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The History of the Inca Empire

Updated on May 14, 2015

Nestled high within the Andes Mountains of South America is a lush, green valley called the Valley of Cuzco. Around A.D. 1200, a native tribe moved into the mountains and established an empire; this tribe was called the Inca. Today, Cuzco is an archaeological dream. Excavations have uncovered the ruins of buildings and cities; artifacts have been sketched and photographed as evidence. Burial mounds have been discovered, as have the naturally made mounds that over thousands of years have changed the landscapes and covered parts of the Inca world.

The Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley

The Cuzco Valley

Before arriving in the mountains the Inca had lived a nomadic lifestyle. They were a part of the hunter- gatherer society that moved from place to place in search of animals to hunt and edible vegetation for gathering, but the Inca were not the only tribe to make their way into the mountains, nor were they the only ones to settle there.

The Cuzco Valley is believed to have been settled nearly 3,000 years before the arrival of the Inca people. Around 2,000 B.C., a little known tribe named the Chevin settled in and called the valley home. Towns and villages were born, and from the things they've left behind we know that their citizens farmed and carved. The carvings they've left behind open a window into the past. Stone buildings and temples, all decorated with the images of snakes, birds, and the BIG cats which roamed the area have been discovered.

The Mochica

Another civilization, the Mochica, flourished between the years of A.D 100 to 800. Artifacts they've left behind describe tribal customs. Pots, unearthed in various archaeological digs are painted with pictures of everyday life and are formed in the shapes of animals and humans. These paintings enable us to observe the civilization's customs from afar.

Land of Four Quarters

Once the Incas made their way into the mountains, it took only a few hundred years for them to conquer neighboring peoples and extend their domain from the northern border of what is now Ecuador to the modern day city of Santiago in Chile. 2,100 miles of land and nearly 6 million people of those vanquished civilizations found themselves under Inca control.

The Inca territory was equally divided into four quarters, thus earning the name, Tahuantinsuyu, The Land of Four Quarters. Its division into quarters made governing easier. Tribes that the Inca had conquered were not always submissive, although many of those tribes had already become the Incas allies, choosing to join rather than fight what was becoming a mighty empire.

Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo
Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo

Over the years, the Inca had 12 emperors. The first Inca ruler, Manco Capac, claimed the Sun god as his father. Legend has it that his wife, Mama Ocllo, was known as the daughter of the moon; she was in fact his sister. Manco Capac lived in a luxurious palace decorated in gold; his wife had her own palace that was just as magnificent.

As first wife, Mama Ocllo was given the title Coya, a name of honor. The Inca were polygamists and had large families of children, but only the sons of the Coya could inherit the kingdom. Unlike many kingdoms, the oldest son did not necessarily come into power after his father's death. A younger son could inherit the kingdom, and that decision was up to the emperor.

Manco Capac started the tradition of palace construction, and every emperor to claim rule after his reign built their own palace in Cuzco to celebrate their rule. Palaces were decorated with intricate wall hangings; they boasted bath houses, temples, and patios. The exteriors were surrounded by trees and gardens, and the aroma of flowers and herbs filled the air.


The city of Cuzco was the first major Inca city, and the first eight Inca emperors used the city as the center of their government. Over time, the government became stronger, and as the empire's boundaries expanded its laws became stricter.

Conquered tribes came under Inca rule; their cultures faced extinction, but often their leaders, the local chiefs, were allowed to stay in power. The sons of these chiefs were commonly taken hostage, and held as important, protected prisoners in Cuzco. It was hoped that the hostages would be completely assimilated to the Inca culture during their stay; it was also hoped that situation would insure the behavior of the hostage's father.

Defeated tribes were expected to adapt to the Incan way of life. Inca religion became the main religion (those conquered were allowed to keep their own gods, but had to worship the Sun god first), the Inca language the sole form of communication, and everyone without exception was expected to follow Incan law. A group of people called mitimaes traveled through the territory as teachers of culture. Stopping along the way, they visited and warned the members of conquered tribes against rebellion, taught them Incan culture, and taught them new forms of agriculture to improve crop production.

