A History of The Incas

By Tim Lambert

The Incas ruled a great empire in South America – but only for a short time. At its peak, the Inca Empire lasted less than a century before it was destroyed by the Spaniards.

In about 1300 the Incas founded their capital city of Cuzco. They were only a small tribe but they came to rule a vast empire including most of Peru and parts of Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and northwest Argentina. The expansion began in 1438 under their ruler Pachakuti and continued under his successors.

Inca Life

Inca Society

At the top of Inca society was the emperor, the Sapa Inca. (His title means unique Inca). The Incas believed their ruler was descended from the sun god and he was treated with great respect. Visitors had to remove their footwear if they approached the Sapa Inca and they had to carry a burden on their back to show their respect for him. When he traveled the Sapa Inca was carried in a litter.

Below the Sapa Inca were the nobles. Below them was a class of men called curacas. They were not necessarily Incas. When the Incas conquered a people they took the leader’s sons and taught them to rule the Inca way. They then became curacas.

At the bottom of Inca society were the craftsmen and farmers. Inca craftsmen made objects of gold, silver, and copper. Stonemasons cut stone bricks for building using stone hammers and wet sand for polishing. Inca stone bricks fitted so closely that they did not need mortar to hold them together.

Every aspect of Inca life was highly organised. Each person’s life was divided into stages. At each stage, they were expected to do different tasks. Naturally, adults in their prime were expected to do the hardest work. Children and old people did the easiest tasks.

All the people were part of extended families called Ayllus. Each one was ruled by a man called a curaca.

In theory, the Sapa Inca owned all the land and wealth in the empire. The Sapa Inca gave farmers land to grow food. In return, they had to do some work for him. The Sapa Inca reserved some land for himself and some was set aside to support the temples and priests. The Inca farmers had to pay a kind of tax by working on the Sapa Incas and temple land. Sometimes they also had to work on projects like building roads and bridges.

Inca Government

The Inca empire was like a pyramid with the Sapa Inca at the top. The empire was divided into 4 regions ruled by men called opas. Below them, there were more layers of government.

To help rule their vast empire the Incas created an efficient network of roads. The Incas also made rope suspension bridges. As well as the roads the Incas had messengers called chasquis. Messages were carried by relay. Groups of messengers lived in houses by main roads and at all times two of them kept a lookout. If they saw another messenger approaching one of them would run to meet him. The two messengers would run together for a while and the message was passed on from one man to the other. Using this relay system messages could be sent over long distances very quickly. Inca messengers could take messages 240 kilometers in one day.

The Incas kept records with a device called a quipu. It was a cord with strings of different thicknesses and colors hanging from it. Knots were tied at different positions in the strings. The color and thickness of the strings and the positions of the knots all meant something.

The Incas did not have prisons. Instead for serious crimes such as murder, stealing, and blasphemy offenders were executed by being pushed off a cliff. Less serious crimes were punished by cutting off the hands or blinding.

Inca Religion

The Incas were polytheists (they worshiped several different gods). The most important god was Inti, the sun god. The Incas also worshiped Quilla the moon goddess, wife of the sun. They also worshiped Illapa god of thunder, who controlled the rain.

The Incas had a host of priests and priestesses to serve their gods in temples throughout the empire. Priests were also surgeons who performed simple operations. Patients chewed coca leaves to dull the pain. Priests bit the heads of a type of ant and used the jaws as clips to close wounds.

The Incas believed that after death virtuous people went to the Sun where it was always warm and there was always plenty to eat. The evil went to an underworld where it was cold and there were only rocks to eat.

Inca Warfare

Incas knew of the bow and arrow but they relied mainly on the sling and stone. It is a surprisingly accurate and deadly weapon.

Incas did not have swords but in hand-to-hand fighting, they used wooden clubs tipped with stone or bronze.

Many Incas wore a costume of quilted cotton, which gave some protection against the wooden and stone weapons of other South American peoples. Some Inca soldiers also protected their backs and chests with plates of wood or metal. They also carried wooden shields.

The Inca army was supplied by a network of storehouses. They also had stone fortresses on mountains.

When the Incas killed their enemies they sometimes covered their skulls with gold and used them as drinking cups. They also made dead enemies’ teeth into necklaces and even made drums from human skin.

Inca Food

In the lowlands the staple food was maize. In the highlands it was potatoes. Incas also ate peppers, tomatoes, and avocados. They also ate peanuts and a grain called quinoa.

Llamas and alpacas were kept for wool and for carrying loads but they sometimes provided meat. Incas also ate guinea pigs. They also fished and ate birds. However, for most Incas meat was a luxury.

Incas drank a fermented drink called chicha. Ordinary Incas drank from bowls carved from gourds. Rich Incas drank from pottery vessels or even ones made from gold or silver.

Poor people ate from dishes placed on the ground. Inca nobles ate off a cloth on the ground. There were no tables.

