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The Inca Empire (or Inka Empire) was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. The administrative, political and military center of the empire was located in Cuscomarker in modern-day Perumarker. The Inca Empire arose from the highlands of Peru sometime in early 13th century. From 1438 to 1533, the Incas used a variety of methods, from conquest to peaceful assimilation, to incorporate a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean mountain ranges, including large parts of modern Ecuadormarker, Peru, western and south central Boliviamarker, northwest Argentinamarker, north and north-central Chilemarker, and southern Colombiamarker.

The official language of the empire was Quechua, although hundreds of local languages and dialects of Quechua were spoken. The Quechua name for the empire was Tawantinsuyu which can be translated as The Four Regions or The Four United Regions. Before the Quechua spelling reform it was written in Spanish as Tahuantinsuyo. Tawantin is a group of four things (tawa "four" with the suffix -ntin which names a group); suyu means "region" or "province". The empire was divided into four Suyus, whose corners met at the capital, Cusco (Qosqo).

There were many local forms of worship, most of them concerning local sacred "Huacas", but the Inca leadership encouraged the worship of Inti—the sun god—and imposed its sovereignty above other cults such as that of Pachamama.The Incas identified their king as "child of the sun."


Origin myths

The Incas had various creation myths. In one, Ticci Viracocha sent forth his four sons and four daughters (known as the Ayar brothers) from Pacaritambo to establish a village. Along the way, Sinchi Roca was born to Manco and Ocllo, and Sinchi Roca led them to the valley of Cusco where they founded their new village. There Manco became their leader and became known as Manco Capac.

In another origin myth, the sun god Inti ordered Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo to emerge from the depths of Lake Titicacamarker. They were born in the lake and wandered north to establish the city of Cusco. They travelled by means of underground caves until they reached Cusco where they established Hurin Cusco, or the first dynasty of the Kingdom of Cusco.

These myths were apparently transmitted via oral tradition until early Spanish colonists recorded them; however some scholars believe that they may have been recorded on quipus (Andean knotted string records).


Andean civilization probably began c. 9500 BP. Based in the highlands of Peru, an area now referred to as the punas, the ancestors of the Incas probably began as a nomadic herding people. Geographical conditions resulted in a distinctive physical development characterized by a small stature and stocky build. Men averaged 1.57 m (5'2") and women averaged 1.45 m (4'9"). Because of the high altitudes, they had unique lung developments with almost one third greater capacity than other humans. The Incas had slower heart rates, blood volume of about 2 l (four pints) more than other humans, and double the amount of hemoglobin which transfers oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

Archaeologists have found traces of permanent habitation as high as above sea level in the temperate zone of the high altiplanos. While the Conquistadors may have been a little taller, the Inca surely had the advantage of coping with the extraordinary altitude. It seems that civilizations in this area before the Inca have left no written record, and therefore the Inca seem to appear from nowhere, but the Inca were a product of the past. They borrowed architecture, ceramics, and their empire-state government from previous cultures.

In the Lake Titikakamarker region, Tiwanakumarker is recognized by Andean scholars as one of the most important precursors to the Inca Empire, flourishing as the ritual and administrative capital of a major state power for approximately 500 years.

The first Inca ruler was Manco Capac. There is no specific date for this ruler nor for the seven succeeding rulers, but the assumed dates are 1250 to 1438. The Inca originated at Cusco in the central highlands and expanded down the coast. The basis of the Inca's conquest is believed to be their organization. Their divine symbol was the sun god, their bureaucratic system consisted of a circle of officials belonging to eleven royal ayllus, and the line of descent continued through incestuous marriage with a sister who becomes the coya or "legal queen." The expansion of the Inca empire probably resulted from climatic conditions. Their resources in the highlands were limited to llama, alpaca, and vicuna.

