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Inca Empire

(Redirected from Tahuantinsuyu)
For other meanings of Inca, see Inca (disambiguation).
A view of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Inca," now an archaelogical site.
A view of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Inca," now an archaelogical site.

The Inca Empire (called Tahuantinsuyu in Quechua, or Tawantinsuyu in modern Aymara) was an empire located in South America from 1438 CE to 1533 CE.



The meaning of the native word Tahuantinsuyu in Quechua is "four corners", which referred to the four provinces whose corners met at the capital Cuzco. The foreign name Inca Empire is derived from the word Inca which means "Emperor".

The Inca people began as a tribe in the Cuzco area around the 12th century CE. Under the leadership of Manco Capac they formed the small city-state of Qusqo, or Cuzco in English. But under the command of Pachacuti in 1438 CE they began a run of conquest and peaceful assimilations that, within a hundred years, grew to encompass most of the civilized world of South America. At its height, Tahuantinsuyu included what are now Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and also extended into portions of what are now Chile, Argentina and Colombia. However, they had a short run as an empire, by 1533 CE Atahualpa, the last Inca, was killed on the orders of the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro, marking the turning point in the quick decline of the empire itself.

The official language of Tahuantinsuyu was Quechua, but the people spoke over seven hundred local languages. The Inca leadership worshipped Pachacamac, while their subjects had to worship Inti the sun god. They were allowed to worship their local god as long as they accepted Inti as the most powerful god, so many ayllus (extended families) had their own god, and the city states brought into the empire would retain their previous god or gods as minor gods.

Today the word Inca still refers to the emperor, but can also be used to refer to the people, the civilization, and is used as an adjective when referring to the beliefs of the people or the artifacts they left behind.



The Inca had two foundation myths. In one, Tici Viracocha of 'Colina de las Ventanas' in Pacaritambo sent forth his four sons and four daughters to establish a village. Along the way Sinchi Roca was born to Manco and Ocllo, and Sinchi Roca is the person who finally led them to the valley of Cuzco where they founded their new village. There Manco became their leader and became known as Manco Capac.

In the other foundation myth, the sun god Inti ordered Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo to emerge from the depths of Lake Titicaca and found the city of Cuzco. They traveled by means of underground caves until reaching Cuzco where they established Hurin Cuzco, or first dynasty of Cuzco.

We know of these myths in part because Christian priests sometimes described Inca books before burning them, mostly to establish how wicked the Inca were and to ridicule their creation myths. There probably existed a Manco Capac who became the leader of his tribe. The archeological evidence seems to indicate that the Inca were a relatively unimportant tribe until the time of Sinchi Roca, also called Cinchi Roca, who is the first figure in Inca mythology whose existence can be supported historically.

For more on the legends and the rulers see: Inca mythology and Supa Inca, resp.


Supa Inca Pachacuti reorganized the city state of Cuzco into the Tahuantinsuyu. The Tahuantinsuyu was a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provincial governments with powerful leaders: the Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Condesuyu (SW), and Collasuyu (SE). The four corners of these provinces met at the center, Cuzco. The land Pachacuti conquered was about the size of the thirteen colonies of the United States in 1776. Tahuantinsuyu as of 1463 CE is shown in red on the map. Pachacuti is also thought to have built Machu Picchu, either as a family home, or as a sort of Camp David.

Pachacuti would send spies to kindoms he wanted in his empire who would report back on their political organization, their military might and wealth. Pachacuti would then send messages to the leaders of the lands to be conquered telling them the benefits of joining his empire, and offering them presents of luxury goods, such as high quality textiles with a promise that they would be materially richer as subject kings of the Inca. Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli, and did not fight. The ruler's children would be given an education in Inca administration in Cuzco and their would return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate the former ruler's children into the Inca nobility, and with luck marry their daughters into families at various corners of the empire.

His son, Tupac Inca, conquered even more land, most importantly the Kindom of Chimor, the Inca's only serious rival for the coast of Peru. His empire stretched north into modern day Equador and Colombia.

Huayna Capac outdid them both in square milege by extending the empire from the mountains to the sea along its entire length, as well as conquering more of the rich lands surrounding Lake Titicaca and extending the empire south to encompass much of modern day Chile.

