Peru: A history of the Incas

The Peruvian empire of the Children of the Sun was short-lived but brilliant. It spread rapidly from the central highlands, bringing order, material abundance, and a sophisticated culture. Here's what you need to know before taking a trip to Peru
People of Inca. Source: Wikimedia Commons
People of Inca. Source: Wikimedia Commons

People of Inca. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Peru’s pre-Hispanic history is a long one, filled with the marvels of ancient civilizations that fed multitudes by irrigating deserts, wove textiles so fine they cannot be reproduced even today, and built adobe cities that have survived millennia of earthquakes. Some left behind traces that have allowed archeologists and scholars to reconstruct pieces of their societies. Others may always remain nameless and obscure. However, no group is as well known, or as astounding, as the Incas – the magnificent culture dominating much of the continent when the Spanish conquistadors arrived.

The Inca nation – the Children of the Sun – started as a small culture based in the central highlands. Like the Chimú, Chancay, Ica, and other groups, they exerted local autonomy over large population centers and had distinct styles of textiles and pottery. But in the early 1400s, under the reign of Pachacutec, the Incas began one of the greatest and most rapid expansions that has ever been recorded.

In little more than 50 years, Inca domination was extended as far north as modern Colombia and south into present-day Chile and Argentina. Groups that resisted were summarily vanquished and relocated as punishment. Others, through peaceful negotiations, joined the kingdom with little loss of regional control provided that they were prepared to worship Inti, the sun, as their supreme god, and paid homage to the Inca leaders.

As each regional culture fell, Inca teachers, weavers, builders, and metallurgists studied the conquered people’s textile techniques, architecture, gold-working, irrigation, pottery, and healing methods. As a result, they quickly accumulated massive amounts of information more advanced than their own.

By the time the Spanish arrived, Cusco, the Inca capital, was a magnificent urban gem; irrigated deserts and terraced mountainsides were producing bountiful crops, storehouses of food had eliminated hunger, and Inca military might had become legendary.

Although the accuracy of Spanish chronicles are suspect, and the Incas themselves left no written records, scholars, anthropologists, and archeologists have managed to piece together fragments of a magnificent world. To experience what's left of this world today, travel on Insight Guides' Peru: Into the Incan Empire holiday, for an in-depth exploration of this ancient civilisation.

A strict world order

Inca society was clearly hierarchical and highly structured, but not necessarily tyrannical or repressive. Everyone had a place and a part to play. Food and resources were stored and distributed so that all were fed and clothed. There was little private property, and most everything was communally organized. A majority likely accepted their role without feeling exploited, though resentment remained among conquered peoples.

The Inca polity was a pyramidal system of government, with the ruling Inca (as the emperor was called) and his coya, or queen, at the apex. Under him stood the nobility, the “Capac Incas,” supposedly the true descendants of Manco Capac, the founding Inca, and belonging to some 10 or 12 panacas, or royal houses. Each emperor founded a panaca when he came to power, so the current ruler’s was the only one headed by a living man. The other panacas centered their lives and cults around the mummified remains of a former Inca. The city of Cusco was filled with the huge palaces built by Inca rulers to house their personal retinue, their descendants, born to their many wives and concubines, and, finally, their own mummy.

The panacas of Cusco coexisted with a similar number of ayllus – large kinship groups – of lesser nobility, the so-called “Incas-by-privilege,” who were early inhabitants of the Cusco region, pre-dating the Incas. They held lands, had ritual and economic functions, and many other aspects of life in common. The panacas and noble ayllus belonged to two separate divisions, Upper and Lower Cusco, whose relationship was both competitive and complementary.

Below these two groups stood the regional nobility, who were not Incas at all, but held aristocratic privileges along with intricate blood relationships and with reciprocal obligations to the ruling caste. Everyone in the empire was bonded to the whole by such connections, except for one large, amorphous group, the yanacona, who were a domestic class serving the panacas. They received no formal benefits and, although they could reach a high status, their loyalty was usually negotiable. Many of them defected to the Spaniards after the Inca Atahualpa’s capture in 1532.

