Inca Empire Research Paper

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About a hundred years before the Spanish conquistador Franciso Pizzaro took the capital of Cuzco in 1533, the Inca ruled a vast empire that rivaled only China’s. Through diplomacy and force, the Incas conquered diverse ethnic groups with different beliefs and social structures. During the first fifty years of Spanish rule, epidemics, civil wars, and forced labor wiped out over half of the population.

By the middle of the fifteenth century CE, the Inca Empire was the largest pre-Hispanic state ever known in the Americas. The empire covered almost a million square kilometers and stretched over the Andes for more than 4,000 kilometers. Running in a band from what is now the northern border of Ecuador to the Chilean capital of Santiago, the realm encompassed coastal deserts, rugged mountains, and verdant forests. From the imperial capital of Cuzco (located southeast of present-day Lima, Peru), the emperor, known as the Sapa Inca (Unique Inca), held sway over 10 million subjects from myriad ethnic groups that spoke different languages, followed different subsistence strategies, supported different political structures, and worshipped different gods.

The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu, “the land of the inextricably linked four quarters.” The four quarters, Collasuyo, Antisuyu, Cuntisuyu, and Chinchasuyu, were political provinces defined by imaginary lines emanating from the capital. The name Tawantinsuyu reflected more a desire than a reality—the union of these quarters, and the people that lived within them, remained tenuous throughout the state’s short life span. When the empire was about one hundred years old, a band of 168 Spanish adventurers led by Francisco Pizzaro (c. 1475–1541) helped bring an end to Tawantinsuyu in 1533. Since there was no indigenous system of writing in the Andes, our understanding of the empire is gleaned from archaeology, early Spanish documents, and a handful of native accounts. These sources often disagree, and there remain many gaps in our understanding of Inca life.

The Rise and Fall of an Empire

According to their oral histories, the Inca civilization began when four brothers and four sisters emerged from a cave at the site of Pacariqtambo (The Inn of Dawn) near Cuzco. The siblings, led by Manco Capac and his sister/wife Mama Oqlla, went on a quest to find a place to settle. At the end of this search, Manco Capac founded Cuzco and became the first Inca king. The Incas were just one of many small, warring, ethnic groups that populated the mountains of central Peru until the beginning decades of the fifteenth century. At this time, the eighth ruler, Viracocha Inca, was preparing to give the throne to one of his sons. Before a transfer of power could occur, a rival group, the Chancas, invaded and surrounded the village of Cuzco.

Viracocha Inca and his heir fled the city, and another son, Cusi Inca Yupanqui, was left to defend Cuzco against overwhelming odds. As he and the forces under his command awaited certain death at the hands of the Chanca, Cusi Inca Yupanqui had a vision. The creator god told him that if he spread the true religion, he would be a great ruler and conqueror. Inspired by his vision, Cusi Inca Yupanqui broke the siege and then went on to rout the Chanca. He was crowned ruler and took on the name of Pachakuti—“Cataclysm” or “He Who Remakes the World.” Over the space of fifty years, Pachakuti (reigned 1438–1471) and his son Tupac Yupanqui (reigned 1471–1493) conquered almost all of what would become the Inca Empire. The remaining portions of the empire, Ecuador and the chiefdom of Chachapoyas in northern Peru, were captured by the succeeding king, Huayna Capac (reigned 1493–1526).

The Incas legitimatized their expansion as a means to spread the true religion. The true religion entailed two things—reshuffling existing gods and practices to fit within a “proper” imperial pantheon and the placing of the Inca sun god, Inti, at the second position in that hierarchy (Viracocha, the creator god, held the highest position). As long as a conquered group agreed to both acquiesce to the god’s position in this hierarchy and worship Inti, local religions could remain intact. In this way, the Inca were able to fulfill their divine mandate for expansion without seriously challenging local beliefs.

The Incas conquered through a mixture of diplomacy and force. Resisting the empire often had terrible consequences; after defeating the Collas of the Lake Titicaca Basin, for example, the Sapa Inca destroyed many villages, killed many of the inhabitants, and cut off the heads of all of the Colla lords. Those that acquiesced to Inca rule, however, were offered sumptuous gifts and given a privileged position in the new imperial hierarchy.