It is important to understand that the components of the empire were not all uniformly loyal, nor were the local cultures fully integrated. For instance, the Chimú used money in their commerce, while the Inca empire as a whole had an economy based on exchange and taxation of luxury goods and labor (It is said that the Inca tax collectors would take lice of the head of an lame and old as a symbolic tribute). The portions of the Chachapoya that had been conquered were almost openly hostile to the Inca, and the Inca nobles rejected an offer of refuge in their kindom after their troubles with the Spanish.

Spanish conquest and Vilcabamba

Main article: Spanish conquest of Peru

In 1532, when Spanish explorers led by Francisco Pizarro arrived on the coast of Peru, the empire stretched as far north as present-day Colombia and as far south as Chile and Argentina. But smallpox introduced by the Spanish had brought on a civil war and unrest among newly-conquered territories had begun to weaken the empire. Pizarro did not have a formidable force, he had fewer than 200 knights and 27 horses and needed to lie his way out of potential confrontations that could have wiped out his mercenaries in a matter of minutes. The Inca fought fiercely against the Spanish conquistadors, but did not have the technology or the loyalty of other tribes that would have been required to win. The Inca retreated to the mountain regions of Vilcabamba, where they remained for over thirty years after the conquest of Cuzco. In 1572, the last of the Inca rulers, Tupac Amarú, was beheaded and Tahuantinsuyu officially came to an end. For a detailed account, see Spanish conquest of Peru.

After the conquest

After the fall of Tahuantinsuyu, the new Spanish rulers repressed the people and their traditions, and sadly destroyed their sophisticated farming system. The Spanish also took advantage of the Inca mita system to work these first peoples to death. From each family they would require one member to work in the gold and silver mines, and then when they died, usually within a year or two, the family would be required to send another family member to replace him. The most notable mine was the silver mine at Potosí, this mountain was not only the largest mine discovered on Earth, but was practically a solid block of precious metals that is still being mined for tin today.

The major languages of the empire, Quechua and Aymara, were chosen by the Catholic church to evangelize in the Andean region. They even taught the languages to first peoples who spoke other languages. Today Quechua and Aymara are the most extended Amerindian languages.

The legend of the Inca has also been used to inspire resistance by independence movements in the region, such as the rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II (aka José Gabriel Condorcanqui) and the guerrilla movements Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA), Tupamaros, and the Sendero Luminoso. The empire even has a modern Rainbow flag, which can be seen throughout Peru.

In the first decade of the 21st century archeologists have rediscovered some of the Inca farming methods. They were reintroduced in test plots in the Lake Titicaca area and produced more food per acre than modern methods, even with the intensive use of insecticides and petrochemically based fertilizers.


Political organization of the empire

The most powerful figure in the empire was the Inca, or emperor. When a new ruler was chosen, his subjects would build his family a new royal dwelling. The former royal dwelling would remain the dwelling of the former Inca's family. Only descendants of the original Inca tribe ever ascended to the level of Inca. The empire was divided into four provinces, each of which had a governor who oversaw local officials who would oversee an agriculturally productive river valley, or perhaps a city, or a mine. There was also a separate chain of command for both the military and religion which allowed for a system of checks and balances on power. The local officials were responsible for settling disputes and keeping track of each family's contribution to the mita.

While some workers were held in great esteem, such as royal goldsmiths and weavers, they could never themselves enter the managerial classes. The best they could hope for was that their children might pass a high stakes exam as teenagers to enter the Inca civil service. As in modern western societies workers were on the lowest rung, but unlike in the feudalistic European states of that era even those who could not work were looked after and there was a modicum of what we today call the rule of law, eg. if a worker was accused of stealing but it was not proven, the local official would be punished for not doing his job properly.

The descendants of the original Inca tribe were not numerous enough to administer their empire. To cope with the need for leadership, at all levels, the Inca established a civil service system. Boys at age of 13, and girls at age of first menstruation, had their intelligence tested by the local Inca officials. If they failed they would be trained in a trade by their ayllu, which could be anything from farming to professional soldier to gold working or weaving. If they passed the test they would be sent to Cuzco to attend school to become administrators. There they learned to read the quipu, to read the iconography in Inca books, leadership skills, religion, and, most importantly, mathematics. The graduates of this school were the nobility and were expected to marry within that nobility. In fact if a woman refused too many marriage proposals from classmates her teachers could eventually give her a stark choice, accept this proposal or join the nunnery. Nuns were forbidden to ever have sex, so for some this was a fate much worse than being sent home to be educated by their family.