Monument of Pachacutéc in Aguas Calientes, Peru. Photo: Elemaki/Wikimedia CommonsMonument of Pachacutéc in Aguas Calientes, Peru. Photo: Elemaki/Wikimedia Commons

The privileges of power

The nobility reserved many privileges for themselves, granting them selectively to outsiders. Polygamy was common, but exclusively aristocratic. Likewise, chewing coca leaves and wearing vicuña wool were privileges of the ruling caste. Noble males wore huge, ornate gold plugs in their pierced ears. Their beautifully woven tunics carried heraldic symbols called tokapu. All citizens wore the clothes and hairstyles befitting their station and ethnic group. The streets of Cusco were colorful, for hundreds of groups were represented in the city, each with its own distinctive costume.

Scores of local languages existed, but the lingua franca of the empire was Quechua, a language spoken today from northern Ecuador to northern Chile. Its origins are obscure, but the Incas are believed to have acquired it from some other group. The nobles also used a private language, possibly a “high” chivalric dialect with elements of both Quechua and the Aymara language of the Lake Titicaca region.

The lords were fond of hunting, and a royal hunt was a spectacular affair. Animals were not slaughtered indiscriminately, but culled. Young females of most species were released for future reproduction. The myth of power within the Inca state held that the emperor was a divine being unlike ordinary mortals, descended from the sun via his founding ancestor, Manco Capac. He gave voice to the desires and intentions of this deity.

The sun may have become the supreme Inca deity after the rise of the ninth emperor, Pachacutec; before that, the supreme deity was Viracocha, an almighty creator also worshiped by other cultures. Inca religion was not confined to the sun and Viracocha. Cusco’s great temple, the Qoricancha, or Court of Gold, contained shrines to the moon, lightning, the Pleiades, Venus, and the rainbow. There were also shrines to scores of local deities – idols or sacred relics brought to Cusco by innumerable regional peoples. The Incas did not attempt to erase local religions, but included their gods in an ever-expanding pantheon.

Beside local and celestial deities there were the apus – the spirits of great mountains – and the huacas – stones, caves, grottoes, springs, and waterfalls, believed to contain spirit powers. More than 300 huacas existed around Cusco, many of them housing the mummies of lesser nobles, and all of them connected by imagined lines that radiated from Qoricancha like the spokes of a wheel. This system of sacred geography, the ceque system, was closely linked to the ritualistic and economic life of Cusco. The panacas and ayllus had care of individual huacas and groups of ceque lines.

Heart of the four quarters

Young Inca nobles were educated by amautas, scholars who transmitted cultural knowledge often in the form of mnemonic songs and verses. Music and poetry were respected arts among the nobility, as was painting. An immense “national archive” or “gallery” outside Cusco, called Poquen Cancha, was probably destroyed during Pizarro’s conquest.

The Inca calendar featured an array of important festivals, which marked stages of life and the agricultural calendar. The summer and winter solstices were the greatest celebrations, held with numerous sub-festivals. The Capac Raymi summer solstice, for example, also featured the coming-of-age celebrations for the new crop of young nobles. The males underwent trials, including ritual battles, and a death-defying race. Another great ceremony was Sitwa, in September, when foreigners had to leave Cusco, and the Incas engaged in a ritual of purification, casting out sickness and bad spirits.

Cusco itself was a holy city as well as the administrative capital of the empire. It was the centre of Tahuantinsuyu – the formal name of the Inca empire, meaning the four quarters of the world. The great royal roads to the four suyus began at the main square. Here all things came together, and soil from every province was ritually mingled with that of Cusco.

The four suyus corresponded to the cardinal points. The northern quarter was the Chinchaysuyu – northern Peru and modern Ecuador. The south was the Collasuyu – Lake Titicaca, modern Bolivia, and Chile. The Antisuyu was the Amazon forest to the east. The Kuntisuyu was the region west of Cusco, much of it also rugged country, but including the south and central Peruvian coast.

To explore the highlights of Cusco today, travel with Insight Guides: browse all trips to the city online now

                                        One Chimú sites, Huaca del Dragon. Photo: Enrique Jara/Wikimedia Commons


A rural empire

The Tahuantinsuyu was not significantly urbanized. There was the great complex of Chimú on the north coast and, of course, Cusco. And there were a few large administrative centers along the spine of the Andes, housing a mainly transient population, which mustered and distributed the resources of entire regions. But most of the population lived in small rural communities scattered across the land.