Pachacuti Inca
Pachacuti Inca

Between the years of 1438 and 1471, the ninth Inca emperor, Pachacuti Inca, began an expedition up and down the coast of South America. Along the way, he and his men fought in a series of battles. Conquering city after city, the empire grew. Many tribes in the line of destruction chose to ally themselves with the invaders rather than fight.

The Inca ruler or emperor was known as the Sapa Inca. His counsel included four apus, usually family members who were responsible for the day to day governing of the four quarters in which the kingdom was divided. There were many officers under the apus; governors oversaw provincial capitals, curacas (local rulers) were answerable to the governors, and district headmen (camayoc) answered for the specific homes and households they were assigned.

Inca Life

Inca laws were often harsh. Lying, drunkenness, and murder could all carry the same punishment, death.

The fruits of labor were food, clothing, and shelter. Provinces paid tribute to the Sapa Inca as a whole. Food and goods would be sent to Cuzco regularly as a tribute to their ruler.

The Inca people also paid taxes. Most taxpayers were over the age of 25. All were men who worked on state land. Mind you, the state owned all of the land. Taxpayers also had to serve the Inca government. Service lasted for duration of five years and may have included time spent in the army, mines, or working on city improvement projects.

Engineers, architects, and craftsman were not required to pay tribute. They were taken care of by the government; food, clothing, and daily needs were supplied so that these people could give their full attention to the work at hand.

Craftsman worked for the royal family and the priests. They created beautiful carvings, cloth, and miscellaneous objects worked from silver and gold. Craftsmen were often sent from one part of the empire to another as teachers. New workers needed to acquire needed skills, although more often than not the trade was passed down to younger family members.

Nobles, government officials, and women were exempt from paying taxes; although it was a state requirement that one woman from each of the Inca households had to weave cloth for the state each year.

Building a Civilization

Natural resources in the Cuzco Valley allowed for the accumulation of great wealth. Precious metals; silver, tin, bronze, and copper were mined in abundance. Gemstones and gold were great treasure. Metalworkers used their fine tuned skills to produce tools, weapons, decorations, and jewelry, enabling the empire to trade for other not so available necessities and to amass more wealth.

Beautiful cities appeared, each connected by roads and bridges meticulously planned by Inca engineers. Only government officials and messengers were allowed legal access to roads, as their original intent was to enhance the delivery of communication between the provinces and Cuzco. Messengers were stationed every few miles in order to speed up the delivery of important information.

The Inca laid more than 15,000 miles of road while in power. Two of those roads ran the entire length of the empire. Stone causeways were built over swamp lands, and bridges were suspended across canyons and rivers. Bridges were reconstructed each year because they were suspended by rope.

The most important Inca buildings were constructed in stone; adobe bricks were used for decoration and design. Engineers planned these buildings with the use of clay models; the result was some of the finest stone-masonry of the time. Walls sloped towards the interior as the largest and heaviest blocks of stone were used at the base of the building. Polishing and sanding were done with great care to insure the perfect fit of each block, rarely did more than a line betray where one block ended and another began.

Homes were constructed by citizens, and they were often group projects. One neighbor helping another with whatever resources were available; grass, mud, stone, or wood depending upon where they lived.

City dwellers constructed their homes from stone. Those living along the coastline lived in simple frame houses fabricated from wood and roofed with thatch. Residences near the forests built their homes with the use of wood and cane; they too had thatched rooftops. Other homes were made from adobe, brightly painted, an artist's palette of color on the landscape. Adobe bricks made from mud and straw are still used in the Andes today.

Entrance into a city would require payment of a toll. Visitors would also need to state their business in the city before permission to enter was granted.


Most members of the Inca Empire were farmers, something not always easy to do in the Cuzco Valley. The coastal climate was dry, making it necessary for water to be brought into the area. Irrigation systems were engineered to carry available water through canals. Water was diverted from mountain streams into channels of stone, and when necessary, they physically straightened the rivers and used them as canals.

Further inland, the more mountainous areas had a different problem; water wasn't an issue. Farmers on high slopes didn't lack for rain, they lacked the availability of flat land on which to plant, and they fought the colder climate that produced early winter frost.

By the time the Spaniards arrived in 1532, forty different types of food sources were grown in the Cuzco Valley. Farmers worked for themselves and for the state, sending produce to the Sapa Inca for his family's use in tribute, keeping what was needed for their family's use, and storing surplus crops in state storehouses.