In 1445, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (the ninth Inca) began conquest of the Titicaca regions. He incorporated and developed patterns of cultures already in existence, particularly that of the Chimu. Pachacuti had disciplined officers from his own elite household. Common soldiers were armed with bronze battle axes, wooden hafts with stone or bronze heads, slings, lances, throwing spears, bows and arrows, wooden shields covered with leather, cotton or cane helmets, and quilted armor. In each captured province Inca officials were superimposed upon the existing local officials. The loyalty of the captured province was assured by taking the sons of the officials hostage in Cusco. They made Quechua the official language and sun worship the official religion. They exploited the labor force in order to increase productivity and rapidly develop irrigation and terrace cultivation systems, and used guano deposits found on the coastal islands as fertilizer. The Inca social system required a severe authoritarian government backed by ritual and divine compulsion.

They built temples and fortresses and were supreme in road building. The roads extended 3,250 miles from Quito in the north to Talca in Central Chile. These roads were vital to the maintenance of the empire, but ironically this network of highways made the Spanish conquest easier. There were road markers every topo which is 4.5 miles and rest houses or tambos every 12 miles for the Inca ruler and his retinue. Small post houses called chasquis every 5 miles housed the runners and were used for relaying dispatches at the rate of about 150 miles per day. Verbal dispatches were supplemented by quipu or knotted strings, probably involving a code based on numbers. These were the equivalent of the notched sticks of the old tally system used in Europe.

Inca society was based on the idea of "equal footing." All men had to work in order to live, and even the Inca nobles helped to set an example. However, some archaeologists believe this was a façade supporting a two-caste system. The penalties for breaking the law were less severe for bureaucratic elites; this emphasizes the importance of the upper caste in the maintenance of the system.

Kingdom of Cusco

The Inca people began as a tribe in the Cusco area around the 12th century. Under the leadership of Manco Capac, they formed the small city-state of Cusco (Quechua Qusqu'Qosqo). In 1438, they began a far-reaching expansion under the command of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacuti-Cusi Yupanqui, whose name literally meant "earth-shaker". The name of Pachacutec was given to him after conquering over the Tribe of Chancas (modern Apurimac). During his reign, he and his son Tupac Yupanqui brought much of the Andes mountains (roughly modern Peru and Ecuador) under Inca control.

Reorganization and formation

Inca expansion (1438–1527)
Pachacuti reorganized the kingdom of Cusco into an empire, the Tahuantinsuyu, a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provincial governments with strong leaders: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Contisuyu (SW), and Collasuyu (SE). Pachacuti is also thought to have built Machu Picchu, either as a family home or as a summer retreat, although there is speculation that Machu Picchu was constructed as an agricultural station.

Pachacuti sent spies to regions he wanted in his empire; they brought reports on the political organization, military might and wealth. He would then send messages to the leaders of these lands extolling the benefits of joining his empire, offering them presents of luxury goods such as high quality textiles, and promising that they would be materially richer as subject rulers of the Inca. Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli and acquiesced peacefully. The ruler's children would then be brought to Cusco to be taught about Inca administration systems, then return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate the former ruler's children into the Inca nobility, and, with luck, marry their daughters into families at various corners of the empire.

Expansion and consolidation

It was traditional for the Inca's son to lead the army; Pachacutec's son Túpac Inca Yupanqui began conquests to the north in 1463, and continued them as Inca after Pachucuti's death in 1471. His most important conquest was the Kingdom of Chimor, the Inca's only serious rival for the coast of Peru. Túpac Inca's empire stretched north into modern day Ecuador and Colombia.

Túpac Inca's son Huayna Cápac added a small portion of land to the north in modern day Ecuador and in parts of Peru. At its height, the Inca Empire included Perumarker and Boliviamarker, most of what is now Ecuadormarker, a large portion of what is today Chilemarker north of Maule River. The advance south halted after the Battle of the Maulemarker where they met massive resistance by the Mapuche tribes. The empire also extended into corners of Argentinamarker and Colombiamarker. However, most of the southern portion of the Inca empire, the portion denominated as Collasuyu, was desert wasteland.

