Hatun Tópac; Viracocha, Portraits of Inca Kings, and Inca Tunic (Public Domain), Machu Picchu

Origin Myths of the Inca Civilization & Piecing Together Royal Heritage

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According to most historical accounts, especially those collected by the early Spanish chroniclers of the 16th century, and just after the destructive efforts of the conquistadors, the Inca were believed to have originated in the area of Lake Titicaca, south of present day Cusco, Peru. More specifically, archaeological evidence suggests that the Inca developed as a cohesive group on the Island of the Sun and Island of the Moon on what is today the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, as well as the nearby town of Copacabana. This is thought by many scholars to have begun around 100 BC to 100 AD.

Lake Titicaca, Peru (Public Domain)

Lake Titicaca, Peru (Public Domain)

Over the course of the next number of centuries, the Inca evolved as a rather complex society, especially in regards to agricultural cultivation, mainly in the form of terracing systems called Andene. Almost the entire Island of the Sun was developed with these Andene, which can be witnessed to this very day, though they are largely no longer in use.

Andenes at Moray, Peru.

Andenes at Moray, Peru. ( CC BY 3.0 )

The Navel of the World

Lake Titicaca was once part of the Pacific Ocean, and over the course of millions of years, due to friction between the Pacific and Nazca tectonic plates, it slowly rose to its present elevation of approximately 13,000 feet. Slowly, over time, the saline content of the lake was reduced from millions of years of rainfall, and a major or several major tectonic shifts caused the Altiplano area to tilt, rising in the north and sinking in the south. The last of these catastrophic movements likely occurred between 45,000 and 12,000 years ago, creating the largest salt flat in the world at Uyuni, south of Lake Titicaca, and shrinking the lake’s size by 90 percent.

he Salar Salt Flats of Uyuni (Public Domain)

The Salar Salt Flats of Uyuni (Public Domain)

The lake still has a high enough salt mineral content that the water cannot be used for irrigation, and that would have been true during Inca times as well; thus, they were dependent on rainfall to water their crops. Around 900 to 1000 AD, there was a 40-year drought, the result of local climate change, perhaps exacerbated by an excessive El Nino event, which put great hardship on the Inca people. This was further complicated by the invasion of indigenous Aymara Natives, who plotted to, and eventually ran the Inca out of the territory.

Again, according to most accounts, especially those of the Spanish chronicles, the Inca then ventured north, and over the course of time established themselves in what was to become their capital city of Cusco. In the Inca language, called Runa Simi which means the “peoples’ voice” and not Quechua which most presume, Cusco means “navel”, and was the navel or core of their world from its inception to the destruction by the Spanish in about 1532 AD.

Inca terraces at P'isaq. (Public Domain)

Inca terraces at P'isaq. (Public Domain)

Children of Viracocha

Oral tradition states that the Inca “rose from the waters” of Lake Titicaca at the behest of their creator God Viracocha, who had previously made a race of giants, but they were stupid and cumbersome, so he destroyed them in a great flood. In most of the accounts four pairs of twin brothers and sisters were created, the two most prominent of them being Manco Capac (royal founder) and his sister/wife Mama Ocllo, who became the first official Inca rulers, likely by the time they reached and established Cusco.

Viracocha (Public Domain)

Viracocha (Public Domain)

Another account, taught to the author by Cusco-based anthropologist Dr. Theo Paredes, is that this first ruler’s name was Mallku Capac, which could be translated as “of royal wisdom.” Dr. Paredes, who is an expert of the Runa Simi Inca language believes that the reason why the Inca first arrived in Cusco was not that they had been chased out of the Lake Titicaca area by the Aymara people, but that ancient wisdom keepers, who were carriers of very ancient traditions lived in Cusco, and that Mallku Capac had to go there to complete his education in order to become the first high Inca.

Part of the Inca Trail system (Public Domain)

Part of the Inca Trail system (Public Domain)

In other legends, Manco Capac (also known as Ayar Manco) was the son of Viracocha of Paqariq Tampu (six leagues or 25 km south of Cusco). He and his brothers (Ayar Auca, Ayar Cachi and Ayar Uchu) and sisters (Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Raua and Mama Ipacura) lived near Cusco at Paqariq Tampu, and they united their people with other tribes encountered in their travels. They sought to conquer the tribes of the Cusco Valley, and these legends also incorporate an important golden staff, thought to have been given to Manco Capac by his father.

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