The complex organization of the Inca state rested on a foundation of efficient agriculture. It is notable that virtually any Inca ruin, no matter what its original function, is surrounded and penetrated by agricultural terraces and irrigation channels. Fields of corn stood in the very heart of Cusco.

Corn was the prestige crop. The great irrigated terracing systems whose ruins we see today were mainly devoted to its cultivation. Other Inca staples were potatoes and some other indigenous Andean root crops, plus beans, quinoa – a species of the beet family – and the related amaranth. The huge altitude range of the tropical Andes allowed the Incas to enjoy a great variety of foods, but it also required them to develop many localized crop strains for particular microclimates. This they did, with typical thoroughness, at several experimental agriculture centers whose ruins survive today, such as Moray in the Sacred Valley. Trek through this region and experience the setting for yourself on Insight Guides' Peru: Into the Incan Empire holiday; review the full itinerary here

The Incas’ great food surpluses enabled them to divert labor to a variety of enterprises. They created a vast road network – so expertly laid that much of it still exists – and built astonishing structures of stone, so finely worked and of blocks so large that they required staggering amounts of time and effort. The Incas employed thousands of artisans to produce works of gold and silver, pottery, and fine textiles. They also raised great armies, able to march thousands of miles without carrying provisions, so extensive was their network of storehouses.

The system that made these works possible was called mita, or minga at the ayllu level. It was a kind of community tax, paid in labor. Every community sent some of its able-bodied young men and women for a limited period into the service of the state.

The period varied according to the hardship of the work – mines, for example, were a tough assignment, and accordingly brief. Working in a state pottery was easier, and correspondingly longer. Some communities – such as the famous one which rebuilt the Apurímac suspension bridge, Q’eshwachaca, each year – rendered their mita in a specific task. One ayllu provided the emperor with inspectors of roads, another with inspectors of bridges, and one supplied the state with spies.

The life of a transient mita worker was rewarded by institutional generosity and punctuated by public festivals of spectacular drunkenness. Peasants who were otherwise tied to their villages for life mingled with groups from exotic locations worlds away, and caught a glimpse of the dazzling world of the Inca nobility. It was probably the most exciting time of their lives. Later the Spanish took over this institution and turned it into near slavery in their encomienda system.

Binding the Andes to Cusco

About every 10km (6 miles) along the great skein of roads that knitted the empire together stood a tambo, a kind of lodge, with storage facilities for goods in transit and communal quarters for large groups of people. Closer together were little huts that served as relay stations for the chasquis, the relay message-runners, who could allegedly cover the 2,400km (1,500 miles) between Quito in Ecuador and Cusco in 10 days.

Every major bridge and tambo had its quipucamayoc, an individual who recorded everything that moved along the road. Their instrument was the quipu, a strand of cord attached to color-coded strings, each carrying a series of knots tied so as to indicate a digital value. The quipucamayocs were the accountants of the empire. Quipus may also have served as a means of sending messages, with certain types of knot being assigned a syllable value, so that a row of knots formed a word.

Crimes of property were rare; stealing was regarded as an aberration and dealt with ruthlessly when it occurred. Offenders suffered loss of privileges, with public humiliation and perhaps physical punishment. Serious or repeated crimes were punished by death, the victim being thrown off a cliff or imprisoned with poisonous snakes and dangerous animals.

A combination of techniques sustained the growth of the Inca empire. Military conquest played a part, but so did skillful diplomacy; some of the most important territories may have been allied confederates rather than subordinate domains. The glue holding the empire together was the practice of reciprocity: ritual generosity and favors to local rulers on a huge scale, in exchange for loyalty, labors, and military levies, women for the Inca nobility, products specific to the region, and so on. The emperor maintained fabulous stores of goods to meet his ritual obligations and create new alliances.

One Chimú sites, Fortaleza Paramonga. Source: Charles Wiener/Wikimedia CommonsOne Chimú sites, Fortaleza Paramonga. Source: Charles Wiener/Wikimedia Commons

The path to power

The Incas were perhaps not imperialist, in our sense of the word, at the outset. There was an ancient Andean tradition of cultural influences, spreading out by means of trade and pilgrimage from important religious centers such as Chavín, and later Tiahuanaco. It is likely that Cusco started in this way, too; later the Incas extended their sway in southern Peru by means of reciprocal agreements and blood alliances.