The Inca Empire was a patchwork of languages, cultures and peoples. The components of the empire were not all uniformly loyal, nor were the local cultures all fully integrated. The Inca empire as a whole had an economy based on exchange and taxation of luxury goods and labour. The following quote reflects a method of taxation:

“For as is well known to all, not a single village of the highlands or the plains failed to pay the tribute levied on it by those who were in charge of these matters. There were even provinces where, when the natives alleged that they were unable to pay their tribute, the Inca ordered that each inhabitant should be obliged to turn in every four months a large quill full of live lice, which was the Inca’s way of teaching and accustoming them to pay tribute”.

Inca civil war and Spanish conquest

Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers explored south from Panamamarker, reaching Inca territory by 1526. It was clear that they had reached a wealthy land with prospects of great treasure, and after one more expedition in 1529, Pizarro traveled to Spain and received royal approval to conquer the region and be its viceroy. This approval was received as detailed in the following quote: "In July 1529 the queen of Spain signed a charter allowing Pizarro to conquer the Incas. Pizarro was named governor and captain of all conquests in Peru, or New Castile, as the Spanish now called the land."

When they returned to Peru in 1532, a war of the two brothers between Huayna Capac's sons Huascar and Atahualpa and unrest among newly-conquered territories—and perhaps more importantly, smallpox, which had spread from Central America—had considerably weakened the empire.Pizarro did not have a formidable force; with just 168 men, 1 cannon and 27 horses, he often needed to talk his way out of potential confrontations that could have easily wiped out his party. The Spanish horsemen, fully armored, had great technological superiority over the Inca forces. The traditional mode of battle in the Andes was a kind of siege warfare where large numbers of usually reluctant draftees were sent to overwhelm opponents. The Spaniards had developed one of the finest military machines in the premodern world, tactics learned in their centuries' long fight against Moorish kingdoms in Iberiamarker. Along with this tactical and material superiority, the Spaniards also had acquired tens of thousands of native allies who sought to end the Inca control of their territories.

Their first engagement was the Battle of Puná, near present-day Guayaquilmarker, Ecuadormarker, on the Pacific Coast; Pizarro then founded the city of Piuramarker in July 1532. Hernando de Soto was sent inland to explore the interior and returned with an invitation to meet the Inca, Atahualpa, who had defeated his brother in the civil war and was resting at Cajamarcamarker with his army of 80,000 troops.

Pizarro and some of his men, most notably a friar named Vincente de Valverde, met with the Inca, who had brought only a small retinue. Through an interpreter Friar Vincente read the "Requerimiento" that demanded that he and his empire accept the yoke of King Charles I of Spain and convert to Christianity. Because of the language barrier and perhaps poor interpretation, Atahualpa became somewhat puzzled by the friar's description of Christian faith and was said to have not fully understood the envoy's intentions. After Atahualpa attempted further enquiry into the doctrines of the Christian faith under which Pizarro's envoy served, the Spanish became frustrated and impatient, attacking the Inca's retinuemarker and capturing Atahualpa as hostage.

Atahualpa offered the Spaniards enough gold to fill the room he was imprisoned in, and twice that amount of silver. The Inca fulfilled this ransom, but Pizarro deceived them, refusing to release the Inca afterwards. During Atahualpa's imprisonment Huascar was assassinated elsewhere. The Spaniards maintained that this was at Atahualpa's orders; this was used as one of the charges against Atahualpa when the Spaniards finally decided to put him to death, in August 1533.

Last Incas

The Spanish installed Atahualpa's brother Manco Inca Yupanqui in power; for some time Manco cooperated with the Spanish, while the Spanish fought to put down resistance in the north. Meanwhile an associate of Pizarro's, Diego de Almagro, attempted to claim Cusco for himself. Manco tried to use this intra-Spanish feud to his advantage, recapturing Cusco in 1536, but the Spanish retook the city afterwards. Manco Inca then retreated to the mountains of Vilcabamba, Peru, where he and his successors ruled for another 36 years, sometimes raiding the Spanish or inciting revolts against them. In 1572 the last Inca stronghold was conquered, and the last ruler, Túpac Amaru, Manco's son, was captured and executed. This ended resistance to the Spanish conquest under the political authority of the Inca state.