Inca farmers did not have plows pulled by animals. Instead, their main tools were digging sticks, clod breakers, and hoes. In hilly regions, Inca farmers terraced the land. They also irrigated crops. Inca farmers also used bird droppings called guano as fertilizer.

Inca Houses

Inca houses were very simple. They often consisted of just one room (although some houses did have an upper story with a wooden floor). Inca homes did not have furniture. People sat and slept on reed mats or animal skins. Roofs were thatched and there were no chimneys.

Rich Incas, of course, lived in much grander homes. Inca palaces sometimes had sunken stone baths.

Inca Clothes

Incas made clothes from wool or (in warmer areas) cotton. Ordinary people wore coarse alpaca wool but nobles wore fine vicuna wool.

Inca men wore loincloths and tunics. Inca nobles wore gold earplugs.

Inca women wore a long dress with a cloak on top fastened with a brooch.

Inca Children

Inca children were treated harshly to toughen them. They were severely punished if they misbehaved.

At about the age of 10, the most beautiful girls were selected to be chosen women or Aqllakuna. They were taken from their families and sent to a house of chosen women or Aqllawasi. They were taught the Inca religion and skills like cooking and weaving. When they were about 14 some of the girls became priestesses or they married important Incas or even the Sapa Inca himself (the Sapa Inca often had hundreds of wives).

Girls left behind learned skills like cooking and weaving from their mothers. When they reached their teens they were old enough to marry.

Boys learned farming, fishing, and other trades. Noble boys had tutors called Amataus who trained them to rule. When they reached the age of 14 boys were given a loincloth which symbolized the fact that they were now young men.

The Conquistadors and the Incas

The Inca Empire was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors (conquerors).

Even before the Conquistadors arrived smallpox began to spread among the Incas. They had no resistance to this European disease and many of them died. So the Inca Empire was weakened even before Pizarro came.

Worse the Inca Empire was afflicted by civil war. When the emperor Huayna died in 1527 he did not name a successor. There were two claimants to the throne. Huayna had many wives. His ‘chief’ wife or coya had a son called Huascar. However, he had an older brother called Atahualpa. His mother was one of Huyna’s ‘ordinary’ wives.

The two half-brothers Huascar and Atahualpa fought a civil war. Atahualpa eventually won and he wreaked terrible revenge on his enemies. However, when the Spaniards came Atahualpa’s surviving enemies were willing to join them against the emperor.

In 1532 a small force of Spaniards, 100 infantry, and 67 cavalrymen arrived on the coast. They were led by Francisco Pizarro (c.1475-1541). At first, the Spaniards inspected the country then they entered a town called Cajamarca. Atahualpa was staying in a camp nearby.

Atahualpa was not afraid of the small group of strangers. After all, he had thousands of soldiers at his command. However, Pizarro planned to kidnap him.

Atahualpa and several thousand bodyguards entered a square in the town. There were only a few entrances to the square, which were easily blocked. Furthermore, the Spaniards hid guns in the buildings around the square.

A Spanish friar (friars were like monks) approached the Sapa Inca and offered him a bible. Atahualpa had never seen a book before and he threw it onto the ground. Angrily the friar called on the Spaniards to avenge what he thought was an insult to God.

The Spanish fired cannons and muskets and the cavalry charged. (Incas had never seen horses before and the sight of a man charging on a horse must have been terrifying). The Spaniards were also protected by steel armor and they carried steel swords. (Steel was a metal unknown to the Incas). The bodyguards had little chance against the Spaniards and thousands were slaughtered in the square. Atahualpa himself was taken, prisoner.

The Inca Empire was rather like a pyramid with the Sapa Inca at the top. Orders flowed from him. Capturing him was rather like cutting the head from a body. Without him, the Incas did not know what to do.

Eventually, Atahualpa offered to fill a large room with gold and a small room with silver twice over if the Spaniards would let him go. In the meantime, Spanish reinforcements arrived. However, when the gold and silver were collected Pizarro had no intention of letting the Sapa Inca go. He claimed that Atahualpa was plotting against him and the Sapa Inca was tried for treason and sentenced to death.

At first, he was sentenced to be burned. Atahualpa was horrified because he believed his spirit would be destroyed if his body was burned and he could not enter the afterlife. Instead, he agreed to be baptized a Christian and he was strangled with a rope.

The Spaniards then ruled through a puppet, which they made the Sapa Inca. However, the puppet Sapa Inca soon became disenchanted and he fled from Cuzco. In 1536 he raised armies to besiege both Cuzco and Lima (which the Spaniards founded in 1535). However, both sieges failed. The Incas besieged Cuzco again in 1537 but again failed.

However, Inca resistance did not end. The puppet Sapa Inca fled to the east of Cuzco with his supporters and ruled a small Inca state called Vilcabamba. It was finally conquered by the Spaniards in 1572.

An Andean condor

Last revised 2024