The Americas

The Incas


The Inca Empire, 1438–1533 CE, was almost the exact contemporary of the Aztecs but it was located in the Andes, the vast mountain range in South America which stretches along the entire western side of the continent. In the Andes the highest peaks approach 7,000 meters and much of the area consists of a highland plateau located some 4,000 meters above sea level. This is an inhospitable environment to say the least, in particular since the high mountains block most rain clouds coming from the Atlantic Ocean. As a result the western slopes of the Andes are mainly desert. “Inka” means “lord” in Quechua, the Inca language, and it was originally a term which applied only to the ruling elite. The Incas themselves referred to their land as Tawantinsuyu, “the four regions,” an alliance of states which also corresponded to the cardinal points of the compass. Cuzco, in today’s Peru, was the capital of the empire and it was here that the Sapa Inca, the ruler, resided and where all the main temples and government buildings were located. From Cuzco the Inca controlled a vast area, some 5,000 kilometers in length, which included most of the Andes but also the narrow strip of low-land along the Pacific coast and even parts of the Amazon rainforest. The Inca empire was the largest empire in the world at the time — larger than the Ottomans and the Ming.

The Sapa Inca was an autocratic ruler who wielded enormous power. He ruled for life and was not only head-of-state but also in charge of military and religious affairs. The Incas worshiped Inti, the sun god, and the Sapa Inca was considered as Inti’s living representative on earth. Indeed, the Sapa Inca was considered so holy that ordinary people were not allowed to look at him and everything he touched was burned in order to prevent witchcraft against him. The rituals performed at the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, with the Sapa Inca in attendance, was a great religious occasion but also a source of political identity for the empire. When the Sapa Inca died there was a period of mourning which lasted for up to a year, although he would continue to exercise power by means of his mummified corpse which continued to make occasional appearances in state ceremonies.

The government of the Inca empire was centralized and hierarchical. Below the Sapa Inca was his relative, the high priest of the Temple of the Sun, who in addition often served as a military commander. Below him, in turn, we find the nobility of Cuzco, made up of various distant relatives of previous Sapa Incas. The leading members of the nobility constituted a council which advised the Sapa Inca, but they were in addition responsible for choosing his successor. Although each Sapa Inca was to be succeeded by a son, it was never clear which one, and conflicts regarding succession often split the ruling elite and undermined the power of the empire. Below the nobility we find the leading members of ethnic groups who had been present in the region before the Incas rose to power. It was more than anything these people who staffed the imperial bureaucracy, levied taxes, conducted censuses of the population and were in charge of irrigation works, road building, and other infrastructural projects. At the bottom of the social hieararchy we find the peasants who made up some 98% of the population. Exactly how many people who lived in the empire is less clear. The Incas kept excellent data on the population to be sure but the records were made by quipu which so far have not been deciphered.[Read more: Quipu] As a result, current estimates of the size of the population of the empire vary widely — from 4 million to almost ten times as many — but a common figure is 12 million people.

The economic basis for the Inca’s success lay in their ability to master the climate and the geography. They built enormous irrigation systems of terraces which harnessed and reused the water but also helped stop soil erosion. In addition the terraces created micro climates in which a range of different plants could be grown, although here, as elsewhere in the Americas, corn was the main staple. It is estimated that more land was under cultivation during the Incas than is the case today. The peasants grew the food they needed and kept animals — llamas and alpacas — which provided meat and wool. However, whatever surplus that was left over was gathered together by the authorities and stored in enormous store-houses. In fact, many other goods — clothing, ceramics, weapons, tools — were stored here too. In times of need these items were then distributed to the people. There were no public markets in the Inca empire and there was no currency. Instead whenever a particular item was needed, it had to be requested and was then dispatched by the Inca bureaucracy. In addition, the Inca authorities organized feasts in the public squares throughout the empire in which the common supplies were consumed. People paid their taxes by means of agricultural produce or by working on the government’s infrastructural projects. The labor tax also included military service, and it was in this way that the Inca assembled their armies.