After the fall of the Inca Empire, the new Spanish rulers brutally oppressed the people and suppressed their traditions. Many aspects of Inca culture were systematically destroyed, including their sophisticated farming system. The Spaniards used the Inca mita (mandatory public service) system to literally work the people to death. One member of each family was forced to work in the gold and silver mines, the foremost of which was the titanic silver mine at Potosímarker. When a family member died, which would usually happen within a year or two, the family would be required to send a replacement.

The effects of smallpox on the Inca empire were even more devastating. Beginning in Colombiamarker, smallpox spread rapidly before the Spanish invaders first arrived in the empire. The spread was probably aided by the efficient Inca road system. Within a few years smallpox claimed between 60% and 94% of the Inca population, with other waves of European disease weakening them further. Smallpox was only the first epidemic.Typhus (probably) in 1546, influenza and smallpox together in 1558, smallpox again in 1589, diphtheria in 1614, measles in 1618 - all ravaged the remains of Inca culture.



There is some debate about the number of people inhabiting Tawantinsuyu at its peak, with estimates ranging from as few as 4 million people, to more than 37 million. The reason for these various estimates is that in spite of the fact that the Inca kept excellent census records using their quipu, knowledge of how to read them has been lost, and almost all of them had been destroyed by the Spaniards in the course of their conquest.

Daily life and diet

Approximately 200 varieties of potatoes were cultivated by the Incas and their predecessors

The Inca diet consisted primarily of potatoes and grains, supplemented by fish, vegetables, nuts, and maize (corn). Since grains were such an important staple in their diet, they had many varieties of grains. One particularly important grain to the Incas were quinoa. Quinoa played a fundamental role for the Incas, and they were referred to as “chisaya mama" or "mother of all grains". Camelid (llama and alpaca) meat and cuyes (guinea pigs) were also eaten in large quantities. In addition, they hunted various wild animals for meat, skins and feathers. Maize was malted and used to make chicha, a fermented alcoholic beverage. The Inca road system was key to farming success as it allowed distribution of foodstuffs over long distances.

The Aqllawasi (Acllahuasi) which means "house of the sun virgins" was developed under the Incas in Peru at about 1438–1532 CE . Its central purpose was in the manufacturing of garments for the Inca royalty and the worship of the sun god, Inti.


Since the Inca Empire lacked a written language, the empire's main form of communication and recording came from quipus, ceramics and spoken Quechua, the language the Incas imposed upon the peoples within the empire. The plethora of civilizations in the Andean region provided for a general disunity that the Incas needed to subdue in order to maintain control of the empire. While Quechua had been spoken in the Andean region, like central Peru, for several years prior to the expansion of the Inca civilization, the type of Quechua the Incas imposed was an adaptation from the Kingdom of Cusco (an early form of "Southern Quechua") of what some historians define as "Proto-Quechua" or Cusco dialect (the original Quechua dialect).

The language imposed by the Incas further diverted from its original phonetic tone as some societies formed their own regional varieties, or slang. The diversity of Quechua at that point and even today does not come as a direct result from the Incas, who are just a part of the reason for Quechua's diversity. The civilizations within the empire that had previously spoken Quechua kept their own variety distinct to the Quechua the Incas spread. Although these dialects of Quechua have a similar linguistic structure, they differ according to the region in which they are spoken. Although most of the societies within the empire implemented Quechua into their lives, the Incas allowed several societies to keep their old languages such as Aymara, which still remains a spoken language in contemporary Bolivia where it is the primary indigenous language and various regions of South America surrounding Bolivia. The linguistic body of the Inca Empire was thus largely varied, but it still remains quite an achievement for the Incas that went even beyond their times as the Spanish imposed the use of Spanish as a method to force their culture upon the indigenous peoples of South America (even though that further increased the diversity of the language).

It is proposed that the actual name of the spoken language of the Incan Empire was called Qhapaq Runasimi and that the Incan ruling elite spoke both Puquina and Qhapaq Runasimi (Quechua). However, Pukina ceased to be used in the 19th century. Under this proposed idea, the root meaning of Quechua was "taken by force, stolen" and a Dominican monk (Pedro Aparicio) mistakenly taught that the Peruvians referred to themselves as Quechuas when it was actually the actions of the Spaniards the people were referring to.