There were four apocunas (aka apos), or governors for the four the provinces. Each of them had about 15 t'oqrikoq, or local leaders. The t'oqrikoq would typically manage a city and its surroundings. Below them were four levels of administration

Level name Mita payers
Hono Curaca 10000
Waranqa Curaca 1000
Pacaka Curaca 100
Conka Kamayoq 10

Every five waranqa curaca, pacaka curaca, and conka kamayoq had a intermediary to the next level called a picqa waranqa curaca, picqa pacaka curaca, and picqa conka kamayoq, respectively. So the middle managers managed either two or five people, while the conka kamayoq at the worker manager level and the apos an toqrikoq in upper management dealt with up to 20 people.


The Inca were a conquering society, and their expansionist assimilation of other cultures is evident in their artistic style. The artistic style of the Inca utilized the vocabulary of many regions and cultures, but incorporated these themes into a standardized imperial style that could easily be replicated and spread throughout the empire. The simple abstract geometric forms and highly stylized animal representation in ceramics, wood carvings, textiles and metalwork were all part of the Inca culture. The motifs were not as revivalist as previous empires. No motifs of other societies were directly used with the exception of Huari and Tiwanaku arts.


Architecture was by far the most important of the Inca arts, with pottery and textiles reflecting motifs that were at their height in architecture. The stone temples constructed by the Inca used a mortarless construction process first used on a large scale by the Tiwanaku. The Inca imported the stoneworkers of the Tiwanaku region to Cusco when they conquered the lands south of Lake Titicaca. The rocks used in construction were sculpted to fit together exactly by repeatedly lowering a rock onto another and carving away any sections on the lower rock where the dust was compressed. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable in the frequent earthquakes that strike the area. The Inca used straight walls except on important religious sites and constructed whole towns at once.

The Inca also sculpted the natural surroundings themselves. One could easily think that a rock along an Inca trail is completely natural, except if one sees it at the right time of year when the sun casts a stunning shadow, betraying its synthetic form. The Inca also adopted the terraced agriculture that the Huari had popularized. But they did not use the terraces solely for food producation. At the Inca tambo, or inn, at Ollantaytambo the terraces were planted with flowers, extraordinary in this parched land. The terraces of Moray were left unirrigated in a desert area and seem to have been solely decorative. The Inca provincial thrones were often carved into natural outcroppings, and there were over 360 natural springs in the areas surrounding Cusco, such as the one at Tambo Machay. At Tambo Machay the natural rock was sculpted and stonework was added, creating alcoves and directing the water into fountains. These pseudo-natural carvings functioned to show both the Inca's respect for nature and their command over it.


Inca officials wore stylized tunics that indicated their status. The tunic displayed here is the highest status tunic known to exists today, it contains the motifs used in the tunics of other officeholders. For instance, the black and white checkerboard pattern with the red triangle at the top is believed to have been worn by soldiers of the Inca army . The motifs make reference to earlier cultures, such as the stepped diamonds of the Huari and the three step stairstep motif of the Moche. In this royal tunic no two squares are exactly the same.

Cloth was divided into three classes. Awaska was used for household use and had a threadcount of about 120 threads per inch. The better cloth was called qompi and was divided into two classes, that woven by male qompicamayocs (keepers of fine cloth) was collected as tribute from throughout the country and were used for trade, to adorn rulers and were given as gifts to ally political power brokers. Finally, the highest form of qompi was sewn by female aclla solely for royal and religous use. These had threadcounts of 600 or more per inch, unexcelled anywhere in the world until the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

Aside from the tunics people of importance wore a llautu, a series of cords wrapped around the head. To establish his imortance, the Inca Atahualpa commissioned a llautu woven from vampire bat hair. The leader of each ayllu, or extended family, had its own headdress. Each region continued to wear their traditional clothing but the finest weavers, such as those of Chan Chan, were transferred to Cusco and kept there to weave for qompi that were parcelled out to subjects to cement loyalty. The Chimú had transferred these same weavers to Chan Chan from Sican a few years earlier.

