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The Inca Empire: What Made it so Powerful?

The Inca Empire: What Made it so Powerful?


The Inca (also spelled as Inka) Empire was a South American empire that existed between the 15th and 16th centuries. The Inca Empire was the largest pre-Hispanic civilization in South America and ruled the area along the continent’s Pacific coast. At its height of power, the Inca Empire stretched from northern Ecuador all the way south to central Chile and ruled over a population of 12 million, from over 100 different ethnic groups.

Maintaining the empire’s cohesion was not an easy task and sophisticated innovations had to be devised. These include an advanced road system, highly-developed agricultural techniques, and a centralized language and religion. These developments not only ensured the cohesion of the Inca Empire, but also contributed to its wealth and prosperity.

In spite of its might, the Inca Empire fell to a handful of Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro. Having conquered the Inca Empire, the conquistadors plundered the empire’s wealth and left the civilization of the Inca in ruins. Nevertheless, some remnants of the Inca Empire still survive till this day and provide us with a glimpse of the empire’s lost glory.

The Four Regions of the Inca Empire

The Inca Empire was known to its inhabitants as Tawantinsuyu, which means ‘The Four Provinces’ in Quechua, the official language of the empire. The empire’s capital, Cusco, was literally at the center of the empire, as it was where the corners of the four provinces met.

The four regions of the Inca Empire. (Beao / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The four regions of the Inca Empire. (Beao / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Originally, the word ‘Inca’ was the title of the emperor. This meaning is retained in the English language even today. Nevertheless, ‘Inca’ is more commonly used nowadays to refer to the people and the civilization itself.

The Inca have two oral traditions regarding the foundation of their civilization. According to one of these, the supreme god of the Inca pantheon, Viracocha, sent his four sons and four daughters to establish a village. One of the couples, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, had a son, Sinchi Roca, who led them to the valley of Cusco (in the southeast of present-day Peru).

A settlement was founded there and Manco Capac became its first ruler. In the other story, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo were commanded by Inti, the sun god, to emerge from the depths of Lake Titicaca to establish the city of Cusco. Using a series of underground caves, the couple made their way to Cusco and became the progenitor of the empire’s royal dynasty.

Manco Capac, first ruler of the Inca Empire. (Brooklyn Museum / Public Domain)

Manco Capac, first ruler of the Inca Empire. (Brooklyn Museum / Public Domain)

Modern scholars, on the other hand, believe the Inca first emerged as a small tribe in the Cusco valley around the 12th century. The Inca established a small city-state there but remained relatively unimportant. They began to expand their territory during the 14th century, when they were under the rule of Mayta Capac, the 4th emperor.

Under Mayta Capac’s leadership, the Inca attacked neighboring villages and probably extracted tribute from them. Nevertheless, the influence of the Inca did not extend beyond the valley of Cusco, and it was only during the reign of the next emperor, Capac Yupanqui, that this was achieved.

Still, the territory controlled by the Inca at that time could hardly be considered to be an empire, and it was only during the 15th century that Inca expansionism gained momentum. Under the 8th emperor, Viracocha, the Ayarmaca became the first ethnic group to be subjugated by the Inca.

Viracocha also gained control of the Urubamba Valley through military conquest. Moreover, Viracocha initiated a program of permanent conquests by placing garrisons among the settlements of the conquered peoples. It was his successor, Pachacuti, however, who turned the Inca city-state into an empire.

The Growth of the Inca Empire

The name ‘Pachacuti’ may be translated to mean “He who remakes the world”, or “Earth Shaker”, which is apt for the man who transformed the Inca from a minor tribe into an empire. The year 1438 is an important date in the study of the Inca Empire, as this is the earliest date that can be assigned with certainty to the history of the Inca royal dynasty.

It was in 1438 that Pachacuti became the ruler of the Inca. According to one version of the story, Pachacuti usurped the throne from his brother, Urco. Another version states that Urco had been appointed as crown prince. During an invasion of Cusco by the Chankas, the emperor and crown prince fled for their lives.

Statue of Pachacuti in Cusco, Peru. Pachacuti transformed the Inca Empire. (LoggaWiggler / Public Domain)

Statue of Pachacuti in Cusco, Peru. Pachacuti transformed the Inca Empire. (LoggaWiggler / Public Domain)

Pachacuti, on the other hand, stayed behind to organize the defense of the city. The Chankas were so badly beaten during the ensuing battle that Pachacuti won the recognition of the people and replaced Urco as crown prince.