The Roman Catholic Church employed Quechua-Qhapaq Runasimi to evangelize in the Andean region. In some cases, these languages were taught to people who had originally spoken other indigenous languages. Today, Quechua-Qhapaq Runasimi and Aymara remain the most widespread Amerindian languages.

Organization of the empire

The four suyus of the empire.
most powerful figure in the empire was the Sapa Inca ('the unique Inca'). Only descendants of the original Inca tribe ascended to the level of Inca. Most young members of the Inca's family attended Yachay Wasi (houses of knowledge) to obtain their education.

The Inca Empire was a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provinces: Chinchay Suyu (NW), Anti Suyu (NE), Kunti Suyu (SW), and Qulla Suyu (SE). The four corners of these provinces met at the center, Cusco. Each province had a governor who oversaw local officials, who in turn supervised agriculturally-productive river valleys, cities and mines. There were separate chains of command for both the military and religious institutions, which created a system of partial checks and balances on power . The local officials were responsible for settling disputes and keeping track of each family's contribution to the mita (mandatory public service).


The main legislator, on inka traditions, governor Pachakutek Inka Jupanki who has established numerous laws, and reformed old was.


The Inca believed in reincarnation. Those who obeyed the Incan moral code—ama suwa, ama llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy)—"went to live in the Sun's warmth while others spent their eternal days in the cold earth" . The Inca also practiced cranial deformation. They achieved this by wrapping tight cloth straps around the heads of newborns in order to alter the shape of their soft skulls into a more conical form; this cranial deformation was made to distinguish social classes of the communities, with only the nobility having cranial deformation.

Arts and technology

Inca tunic

Monumental architecture

Architecture was by far the most important of the Inca arts, with textiles reflecting motifs that were at their height in architecture. The main example is the capital city of Cusco. The breathtaking site of Machu Picchu was constructed by Inca engineers. The stone temples constructed by the Inca used a mortarless construction that fit together so well that a knife could not be fitted through the stonework. This was a process first used on a large scale by the Pucara (ca. 300 BC–AD 300) peoples to the south in Lake Titicaca, and later in the great city of Tiwanakumarker (ca. AD 400–1100) in present day Bolivia. The rocks used in construction were sculpted to fit together exactly by repeatedly lowering a rock onto another and carving away any sections on the lower rock where the dust was compressed. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable.



Ceramics, precious metal work, and textiles

Almost all of the gold and silver work of the empire was melted down by the conquistadores.

Ceramics were painted using the polychrome technique portraying numerous motifs including animals,birds, waves, felines (which were popular in the Chavin culture) and geometric patterns found in the Nazca style of ceramics.In place of a written language Ceramics portrayed the very basic scenes of everyday life,including the smelting of metals,relationships and scenes of tribal warfare,it is through these preserved Ceramics that we know what life was like for the ancient South Americans. The most distinctive Inca ceramic objects are the Cusco bottles or ¨aryballos¨. Many of these pieces are on display in Lima in the Larco Archaeological Museummarker and the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History.

Communication and medicine

The Inca used an assemblages of knotted strings, known as Quipu to record information, the exact nature of which is no longer known. Originally it was thought that Quipu were used only as mnemonic devices or to record numerical data. Recent discoveries, however, have led to the theory that these devices were instead a form of writing in their own right .

The Inca made many discoveries in medicine. They performed successful skull surgery, which involved cutting holes in the skull in order to alleviate fluid buildup and inflammation caused by head wounds. Anthropologists have discovered evidence which suggests that most skull surgeries performed by Inca surgeons were successful. In pre-Inca times, only one-third of skull surgery patients survived the procedure. However, survival rates rose to 80-90% during the Inca era.


The Incas revered the coca plant as being sacred or magical. Its leaves were used in moderate amounts to lessen hunger and pain during work, but were mostly used for religious and health purposes. When the Spaniards realized the effects of chewing the coca leaves, they took advantage of it. They forced the people of the Tawantinsuyo (Peru) to become addicted to it to avoid having to provide the usual amounts food and rest while they were engaged in slave labour. The Chasqui (messengers) chewed coca leaves for extra energy to carry on their tasks as runners delivering messages throughout the empire. The coca leaf was also used during surgeries as an anaesthetic.

