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The Funeral of Atahualpa by Luis Montero

The Dramatic Life and Death of Atahualpa, the Last Emperor of the Inca Empire

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The Inca ruler, Atahualpa, is one of the key figures in the history of the European colonialization of South America. As the last emperor of the largest empire in pre-Columbian Empire, Atahualpa was an immensely powerful leader. In 1532, however, Atahualpa was taken captive by a small Spanish force of 200 men under the conquistador Francisco Pizarro at Cajamarca. The capture of the most powerful ruler in South America paved the way for the Spanish colonization of South America. To understand the situation of the Inca Empire in 1532, one has to go back several years.   

Portrait of Atahualpa, Fourteenth Inca. Brooklyn Museum

Portrait of Atahualpa, Fourteenth Inca. Brooklyn Museum (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1526 or 1527, the Inca ruler, Huayna Capac (“the young mighty one”), had died, possibly due to an infectious disease brought to the New World by the Europeans. The crisis was exacerbated when Huayna Capac’s designated heir, Ninan Cuyuchi, died as well. The death of these two men split the empire into two, divided between two of Huayna’s other sons. In the north, Atahualpa ruled his part of the empire from Quito (where his mother was a princess), whilst his half-brother, Huascar, controlled the south from the empire’s capital of Cusco.

Turmoil struck with Inca ruler Huayna Capac died

Turmoil struck with Inca ruler Huayna Capac died (Wikimedia Commons)

This arrangement, however, did not last for long, and a bloody civil war broke out within five years of Huayna Capac’s death. At one point of the civil war, Huascar managed to capture and imprison Atahualpa, though he managed to escape. Atahualpa then began marching south against Huascar, where he defeated his rival’s forces, and slaughtered his followers along the way. At Cajamarca, Atahualpa set up his camp, where he planned his final attack on Huascar. At the Battle of Quipaipan, Atahualpa inflicted a crushing defeat on Huascar, and captured his enemy as well. He then invited the other leading leaders of the empire to Cusco to partition the empire again between Huascar and himself. This was a ruse, however, and Atahualpa killed them all when they had arrived in the capital so as to eliminate any threats to his throne.


Atahualpa could not have foreseen an even greater threat that arrived just a few months after his triumph in the Inca civil war – conquistador Francisco Pizarro.

Although Francisco Pizarro had arrived in Peru in early 1531, it was only about a year and a half later that he began his march to Cusco. With just 200 men, it was extremely audacious on Pizarro’s part to march directly into the heart of the Inca Empire. With 80,000 men at his command, Atahualpa did not view Pizarro and the Spanish as a threat.

Pizarro and his followers in Lima in 1535

Pizarro and his followers in Lima in 1535 (Wikipedia)

Atahualpa underestimated his opponent, however, and accepted an invitation from Pizarro to attend a feast at Cajamarca. Atahualpa also decided to leave his warriors in the mountains and travel to Cajamarca with just 5,000 unarmed retainers. In the meantime, the Spanish made preparations to trap the unsuspecting Atahualpa. When the Inca ruler arrived at Cajamarca, he was met by Vicente de Valverde, a friar accompanying the conquistadors. Valverde attempted to convert Atahualpa to Christianity, and urged him to accept the Spanish monarch, Charles V, as sovereign. This greatly angered Atahualpa, who refused the friar’s demands. At Valverde’s signal, Pizarro’s men opened fire at the Incas.

Inca-Spanish confrontation in Cajamarca, with Emperor Atahuallpa in the center

Inca-Spanish confrontation in Cajamarca, with Emperor Atahuallpa in the center (Wikimedia Commons)

In just one hour, 5,000 Incas were slaughtered by the Spanish. The only injury sustained on the Spanish side was Pizarro himself, who was cut on his hand as he rescued Atahualpa from death and captured him, knowing that the Inca ruler was more valuable alive than dead. A living Atahualpa was the only guarantee for the Spanish that the 80,000 Inca warriors would not come crashing down on them from the mountains.


Even as a prisoner, Atahualpa was still the ruler of his Empire and yielded great power. He sent an order to have Huascar, who was under heavy guard at Andamarca, to be executed, as he found out that the Spanish were considering placing him on the throne. The Spanish also caught wind of a rumor that one of Atahualpa’s generals was marching to Cajamarca with a mighty army at Atahualpa’s behest to rescue him. On the charges of stirring up rebellion, Atahualpa was sentenced to burn at the stake in 1533, as befitting a heathen. Atahualpa was horrified, since the Inca believed that the soul would not be able to go on to the afterlife if the body were burned. He offered to fill a large room once with gold and twice with silver within two months, most likely in an attempt to avoid being killed. However, his offer was refused.  Atahualpa converted to Roman Catholicism before his death, in order to avoid being burnt at the stake. He was baptized and given the name Francisco Atahualpa. In accordance with his request, he was strangled with a garrote on 26 July 1533. He was given a Christian burial.

It is said that Atahualpa’s loyal followers exhumed his body, mummified it, and buried it secretly somewhere in the north of his empire. As for the large hoard of treasure that was amassed by his followers to pay (unsuccessfully) for his release, it has never been found. The search of Atahualpa’s riches has since become one of the world's greatest historical treasure hunts, inspiring many expeditions, none of which have ever been successful – yet.

Top image: The Funeral of Atahualpa by Luis Montero (Wikimedia Commons)


Copping, J., 2013. Explorers hot on the trail of Atahualpa and the Treasure of the Llanganates. [Online]
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Minster, C., 2015. Biography of Atahualpa, Last King of the Inca. [Online]
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Owen, J., 2015. Lost Inca Gold—Ransom, Riches, and Riddles. [Online]
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Sheffer, D. J., 2013. Inca Civil War. In: R. M. Seaman, ed. Conflict in the Early Americas: An Encyclopedia of the Spanish Empire's Aztec, Inca, and Mayan Conquests. ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara, pp. 183-185., 2013. Atahualpa, Last Inca Emperor. [Online]
Available here., 2015. This Day in History: Pizarro traps Inca emperor Atahualpa. [Online]
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By Ḏḥwty



Pete Wagner's picture

When does it ever work out for a people whose leaders agree to cooperate with the conquistadors (modern or latter day)?  Bait, swicheroo, whoosh, and freedom gone.  It's a tyrants' world ...until we wise up.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

In just one hour, 5000 Inca's were slaughtered…...after a priest gave the sign. Seems that people of all religions can be beastly murderers


Sunny Young

dhwty's picture


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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