As emperor, Pachachuti expanded the territory controlled by the Inca southward to the Titicaca Basin and northward all the way to Quito (the capital of modern-day Ecuador). During these conquests, many powerful tribes, including the Chanka and Quechua were subjugated. In order to ensure the political stability of his empire, Pachacuti pursued a policy of forced resettlement of the conquered peoples.

By distributing the various ethnic groups throughout the empire, Pachacuti made it more difficult for the subjugated tribes to organize revolts. Apart from that, Pachacuti treated the defeated peoples with respect. The tribal leaders were often allowed to retain their positions and the cultures of the conquered tribes were assimilated, rather than destroyed.

Pachacuti was not only a formidable conqueror (which earned him the nickname ‘Napoleon of the Andes’), but also a skilled administrator. The concept of ‘Tawantinsuyu’ originated with Pachacuti, as he divided the empire into four provinces – Chinchasuyu (in the northwest), Antisuyu (in the northeast), Contisuyu (in the southwest), and Collasuyu (in the southeast) each of which was led by a governor.

These governors oversaw the exaction of the labor tax which laid the foundation of the empire’s economy. This tax could be paid through military service, working on public construction projects, or farming.

Pachacuti died in 1471 and was succeeded by his son, Tupac. Like his father, Tupac was a capable leader and continued the expansionist policy of his predecessor. In fact, Tupac’s military prowess had already been demonstrated during his father’s lifetime, as he participated in Pachacuti’s military campaigns. Tupac’s most significant military victory was the conquest of the Chimor (also spelled as Chimu), who were the only serious challenge to total Inca rule on the Peruvian coast.

Additionally, Tupac also pushed the Inca Empire into modern-day central Chile, which was the empire’s southernmost extent. Unfortunately, Tupac’s death in 1493 was marked by a short period of chaos, as his many sons fought each other for the throne, with Huayna Capac emerging as the victor.

Huayna Capac expanded the empire further, though not as much as his predecessors. Huayna Capac’s conquests pushed the northern border of the empire to the Ancasmayo River, which serves today as the boundary between Ecuador and Colombia.

The Spanish and the Inca Empire

By the 1520s, the Spanish were already in the Americas and would deal the first blow, albeit indirectly, to the Inca Empire. When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they brought with them diseases that the indigenous population had never encountered before, including smallpox, measles, and typhus. These foreign diseases spread rapidly among the natives and turned into an epidemic.

These diseases reached the Inca as well, probably brought to them by a tribe further east that had come into contact with the Spanish. The epidemic killed off many Inca, including Huayna Capac and his designated successor, both of whom died around 1525. Another war of succession was triggered, this time lasting several years.

The Inca Civil War (known also as the War of the Two Brothers) ended in 1532, when Huascar was defeated by his brother, Atahualpa. The latter became the new emperor, but his joy was short-lived. In November that year, as Atahualpa was celebrating his victory over Huascar in Cajamarca, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his men arrived.

Atahualpa agreed to meet the Spanish but was ambushed in the Cajamarca town square and taken captive. With the emperor held hostage no one dared attack the Spanish. Moreover, the long civil war had already weakened the Inca army and the Inca were not unified, one faction supporting Atahualpa, while another was loyal to Huascar.

Engraving of the Battle of Cajamarca, showing Emperor Atahualpa surrounded on his palanquin. (Jacek Halicki / Public Domain)

Engraving of the Battle of Cajamarca, showing Emperor Atahualpa surrounded on his palanquin. (Jacek Halicki / Public Domain)

This disunity is evident in the fact that when news of Atahualpa’s capture reached Huascar (who himself was a prisoner of Atahualpa’s) and his followers, they rejoiced. They failed to realize, however, that the Spanish were not merely the enemies of Atahualpa, but of the whole Inca Empire.

In any case, Atahualpa, who was allowed by the Spanish to run the empire from captivity, gave orders for Huascar’s execution. Huascar was killed because Atahualpa was afraid that a meeting between his rival and the Spanish could result in a deal that would cause his downfall. Atahualpa himself was later executed by the Spanish on the 26th of July 1533, on charges of treachery.

Atahualpa, of the Inca Empire, was executed by the Spanish. (DcoetzeeBot / Public Domain)

Atahualpa, of the Inca Empire, was executed by the Spanish. (DcoetzeeBot / Public Domain)

The Spanish had heard rumors that one of Atahualpa’s generals was leading an army from Quito to liberate the emperor, though it was later proved to be false. Following Atahualpa’s death, the Spanish marched on Cusco and easily captured the empire’s capital.