To solve their problem terraces were built into the hillsides. Walls were constructed to hold back the soil and keep it from eroding. Land was leveled out increasing the amount of land to be farmed.


Inca Gods and Religion

It is said that the Inca worshiped six different gods. The first and most important was Viracocha, the god of creation. They believed that Viracocha made all things in the universe, and that he lived high in the heavens. Viracocha was a spirit god, and he was invisible. Other Inca gods were; Inti (Father Sun and life giver), Mama Quilla (Mother Moon), Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), and Mama Cocha (Mother of Lakes and Seas). The stars were also worshipped as children of the sun and moon.

Members of the Inca community worshipped the gods in a number of different places. Great temples were built inside the cities. Places where the royal family, nobles, and other government officials could make their confessions and listen to oracles. Priests performed sacrifices and acted as liaisons to the gods. Priestesses served by weaving cloth and preparing special meals.

Ordinary citizens would worship at outdoor services in the city center. Holy places were also found in the mountains and near streams. These holy places were called huacas, and they were places where people would make offerings to their gods, praying for good weather, harvests, health, or simply to say thank you. Farmers would pour corn beer onto their crops for Pacha Mama; travelers would add stones to the apacita near a mountain pass in hopes of a safe journey.

The Inca, fascinated by the moon, stars, and visible planets kept detailed and accurate astrological records. The astronomers, generally priests, watched the positions of the sun, the moon, and the planet Venus carefully. Based on their observations, it seems the Inca followed two separate calendars; one, based on three ten day weeks that made up a month, and another, that placed eight days in a week.

Inca Calendar
Inca Calendar


Numerous festivals and ceremonies marked the Inca calendar. Most of these events revolved around farming, some were marked by celebration, others, by sacrifice. The Inti raimi, took place each June, and was an important feast in honor of the Sun god. Great sacrifices were made to Inti at this time; many of the sacrifices were children. The sowing season began in August, and was celebrated by the sacrifice of 1,000 guinea pigs with the first planting of corn. In October, the Inca prayed for rain. November brought the Feast of the Dead, special ceremonies and remembrance. Wrapped bodies were ritualistically removed from their resting places and paraded through the streets, something that we would consider desecration; the Inca considered an honor.

The Inca greatly enjoyed music, and it was another important part of the feast and festival activities. Almost every religious ceremony and public festival included music and dancing. Inca dances used movement to portray pivotal occurrences in their past. They were another way for the people of the empire to hand down the Inca history and culture. Special dances accompanied by bamboo flutes and the beating of drums told the tales of warriors and farmers; other dances were for the gods, requests for victory in battle or fair weather for farming.

Peruvian Burial Dig
Peruvian Burial Dig


The death of a loved one was a time to both show respect and honor. The deceased was wrapped in layers of fine cloth, then buried or entombed. Personal items were also buried with the corpse. The Inca believed in life after death, and they believed in sending their loved ones into the afterlife with everything they would need. Food was jarred and sealed, warriors would be accompanied by their weapons, and occasionally an emperor would be attended by the wives or servants who were killed and entombed beside him.

Relatives would dress in black from head to toe, and women family members would cut their hair. Funeral feasts were elaborate; good food, good music, and everyone sharing in the slow dancing.

Inca burials varied. Tombs may have been located in caves or made in rocks. People who lived along the coastline were buried in underground graves. Family members would often visit the grave sites and leave food.

Marriage and Education

Inca men married around the age of 25; women were given as brides at around the age of 20. If the couple lived within Cuzco, the marriage ceremony was performed by the Sapa Inca. Those outside the capital's city limits would be married by the local official of their province. After the official ceremony, the couple would return to the bride's house where her father would give her to her husband. This was symbolized by the father placing a sandal on her right foot. The wedding party would then move on to the home of the groom, where the bride would gift her husband with a special wedding cloth she'd woven herself. , then came the feasting and dancing.

Children were trained in the work of their families, something they'd need in order to become fruitful adults. Boys and girls both celebrated a ritual coming of age. As girls turned into women they would fast for three days. The fasting would end with a ceremonial washing, new "adult" clothing, and a formal naming. This celebration was called the quicochico ceremony.