By the end of Huayna Capac’s reign, the strain of keeping the massive empire together was beginning to show. The Sapa Inca was faced with unrest along both the northern and southern frontiers of the empire. Rebellions within the realm, although a problem throughout the empire’s existence, may have become more frequent. The groups that populated the semitropical forests along much of the regime’s eastern border were nuisances that proved impossible to defeat for a number of reasons. They were small, mobile, and politically acephalous. Inca military tactics did not work well in tropical forests, and tropical peoples often used guerrilla tactics and did not mass their troops. There were the risks of disease, especially Chagas disease, a parasitic infection. There was also little of value obtained in the Inca’s expeditions into the eastern lowlands. The exotic animals, honey, feathers, and a bit of gold that they captured were not worth the effort. Huayna Capac’s swift death, by an epidemic of smallpox that preceded the Spanish invaders, accelerated civil unrest and caused a war of succession between his two sons, Huascar and Atahuallpa (c.1502–1533). Atahuallpa finally defeated his brother, but this event was overshadowed a few days later by Atahuallpa’s capture on 16 November 1532 by Pizarro. By the following November, Atahuallpa and Huascar were dead and the Spaniards controlled Cuzco. In 1572, the last vestiges of Inca resistance ended with the capture of the jungle redoubt of Vilcabamba.

At the time of the Inca conquest, it appears that the empire was overextended. By the reign of Huayna Capac, the pace of imperial expansion had significantly slowed and the emperor spent much of his time quelling rebellions in different parts of the empire. This strain in keeping the empire together, as mentioned above, increased with the wars of succession between Huascar and Atahuallpa. Huascar was the designated successor to Huayna Capac and was supported by the royal lineages in Cuzco. Atahuallpa, who controlled the bulk of the seasoned army in Quito, at first acknowledged Huascar as the rightful heir but refused to visit his half-brother (different mothers) in Cuzco. Huascar suspected treason (perhaps rightfully so, it does appear that Atahuallpa was making plans to stake his claim to the throne) and began the war of succession by sending an immense but undisciplined force in a failed attempt to capture Quito. For the next six years, there were a number of battles and diplomatic overtures between the forces of the brothers with little concrete results. Finally, Huascar was captured in battle when a small contingent of soldiers led the emperor into a trap. Atahuallpa was in the midst of his triumphant march to take over Cuzco when Pizzaro captured him.

While the Inca account of the later years of the empire may be largely accurate, archaeological evidence contradicts aspects of their rise to power. For example, research suggests that the Incas were important regional players who controlled many valleys around Cuzco during the preceding Late Intermediate Period (1000–1438). While the Chancas attack may have occurred, the Incas possessed a powerful state when the attack occurred. In another example, recent radiocarbon dates place the expansion of the empire twenty-five to fifty years earlier than the dates provided by written sources.

The Heartland

When the Spaniards entered Cuzco in 1533, the capital housed more than 100,000 people and was the largest city in South America. The city, located in the same place as modern Cuzco, stood in a fertile mountain valley in central Peru at an elevation of 3,395 meters. At the time of the Inca expansion, Cuzco was probably a typical mountain town of thatched huts that contained several ethnic groups living in distinct districts. Around 1463, Pachakuti returned to the village from his conquests and removed all non- Inca ethnic groups from the city’s core and resettled the groups into fringe enclaves. The Sapa Inca then rebuilt Cuzco as his capital.

The city’s center was divided into upper and lower sectors that abutted a large plaza divided into two parts. In the middle of the plaza, a pointed stone covered in gold was the focal point for many state ceremonies. The large halls surrounding these plazas were likely temples, palaces, and houses for women who served the emperor. The city core may have been shaped in the form of a puma, with the megalithic terraces of Saqsawaman forming its head. Builders fitted together the massive fine-cut stone blocks used in Saqsawaman without the use of mortar. This type of masonry was used in many of the important buildings of Cuzco; architectural embellishments included trapezoidal niches and double (and even triple) jamb doors. Most Inca buildings in both the heartland and the provinces, however, were made of fieldstones or mud bricks (or both).

