The Inca Empire, 1438-1533, was almost the exact contemporary of the Aztecs, but it was located in the Andes of South America. In the Andes, the highest mountain 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. As a result, the western slopes of the Andes are mainly desert. Some weather stations in the Atacama desert, in today’s Chile, have never recorded any rain at all! Before the establishment of the Inca Empire, there were many other kingdoms and empires here. [Read more: “Kingdoms of Peru”] The vertical nature of life in the Andes meant that large states were difficult to establish, and instead there was a jumble of small political entities, all with a specific culture which had developed more or less on its own. One exception was the Tiwanaku who created a large empire in the first millennium CE, and then the Incas who did the same thing in the fifteenth century.
Inca means “lord” in Quechua, the Inca language, and it was originally a term that applied only to the ruling elite. The Incas themselves referred to their land as Tawantinsuyu, “the four regions,” an alliance of four states, but the name also referred to the cardinal points of the compass. Cuzco, in today’s Peru, was the capital of the empire. It was here that the Sapa Inca, the ruler, resided and where the main temples and government buildings were located. From Cuzco, the Incas controlled a vast area, some 5,000 kilometers in length, which included most of the Andes, but also the narrow strip of lowland along the Pacific coast and 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 dynasty in China.
The Sapa Inca was an autocratic ruler who wielded enormous power. He ruled for life and was not only the 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 even look at him. Everything he touched was burned in order to prevent witchcraft being performed against him. The rituals carried out 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 and its subjects. When a Sapa Inca died, a period of mourning ensued which lasted for up to a year. And yet the Sapa Inca would continue to exercise power even after his death — by means of his mummified corpse which continued to make an appearance on various state occasions.
The government of the Inca Empire was centralized and hierarchically organized. Below the Sapa Inca was his relative, the high priest of the Temple of the Sun, who in addition to his religious duties also served as commander of the army. Below him, in turn, we find the nobility of Cuzco, made up of various distant relatives of the ruler. The leading members of the nobility constituted a council which advised the Sapa Inca, but they were also responsible for choosing his successor. Although each Sapa Inca was to be succeeded by a son, there were often many sons to choose from, 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 these people who staffed the imperial bureaucracy. They 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 hierarchy, we find the peasants who made up some 98 percent of the population. Exactly how many people lived in the empire is less clear. The Incas kept excellent data on the population, but the records were kept by means of quipu, a rope-based language which so far has not been deciphered. [Read more: “Reading knots”] Current estimates of the size of the population vary widely — from 4 million to almost ten times as many — but a figure commonly cited is 12 million inhabitants.
The economic basis for the Incas’ success lay more than anything in their ability to master the climate and geography. They built enormous systems of terraces that provided irrigation, harnessed and reused water, but also helped to stop soil erosion. In addition, the terraces created micro-climates in which a range of different plants could be grown. 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 Incas kept animals — llamas and alpacas — which provided both meat and wool. But they could also get food from far further away. Communities high up in the Andes would often have contacts with people living along the Pacific Ocean. In the river valleys along the coast it was possible to grow beans, squash, and cotton, and from the sea came fish and shellfish.
Whatever surplus that was left over once the peasants had had enough to survive was gathered together by the Inca authorities and stored in enormous warehouses. Many other goods — clothing, ceramics, weapons, tools — were stored here too. In times of need, these items were distributed to the people. There were no public markets, and there was no currency. Instead, whenever a particular item was required, it had to be requested and was then dispatched by the bureaucracy. In addition, the Inca authorities organized feasts in public squares throughout the empire in which the common supplies were consumed. 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 entire 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 programs of the Inca state, provided a safety net and an insurance scheme that protected all inhabitants of the empire. Aspects of the ayllu system have remained to this day, and it has often been referred to in the political manifestos of various left-wing organizations. [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 their imperial conquests. The first Sapa Inca, Pachacuti, 1438-1471, began by attacking people living in the Ecuadorian lowlands and in the rainforests of what today is Bolivia and Peru. But his most famous victory was against the Chimor, the powerful kingdom to the north of Cuzco. [Read more: “Kingdoms of Peru“] 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 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 was 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 that 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. Other tactics were to use ostentatious displays of power or spectacular acts of cruelty by which their enemies were both overwhelmed and terrified. 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 in question. Auditors made regular visits to assure that the local administration was running smoothly and in line with Cuzco’s demands. At the same time, the imperial authorities were concerned to preserve a measure of local autonomy. Provinces were 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 too. 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 the authorities in 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 power of the Incas rested more than anything on their ability to build things — roads, dams, terraces, and irrigation canals. For these purposes, they employed conscript labor, and the work crews were clothed, fed and housed by the state. The road network may be the most stunning of these achievements. 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-westerly direction. The Incas carved out paths along the sides of the most precipitous cliffs, across the highest of mountain passes, and they bridged the deepest gorges. At regular intervals, there were relay stations — in total some 2,000 of them — where travelers could stop on their journeys and where the authorities would store food and weapons and garrison soldiers. Travelers would walk on these trails and an official team of mail carriers would run. Taken together the road network covered some 40,000 kilometers — almost exactly equivalent to the circumference of the earth.
The empire was held together by spiritual means too. In addition to the sun god, the Incas worshiped huacas, the Quechua name for unusual rock formations or other peculiar features of the landscape.[Read more: “Huacas, ceque, and Nazca lines”] According to Inca belief, the huacas were connected to each other in lines of spiritual energy that radiated out from the center of the empire. The spiritual connections reached even the remotest of places and the Incas 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: “Children of the mountain”]