The wearing of jewelery was not uniform throughout the empire. The Chimú artisans continued to wear earrings after their integration into the empire. But in other regions only local leaders wore them.

Ceramics and metalwork

Ceramics were for the most part utilitarian in nature, but also incorporated the imperialist style that was prevalent in the Inca textiles and metalwork. In addition, the Inca played drums and on woodwind instruments including flutes, pan-pipes and trumpets made of shell and ceramics.

The Inca made beautiful objects of gold. But precious metals were in much shorter supply than in earlier Peruvian cultures. The Inca metalworking style draws much of its inspiration from Chimú art and in fact the best metal workers of Chan Chan were transferred to Cusco when the Kingdom of Chimor was incorporated into the empire. Unlike the Chimú, the Inca do not seem to have regarded metals to be as precious as fine cloth. When the Spanish first enconutered the Inca they were offered gifts of qompi cloth.


Main article: Tahuantinsuyu Religion

Much of the contact between the upper and lower classes was wrapped up in religion and consisted of intricate ceremonies that sometimes lasted from sunrise to sunset. The practice of the Inca's religion and the Inca myths that made up the Inca's core beliefs are documented separately.

Burial practices

The Inca believed in reincarnation. Those who obeyed the Inca rule, ama sua, ama llulla, ama chella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy), went to live in the Sun's warmth. Others spent their eternal days in the cold earth.

The Inca also believed in mummifying prominent personages. The mummies would be provided with an assortment of objects which were to be taken into the pacarina. Upon reaching the pacarina, the mummies or mallqui would be able to converse with the area's other ancient ancestors, the huacas. The mallquis were also used in various rituals or celebrations. The deceased were generally buried in a sitting position.

Food and farming

The Inca cultivated food crops on dry pacific coastlines, high on the slopes of the Andes, and deep in the lowland Amazon jungle. It is estimated that the Inca grew around seventy crop species. The Inca road system was key to the Inca farming success, which allowed distribution of their crops over large distances. The Inca also constructed vast storehouses, which allowed them to survive El Niño years in style while neighboring civilizations suffered. The main crops were potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, chili peppers, cotton, tomatoes, peanuts, an edible root called oca, and a grain known as quinoa. They had terraced fields which not only allowed the use of the mineral rich mountain soil which other cultures left fallow but also presented several micro-climates to each farmer so that various crops could be grown throughout the year. The Inca used simple digging sticks and plows. They raised llama and vicuna for their wool, and used them as pack animals and for their meat. Maize was used to make chicha, a beer-like beverage. The Inca diet primarily consisted of fish and vegetables, supplemented less frequently with cuys and camelids. In addition they hunted various animals for food but more importantly for their skins and feathers. Inca leaders kept records of what each ayllu in the empire produced, but did not tax them on their production. They instead used the mita for the support of the empire.


The Inca made many discoveries in medicine. They used quinine to treat malaria, and they performed successful skull surgery. Coca leaves were used to lessen hunger and pain. The Chasqui (messengers) ate coca leaves for extra energy. Recent research by Erasmus MC workers Sewbalak/Van Der Wijk showed that, contrary to popular belief, the Inca people were not addicted to the coca substance. Another interesting remedy was to cover boil bark from a pepper tree and place it over a wound while still warm.

See also


  • Conquest of the Incas. John Hemming, 1970.
  • Andean Worlds. Kenneth Andrien, 2001.
  • Art of the Andes, from Chavin to Inca. Rebecca Stone-Miller, 1995.

External links

  • Nueva corónica y buen gobierno by Guaman Poma (published 1615 CE)
  • Inca Land by Hiram Bingham (published 1912-1922 CE)
  • Tupac Amaru , the Life, Times, and Execution of the Last Inca.
  • Inca Geometry by Antonio Gutierrez from Geometry Step by Step from the Land of the Incas.

Last updated: 02-06-2005 20:33:46
Last updated: 05-02-2005 12:02:18