Much of the agricultural labor was organized by community groups known as ayllu. The ayllu took the household as its basic unit but it expanded through neighbors and family networks to include whole villages. Members of the ayllu worked the land together, sharing what the earth produced — from all according to ability; to all according to need. The ayllu, in combination with the welfare provisions of the Inca state, guaranteed a safety-net and an insurance scheme to all inhabitants of the empire. Aspects of the ayllu system have remained to this day. In fact, it has often been referred to in the propaganda by assorted left-wing movements throughout South America.[Read more: Túpac Amaru]

Although the Incas had lived in Cuzco since the thirteenth-century, it was only in the middle of the fifteenth-century that the imperial conquests began. The first Sapa Inca of the empire, Pachacuti, 1438–1471, started by attacking people living in the Ecuadorian lowlands and in the jungles of what today is Bolivia and Peru. But his most famous victory was against the Chimor, the powerful kingdom to the north of Cuzco. Despite attempts to reach an amicable settlement, the Chimorese king refused to surrender, a decision he was to bitterly regret. When Pachacuti died, shortly after the victory, he was succeeded by his son, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, 1471-1493, who already had served as commander of the Inca army. During his reign the conquests continued. First against the kingdom of Quito to the north and then against a number of smaller kingdoms including ones located in the extreme south, in what today is Argentina. Here, however, the Incas met with considerable resistance. It seemed clear that the empire had found its southernmost limits.

Despite these bloody conflicts, warfare was not in fact the chief means by which the conquests were made. The Incas much preferred their enemies to surrender voluntarily and to this end they, much as the Aztecs, relied on a mixture of kindness and cunning. Combining lavish gifts with assurances of protection, they made offers which their enemies could not refuse. And often a marriage alliance with a daughter from the Sapa Inca’s extended family was thrown into the bargain. Another tactic were ostentatious displays of power or spectacular acts of cruelty whereby their enemies were both terrified and overwhelmed. But the Incas used rational arguments too. We, they explained, represent a higher civilization and a better way of organizing social and political life. No one else can guarantee peace and a constant food supply, even during droughts and other calamities.

Once a kingdom had joined the empire, the Incas put one of their governors in charge of the province, and auditors made regular visits to assure that the local administration was running smoothly and in line with Cuzco’s demands. But at the same time the imperial authorities were concerned to preserve a measure of local autonomy. Provinces were, for example, administered by local people and traditional, local, elites often mixed socially with the new rulers. Although the cult of Inti, the sun god, was required throughout the empire, local religions were respected and supported. Local administrators who had proven themselves to be loyal were rewarded with yearly trips to Cuzco where they exchanged gifts with the Sapa Inca and were wined and dined. In addition, the large building projects in which the imperial authorities engaged were thought of both as a way of improving the living conditions of their new subjects and as a way to connect them more firmly to Cuzco. But clearly these efforts did not always work. There were rebellions in the Ecuadorian lowlands, in the jungles of Bolivia and Peru, and in many other places.

The most important of these public works projects, and the best way of connecting the provinces to Cuzco, was to build roads. Indeed, their extensive road network may be the Inca’s most stunning achievement. There was a main road that ran the entire length of the empire from the north to south but many branch roads too that ran in an east-west direction. The Incas carved out paths along the side of the most precipitous cliffs, across the highest of mountain passes, and they bridged the deepest of gorges. At regular intervals there were way stations — in total some 2,000 of them — where travelers could stop on their journey and where the authorities would store food, weapons and perhaps garrison soldiers. Travelers would walk on these trails and an official team of mail carriers would run. However, since the Inca had no system of writing, the messages the mailmen delivered were given in quipu or in a confidential multicolor coding system. Taken together the road network covered some 40,000 kilometers — almost exactly equivalent to the circumference of the earth.

But the empire was held together by spiritual forces too. In addition to the sun god, the Incas worshiped huaca, the Quechua name for unusual rock formations or other peculiar features of the landscape.[Read more: Huacas and ceques] According to the Inca belief, the huacas were connected to each other in lines of spiritual energy that radiated out from the center of the empire. Together these lines formed a spiritual grid in which all imperial subjects could find their place and through which they all were connected. The spiritual connections reached even the remotest of places and the Inca built temples, and held religious ceremonies, even on the highest peaks of the Andes. Many of these religious sites have only recently been discovered and many sites, no doubt, remain unknown to this day.[Read more: Machu Picchu]