Crowned from among the members of at least ten royal kin groups (called panacas), the Inca emperor was an absolute ruler. The Sapa Inca was divine—the descendent of the creator god Viracocha, and the son of the sun god Inti. When the emperor died, all of his possessions were kept by his descendents. His mummy was worshipped and continued to eat (via burnt offerings), visit friends (other mummies), and attend ceremonies. This system made it necessary for each successive ruler to build his own palaces, estates, and terraced fields. Through split inheritance, a new panaca was formed each time a new emperor was crowned. The panaca of the previous emperor maintained his holdings, but each new emperor needed to build his own estates because his new panaca had no previous holdings. Royal estates, usually made up of agricultural lands surrounding a cluster of well-made residences, halls, and shrines, controlled much of the land around Cuzco. Machu Picchu, the well-preserved ridgetop site located by Hiram Bingham in 1911, was perhaps one of the estates built by Pachakuti.

Besides the creator and the sun, the Inca pantheon included gods that symbolized other celestial bodies and forces of nature, such as the moon, lightning, thunder, and the rainbow. The Incas also worshipped several hundred sacred sites—often springs, rocks, lakes, and mountains—that were called huacas, as well as ancestor mummies housed in aboveground sepulchers. Supplicants offered gold, silver, cloth, ceramics, corn beer, llamas, alpacas, and, more rarely, humans to these divine beings, and many rituals were tied into a sacred calendar of twelve lunar months. Around Cuzco, the huacas were organized on a network of forty or forty-one lines radiating from the Coricancha, Cuzco’s sun temple. Called the ceque system, each line was assigned to a particular social group that was responsible for the ceremonies at each huaca.

The Provinces

There were at least eighty provinces divided among the four quarters of Tawantinsuyu. While ethnic Incas usually controlled the most important political and religious positions in these provinces, local lords retained a significant degree of control over local affairs. In general, the Inca encouraged a degree of autonomy to decrease administrative costs and hinder groups from uniting, and strove to maintain local religions, dress, and languages. Nonetheless, the empire was still a disruptive force. The empire claimed ownership over all natural resources, divided land into tracts for the Incas, the state religion, and the local communities, bought colonists, called mitmaq-kuna, into new areas, and moved settlements into more productive growing areas. In addition, the empire tore down or built up political systems according to its interests and organized local populations into units of one hundred, five hundred, a thousand, five thousand, and ten thousand households to facilitate census taking and labor recruitment.

The Inca economic system was neither a market nor a tribute system. No coinage was used in the realm, and, strictly speaking, the empire demanded no goods in kind from its subjects. Instead, the mainstay of the imperial economy was a labor tax that was couched in an ethos of reciprocity. Every household was required to provide some kind of service, such as farming, herding, construction, mining, or military service, to the state. In return, the state sponsored large feasts for its subjects at which enormous amounts of food and drink were consumed. The state also maintained a number of specialists that worked full-time for the state, such as artists, household servants, and temple workers. The most famous of these specialists were the aqllakuna, young women who brewed corn beer and wove cloth at state centers. Kept under close guard, the Sapa Inca often married these women to Inca and local elites in order to strengthen his political power.

The Incas built provincial administrative centers across the empire. These centers served as local hubs for administration, religious ceremonies, military actions, and labor recruitment. Most importantly, the Inca accumulated the fruits of the labor tax at these sites. The largest of these centers, such as Willkawaman, Pumpu, Cajamarca, and Huanuco Pampo, contained hundreds of storehouses. Quipus, mnemonic devices made by hanging knotted strings from a main cord, were used to record the contents of the storehouses. Census data, ritual calendars, astronomical observations, and even histories may have also been recorded on the quipus. While many products were consumed locally at the provincial centers, caravans of humans and llamas transported many of the goods across the 30,000 kilometers of Inca roads. The roads, an engineering marvel in the rugged terrain of the Andes, also served to facilitate the movement of troops. A system of runners allowed messages and small items to be carried quickly on these roads over long distances.

The Incas and the World

The opportunity to learn from the Incas was almost completely squandered after the Spanish conquest. The Spanish success, helped by the Inca war of succession, the willingness of subjected groups to rebel, and, most importantly, the diseases that the adventurers carried with them, nearly obliterated Andean civilization. Epidemics, civil wars, and forced labor over the first fifty years of Spanish rule wiped out over half of the population. Entire villages were abandoned, languages were lost, and rituals forgotten. Outside of the Andes, the most lasting legacy of the encounter between the Incas and the Spanish may be the potato. The daily fare of Inca commoners and elites, the potato has now become an important staple crop in countries around the world. It is an unlikely reminder of a mighty empire that lived for only a short time.


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