Traditional coming of age for the boys took place at the age of fourteen, a celebration marked by a ceremony called huarochico. The huarochico ceremony took place over several weeks, and was always celebrated during the time of the summer solstice. The boys' discipline, strength and skills were tested in a variety of different ways, and at the end they were given their adult names, weapons, and gifts from their families.

Boys from the nobility would go on to the house of teaching. Located in Cuzco, the yachahuasi was a place where they were educated in religion, government, society, and engineering.

Francisco Pizzaro
Francisco Pizzaro
Atahuallpa's Death
Atahuallpa's Death

The Arrival of the Spanish

Francisco Pizzaro, a Spanish explorer, set out to explore South America in 1531. As one of the first European men to see the Pacific Ocean, he was also one of the first to see the South American coastline, but his first glimpse of the riches South America held was the view of a large raft. The raft carried something that many throughout history have sought, fought, and died for; it carried silver, gold, gemstones, and finely made cloth.

Messengers brought news to Atahuallpa (the last of the Inca Emperors), that white men had landed on their shores. The messengers detailed that these men were warriors, that they rode animals, and that they carried sharp swords. In 1532, one of Atahuallpa's messengers was sent to visit Pizzaro's camp where he invited the explorer and his men to visit the city of Cajamarca.

Pizzaro and 160 men soon set off for Cajamarca. Some traveled by foot, others on horseback. The Spaniards nervously traveled through the canyons, up into the high passes. Inca forts were visible and manned. It would have been an easy feat for the Inca to overtake the newcomers, but they didn't. In November of 1532, Pizzaro and his men finally reached the end of the mountain passes where they came face to face with the beautiful farmlands of the Cajamarca Valley. A place they also found themselves staring down on the tents of an enormous Incan army.

Atahuallpa was not inside of the city when the Spaniards arrived, but he soon came to greet his visitors. Dressed in richly embroidered clothing and wearing an emerald collar, he was carried into the city seated on a throne; he arrived with 5,000 of his men. He was impressed by the Spaniards horses, knowing that their presence gave the visitors the ability to move quickly through the city, but he wasn't afraid. He should have been.

What Atahuallpa hadn't known was that many of the Spaniards had hidden themselves in the city early that morning, that they had been awaiting his arrival for most of the day. Sapa Inca was quickly taken prisoner by the Spanish contingent. One account describes Atahuallpa watching as his nobles were killed, and then helplessly watching the attempts of his unarmed soldiers to escape. Another account cites that the soldiers were armed with small weapons concealed inside of their clothing. Either way, by nightfall, thousands lay dead on the city streets.

Morning found the Spaniards riding into the Inca camp. They took all the gold they could find, and Atahuallpa, believing he still had room to bargain offered them a room of gold if only they would free him. Pizzaro agreed, and Atathuallpa kept his promise; Pizzaro didn't. Within months, all of the gold was melted down, and Atahuallpa was sentenced to death. The last true Inca emperor was strangled publicly in the city square. As the deed was finished, they set off to claim Cuzco.

After Atahuallpa's death, the Inca civilization quickly collapsed. The Spaniards had no appreciation for their customs and traditions. Lands were quickly confiscated, new taxes were employed, and many of the Inca men became little more than slaves laboring in the mines.

The Spanish unknowingly brought other things with them as well. Diseases like measles, smallpox, and typhus decimated the Inca population. What had once been a population of six million had fallen to two million over a fifty year period of time.


Although the great Inca Empire had fallen, many of its customs and traditions still live on today. There are at least six million people who currently speak the Inca language. Housing has changed little, farming is still the same, the terraces are still used, and the foods they eat have stayed constant. The only big change in the Inca crops would be the wheat introduced to them by the Spaniards.

Today's farmers still use the same types of hoes that existed in the earliest days; technology is still unheard of. The feasts and festivals of the gods are celebrated, although many are accompanied by the Christian celebrations that so many of the Inca now believe in. Religions have blended. Peru's citizens, particularly those living in the mountains continue to use many of the same roads and bridges built by their ancestors. Andean women continue to make thread with the same tools.

When you really stop to think about it, it's almost as if time has been standing still.


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