a particular affinity for the moon and the goddesses of

the earth and corn, the fertility deities. The Inca queen, the Inca's senior

wife (who was usually also a sister of the Inca), was viewed as a link to the

moon, queen and sister of the sun; she represented imperial authority to all

women. But, despite an ideology of gender equality, Inca practice created a

hierarchy of gender relationships that meshed with the dominance of the Inca

state over subject peoples. This fact is supported and the power of the empire

over local ethnic groups is demonstrated in that the Incas were able to select

the most beautiful young women to serve the temples or be given to the Inca.

The integration of imperial policy with regional and ethnic diversity was

a political achievement. Ethnic headmen were left in place, but over them were

Inca administrators drawn from the Inca nobility in Cuzco. Reciprocity and

verticality continued to characterize Andean groups as they came under Inca

rule with reciprocity between the state and the local community simply an

added level. The Inca state could provide roads, irrigation projects, and hard

to get goods. Maize, for example, was usually grown on irrigated land and was

particularly important as a ritual crop. State sponsored irrigation added to

its cultivation. The Inca state manipulated the idea of reciprocity to extract

labor power, and it dealt harshly with resistance and revolt. In addition to

the ayllu peasantry there was also a class of people, the yanas, who were

removed from their ayllus and served permanently as servants, artisans, or

workers for the Inca or the Inca nobility.

The Inca nobility was greatly privileged and those related to the Inca

himself held the highest positions. The nobility were all drawn from the ten

royal ayllus. In addition, the residents of Cuzco were given noble status to

enable them to serve in high bureaucratic posts. The nobles were distinguished

by dress and custom. Only they were entitled to wear the large ear spools that

enlarged the ears and caused the Spaniards to later call them orejones, or

"big ears." Noticeably absent in most of the Inca Empire was a distinct

merchant class. Unlike Mesoamerica where long-distance trade was so important,

Inca emphasis on self- sufficiency and state regulation of production and

surplus limited trade. Only in the northern areas of the empire, in the

chiefdoms of Ecuador, the last region brought under Inca control, did a

specialized class of traders exist.

The Inca imperial system which controlled an area almost 3000 miles in

extent was a stunning achievement of statecraft, but like all empires it

lasted only as long as it could control its subject populations and its own

mechanisms of government. A system of royal multiple marriages as a way of

forging alliances created rival claimants for power and the possibility of

civil war. That is exactly what happened in the 1520s, just before the arrival

of the Europeans. When the Spanish first arrived in Peru, they saw an empire

weakened and wasted by civil strife.

Inca Cultural Achievements

The Incas drew on the artistic traditions of their Andean predecessors

and the skills of subject peoples. Beautiful pottery and cloth was produced in

specialized workshops. Inca metallurgy was among the most advanced of the

Americas, and Inca artisans worked gold and silver with great technical skill.

The Incas also used copper and some bronze for weapons and tools. Like the

Mesoamerican peoples, the Incas made no practical use of the wheel, but unlike

them, they had no system of writing. The Incas, however, did make use of a

system of knotted strings, or quipu, with which numerical and perhaps other

information could be recorded. It functioned something like an abacus, and

with it the Incas took censuses and kept financial records. The Incas had a

passion for numerical order, and the population was divided into decimal units

from which population, military enlistment, and work details could be

calculated. The existence of so many traits associated with civilization in

the Old World and yet the absence of a system of writing among the Incas

should make us realize the variation of human development and the dangers of

becoming too attached to certain characteristics or cultural features in

defining civilizations.

Inca genius was best displayed in their statecraft and in their

architecture and public buildings. Inca stonecutting was remarkably accurate

and the best buildings were constructed of large fitted stones without the use

of masonry. Some of these buildings were immense. These constructions, the

large agricultural terraces and irrigation projects, and the extensive system

of roads were among the Incas' greatest achievements, displaying their

technical ability and workmanship as well as their ability to mobilize large

amounts of manpower.

Comparing The Incas And Aztecs

Both the Inca and the Aztec empires were based on a long development of

civilization that preceded them; and while in some areas of artistic and

intellectual achievement earlier peoples had surpassed their accomplishments,

both represented the success of imperial and military organization. Both

empires were based on intensive agriculture organized by a state that

accumulated surplus production and then controlled the circulation of goods

and their redistribution to groups or social classes. In both states older

semikinship-based institutions, the ayllu and the calpulli, were being

transformed by the emergence of a social hierarchy in which the nobility was

increasingly predominant. In both areas this nobility was also the personnei

of the state, so that the state organization was almost an image of society.

While the Incas attempted to create an overarching political state and

made conscious attempts to integrate their empire as a unit (the Aztecs did

less in this regard), both empires recognized local ethnic groups and

political leaders and were willing to allow considerable variation from one

group or region to another - that is, provided that Inca or Aztec sovereignty

was recognized and tribute paid. Both the Aztecs and the Incas, like the

Spaniards who followed them, found that their military power was less

effective against nomadic peoples who lived on their frontiers. Essentially,

the empires were created by the conquest of sedentary agricultural peoples and

the extraction of tribute and labor from them.

We cannot overlook the considerable differences between Mesoamerica and

the Andean region in terms of climate and geography nor ignore the differences

between the Inca and Aztec civilizations. Trade and markets, for example, were

far more developed in the Aztec Empire and earlier in Mesoamerica in general

than in the Andean world. There were considerable differences in metallurgy,

in writing systems, and in social definition and hierarchy. But within the

context of world civilizations, it is probably best to view these two empires

and the cultural areas they represent as variations of similar patterns and

processes of which sedentary agriculture is the most important. Basic

similarities underlying variation can also be seen in systems of belief and

cosmology and in social structure. Whether similar origins, direct or indirect

contact between the areas, or parallel development in Mesoamerica and the

Andean area explains the similarity remains to be explored. But the American

Indian civilizations shared much with each other, and that factor plus their

relative isolation from external cultural and biological influences gave them

their peculiar character and ultimately their vulnerability. At the same time,

their ability to survive the shock of conquest and to contribute to the

formation of societies after conquest demonstrates much of their strength and

resiliency. Long after the Aztec and Inca empires had ceased to exist, the

peoples of the Andes and Mexico continue to draw on these cultural traditions.

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