Then, in 1438 came the pivotal war of survival against the Chancas, a powerful group from the north. The historical existence of the Chancas has never been confirmed by archeology, but the Inca version was that the man who took the title Pachacutec – “transformer of the world” – defeated the invading Chancas at the gates of Cusco. Subsequently he transformed Inca culture, and launched the expansion which would be continued by his son, Tupac Yupanqui, and grandson, Huayna Capac. As the Incas extended farther from their center, they confronted groups with ideas and identities increasingly different from their own. Thus, continued expansion increasingly required the use of force.

When the Incas used military force they used it sparingly. Many opponents surrendered without a fight when they saw the size of the army sent against them. The Incas still preferred to cut off an enemy’s water supply, or starve him into submission, rather than confront him directly in battle.

War and warriorhood were an important part of Andean life from early times, yet they surely cannot have been of paramount value to the Incas. If they had, then military tactics and technology would have been at their peak, whereas in fact their weapons and methods of warfare were still extremely primitive – far inferior to their attainments in administration, architecture, agriculture, and engineering – and had not evolved since the earliest times of Andean culture. They fought with clubs, stones, and all-wooden spears. Even the bow and arrow, though known to them, were not widely used in battle. The gulf between their fighting capacity and that of the steely Spanish conquistadors was tragically wide.

Many groups the Incas had conquered, such as the Huanca from Peru’s central highlands, resented Inca domination. They had to be held in place by threat of force, and later they happily deserted to fight with the Spanish.

In the years just before the Spanish invasion, Pachacutec’s grandson, Huayna Capac, was far from his homeland, fighting in the mountains along the present northern frontier of Ecuador. Quito, the base from which the campaigns were launched, had become a de facto second capital, and a northern aristocracy had formed. On the death of Huayna Capac the two groups fell into violent conflict, resulting in civil war between half-brothers Huascar and Atahualpa.

Machu Picchu. Photo: Allard Schmidt/Wikimedia CommonsThe iconic Machu Picchu. Photo: Allard Schmidt/Wikimedia Commons

Artists in stone

Like other peoples of the New World, the Incas had not discovered how to smelt iron ore, but their use of other metals was quite sophisticated. They had mastered many techniques for working gold and silver, and created bronze alloys of varying types for different uses.

None of these metals was much use for working stone, which was one of the glories of the Inca civilization. Modern research shows that the finely fitted stones were primarily cut and shaped using hammer-stones of harder rock. This process was laborious, but not as slow as we might imagine. The Incas’ vast manpower and their reverence for stone enabled them to persevere through the many years it took to complete such astounding structures as Machu Picchu and Sacsayhuamán.

The mystery of how the Incas moved and fitted enormous stones has been patiently investigated by the US architect Vincent Lee. He has demonstrated a possible method, within the technical capabilities of the Incas, by maneuvering stones onto massive log sleds, which were then levered along wooden rails. Fitting might have been by trial and error, although Lee believes a plumb line and pantograph device were used to project the profile of a finished stone onto an uncut block.

Despite their wondrous skills, the Incas never devised the wheel, nor a form of writing except for the quipus. Andean terrain is extremely steep, and the Incas’ only draft animal was the small, lightly built llama, unable to pull a load exceeding 45kg (100lb). So the absence of a wheel is understandable. Thus, lacking the first reason to devise a wheel, the Incas never discovered its other uses. They did, however, inherit the distaff spindle for spinning thread, which has been used in the Andes for thousands of years.

The absence of a clearly recognizable form of writing is harder to explain. The tokapu textile symbols and the quipus were the closest they came. Quechua is full of ambiguities, puns, and multiple meanings, relying heavily on context for its true sense. It is the language style of an oral culture, but whether this is the cause or the effect of having no written language is impossible to say.

Another invention the Incas lacked was the arch. To span great gaps they built sturdy suspension bridges. In buildings they used the trapezoidal aperture. This shape – tapering upwards, with a stone or wooden lintel across the top – will take a fair amount of weight from above. All four walls of almost every Inca building also leaned slightly inward, making them very stable. This technique, combined with the brilliantly interlocking joins of their stonework, made their buildings almost earthquake-proof – a useful feature in Peru. While the Incas lacked certain things we take for granted, they nonetheless created a sophisticated civilization, whose echoes still reverberate throughout the Andes.

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