It is an honor and an extension of friendship if an Inca descendant offers a handful of coca leaves, picchar or acullicar. To chew the coca leaves with them is a sign of welcoming acceptance. The coca leaf still holds the sacred meaning it always had in ancient times.

Weapons, armor, and warfare

A detail of an Inca stone work
The Inca army was the most powerful in the area at that time, because they could turn an ordinary villager or farmer into a soldier, ready for battle. This is because every male Inca had to take part in war at least once so as to be prepared for warfare again when needed. By the time the empire had reached its large size, every section of the empire contributed in setting up an army for war.

The Incas had no iron or steel, and their weapons were no better than those of their enemies. They went into battle with the beating of drums and the blowing of trumpets. The armor used by the Incas included:
  • Helmets made of wood, copper, bronze, cane, or animal skin; some were adorned with feathers
  • Round or square shields made from wood or hide
  • Cloth tunics padded with cotton and small wooden planks to protect the spine

The Inca weaponry included:
  • Bronze or bone-tipped spears
  • Two-handed wooden swords with serrated edges
  • Clubs with stone and spiked metal heads
  • Woolen slings and stones
  • Stone or copper headed battle-axes
  • Bolas (stones fastened to lengths of cord)

Roads allowed very quick movement for the Inca army, and shelters called tambomarker were built one day's distance in travelling from each other, so that an army on campaign could always be fed and rested. This can be seen in names of ruins such as Ollantay Tambo, or My Lord's Storehouse. These were set up so the Inca and his entourage would always have supplies (and possibly shelter) ready as he traveled.

Inca flag

The rainbow flag

There are 16th and 17th century chronicles and references that support the idea of a banner, or flag, attributable to the Inca.Francisco López de Jerez wrote in 1534:
"all of them came distributed into squads, with their flags and captains commanding them, as well-ordered as Turks"

("todos venían repartidos en sus escuadras con sus banderas y capitanes que los mandan, con tanto concierto como turcos").

The chronicler, Bernabé Cobo, wrote:

"The royal standard or banner was a small square flag, ten or twelve spans around, made of cotton or wool linen, placed on the end of a long staff, stretched and stiff such that it did not wave in the air, and on it each king painted his arms and emblems, for each one chose different ones, though the sign of the Incas was the rainbow."

(...el guión o estandarte real era una banderilla cuadrada y pequeña, de diez o doce palmos de ruedo, hecha de lienzo de algodón o de lana, iba puesta en el remate de una asta larga, tendida y tiesa, sin que ondease al aire, y en ella pintaba cada rey sus armas y divisas, porque cada uno las escogía diferentes, aunque las generales de los Incas eran el arco celeste.)
-Bernabé Cobo, Historia del Nuevo Mundo (1653)

Guaman Poma's 1615 book, El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno, shows numerous line drawings of Inca flags.

In modern times the rainbow flag has been associated with the Tawantinsuyu and is displayed as a symbol of Inca heritage in Peru and Bolivia. The city of Cusco flies the Rainbow Flag. Even the Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo (2001–2006) flew the Rainbow Flag in Limamarker's presidential palace.

According to the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio, the flag only dates to the first decades of the 20th century.

See also



  • De la Vega, Garcilaso. The Incas: The Royal Commentaries of the Inca. New York: The Orion Press, 1961.
  • John Hemming. The Conquest of the Incas Harvest Press 2003. ISBN 978-0156028264.
  • MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas. Simon & Schuster, 2007. ISBN 978-0743260497.
  • Morales, Edmundo (1995). The Guinea Pig: Healing, Food, and Ritual in the Andes, University of Arizona Press. ISBN 0-8165-1558-1.
  • Popenoe, Hugh, Steven R. King, Jorge Leon, Luis Sumar Kalinowski, and Noel D. Vietmeyer. Lost Crops of the Incas. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1989.

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