The death of Atahualpa and the fall of Cusco, however, was not the end of the Inca Empire. The Spanish were aware that they were heavily outnumbered and attempted to make peace with the local population by installing a new emperor, Tupac Huallpa, one of Huayna Capac’s other sons. When he died of smallpox shortly after his coronation, Manco Capac, another of Huayna Capac’s sons, was appointed as emperor.

It goes without saying that the Spanish intended to use these emperors as puppets. As a consequence, the Spanish had little respect for Manco Capac and the emperor was terribly abused, especially by the brothers of Franciso Pizarro, Juan and Gonzalo. Eventually, the emperor had enough of this, escaped from captivity in 1535, and launched a rebellion.

Although Manco Capac’s call to arms raised an army of at least 100,000 strong, they failed to capture Cusco and drive the Spanish out. Manco Capac retreated to Vilcabamba, where he and his successors continued to resist the Spanish until 1572.

The Legacy of the Inca Empire

Although the Spanish conquistadors ravaged the Inca Empire, they were not able to completely destroy the empire’s achievements, which are being rediscovered today by scholars. One of the most impressive feats that the Inca Empire achieved was the Inca road system (known also as Chapac Nan, meaning ‘Royal Road’), which was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.

This was the most advanced and extensive road system in pre-Hispanic South America and covered a distance of 18,641 miles (30,000 kilometers). This road system crossed various geographical terrains, from the peaks of the Andes (at an altitude of over 19,700 feet or 6,000 meters) to the coast, and from rainforests to deserts, and would have been a challenge to the Inca engineers and builders.

A road from the Inca Empire climbing a hillside at the Mosollaqta Lake, Peru. (Aga Khan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A road from the Inca Empire climbing a hillside at the Mosollaqta Lake, Peru. (Aga Khan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The road system took centuries to build and is today located in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. This sophisticated road network enabled the Inca to hold their vast empire together, as it facilitated communication, trade, and defense in the empire’s various regions.

Many other remains left behind by the Inca testify to the grandeur of their civilization, some more familiar than others. Machu Picchu, for instance, is arguably the most famous Inca site, and like the Inca road system, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the other hand, one of the lesser-known achievements of the Inca Empire is the level of skill attained by their doctors in cranial surgery, which, according to a 2018 report, was better than their counterparts who lived during the American Civil War.

The results of a study on Inca and other pre-Hispanic Peruvian skulls, jointly conducted by David Kushner (University of Miami), John Verano (Tulane University), and Anne Titelbaum (University of Arizona) suggest that the success rate of trepanation (a surgical process to make a hole in the skull for medical reasons) was as high as 80% during the time of the Inca. By comparison, Civil War doctors had a success rate of 50%.

Another lesser-known achievement of the Inca Empire is the development of a writing system. For a long time, scholars believed that the Inca Empire functioned without a writing system. This was regarded as a mystery, as writing is thought to be one of the fundamental aspects of civilization.

Although the Inca are not known to have left behind written records, they did leave behind colorful knotted cords known as khipu. For a long time, scholars knew that these artifacts were used to record numbers.

They were also aware that the khipu may have been used to record myths, songs, and stories, though they have not been able to crack the code. In recent times, breakthroughs have been made in the decoding of this recording system, and it is hoped that the tales contained within the khipu will be soon deciphered.

Khipu ‘talking knots’ from the Inca Empire displayed at the Museo Machu Picchu, Casa Concha, Cusco. (Pi3.124 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Khipu ‘talking knots’ from the Inca Empire displayed at the Museo Machu Picchu, Casa Concha, Cusco. (Pi3.124 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

To conclude, the Inca Empire is no doubt one of the world’s great civilizations. Despite its tragic end at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors, the legacy of the Inca survives till this day. Scholarly research on the Inca and their empire has provided us with much insight into this sophisticated civilization and will continue to do so in the future.

Top image: Golden sun rays on Machu Picchu of the Inca Empire. Source: Creuxnoir / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren            


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The author stated that the Incas were conquered by but a handful of Spaniards under Pizarro. That the Spaniards were few is correct, but what was left out, as is commonly done, is that many thousands of tribesmen that the Incas had conquered and oppressed joined with the Spaniards in warfare against the Incas, seeking to regain their independence. Pizarro would not have succeeded without them, neither would have Hernan Cortez in his conquest of Mexico, in which the same thing happened with tribes conquered by the Aztecs and oppressed by them - not to mention that members of those tribes were captured and sacrificed to Mayan gods.

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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