The Incas
Of the Andes -- Peru and South America

~1200 AD - ~1530

The empire of the Incas was the largest state-level society in the New World prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Their civilization is also the most famous of the numerous precolumbian socities of the Andes, with sites like Machu Picchu and Cuzco drawing many thousands of tourists every year to see the impressive stone architecture the Incas erected among spectacular scenery.

Because of records made by early Spanish and native chroniclers, we also know more about the Incas than about any earlier culture of the Andes. Through documentary research and archaeology, we continue to learn even more about the Incas and their achievements, such as their great road system, impressive architecture, meticulous accounting system, elaborate ceremonies, and more.

There are numerous stories about the origins of the Incas and the founding of their capital, Cuzco. Many of them share some basic elements, but vary greatly in detail. However, they all agree in naming Manco Capac as the first Inca ruler. Inca origin stories can be divided into two groups: those that hold that Manco Capac came from the cave of Pacariqtambo ("pacariq" meaning "dawn" or "origin," "tambo" meaning "place of lodging"), and those that say he came from Lake Titicaca. But even in those stories where Lake Titicaca is the place of origin, Pacariqtambo usually plays a role of some import.

The main Pacariqtambo origin story is as follows: Four brothers, Ayar Manco, Ayar Auca, Ayar Cachi, and Ayar Uchu, and their four sisters, Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Cura, and Mama Rawa, emerged from a cave in the mountain of Tambo Toco. The sisters were also the wives of the brothers, respectively.

This cave, located south of Cuzco at Pacariqtambo , had three windows. From the middle window emerged Ayar Manco and his siblings, and from the two side windows emerged the people who would later found the 10 ayllus of Cuzco. Ayar Manco and his followers travelled for days, and many different things are said to have happened to the group. One of the brothers was sealed up in the cave at Pacariqtambo, and two of them turned into stone. During the trip, Ayar Manco and his wife, Mama Ocllo had a son named Sinchi Roca.

At last they arrived in the Valley of Cuzco, and having been given a sign from the Sun, they knew this was the place they were to settle. The land was already inhabited, but because the Incas were deemed to be superior in culture and intelligence, they were allowed to live there and come to govern the natives. Ayar Manco became Manco Capac, the ruler of Cuzco and its people. Upon his death, he turned to stone in the place where the Incas later built their temple of the sun.

In other versions of the origin story, Manco Capac and his brothers and sisters arose from Lake Titicaca, and were sent out from there by their father, the Sun, to found the city of Cuzco. Manco Capac was given a golden staff, which he was to plunge into the ground at each place the group rested; when the staff sank all the way into the ground, they would know they had arrived at the proper place. They wandered for years going to many places, and at one point stopped at Pacariqtambo. Finally, when they arrived in the fertile valley of Cuzco, the staff sank all the way into the ground, and there they founded their kingdom.

Other versions link Lake Titicaca and Pacariqtambo by stating that Manco and his siblings originated in Lake Titicaca, and travelled underground to arise from the cave at Pacariqtambo. While the proliferation of Inca origin stories may seem confusing, it is likely that different versions were meant for different audiences, created to serve the ends of the Inca elite in different ways.

Because they had no written language, what we know of the history of the Incas and their realm comes from chronicles and other documents written in the decades after the Spanish conquest. The stories in those chronicles had been passed down orally over the generations, and were collected in different parts of the empire over many years. Add the biases of those retelling and recording the tales to the variations induced by time and space, and we are confronted with many different versions of stories about the founding of Cuzco, the names and deeds of Inca emperors, the expansion of Inca power, etc. It is no surprise that these stories often seem to contradict each other.

Moreover, many of these stories are ultimately derived from the Incas' own "official" version of history, which was probably to a great extent fabricated to glorify the emperors and their heritage. So in the end, by reconstructing Inca history from these written sources, we are not coming up with a representation of events as they actually occurred, but instead we arrive at what is hopefully a reasonable approximation of Inca history as sanctioned by the Inca state.

From ca. 1200 AD the founder of the Inca dynasty was Manco Capac. According to most accounts, he was succeeded by 10 more rulers, in this order: Manco Capac, Sinchi Roca, Lloque Yupanqui, Mayta Capac, Capac Yupanqui, Inca Roca, Yahuar Huacac, Viracocha Inca, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, Topa Inca Yupanqui, and Huayna Capac, to the Spanish conquest in the 1530's.

Those who headed the Inca state were known by various titles, including "Sapa Inca," "Capac Apu," and "Intip Cori." Often, an emperor was simply referred to as "the Inca." Rather than having a crown, the Inca emperors wore a fringe on the center of their headdress as a symbol of their status.

It is important to note that the term "Inca" can refer not only to the ruler, but also to people belonging to the ethnic group that settled in the Cuzco region at the time of Manco Capac; these people were all Incas by birth. Other people, mainly groups in the regions surrounding Cuzco, were given the honorary status of "Incas by privilege." In contrast, people native to the other regions conquered and controlled by the Incas belonged to many other ethnic groups, such as the Chachapoyas, Cañaris, and Wankas. These people were not considered Incas.

For about two centuries after its founding by Manco Capac, ca. 1200 AD., the Inca domain remained small, and was no more significant in size or power than other societies in the Peruvian highlands. At this time in the central Andes, there was something of a power vacuum. The powerful Wari Empire, which had previously dominated much of Peru, had collapsed perhaps one or two centuries earlier.

Small regional polities (i.e., large chiefdoms and small states) were developing throughout the Andes, often coming into conflict with each other. Warfare between neighboring groups was common, and many people lived in defensible hilltop villages and towns. Several different groups, such as the Quechuas, Lupacas, and Collas, were starting to create strong states, but no one group was clearly dominant. Alliances between groups were constantly being forged and broken to deal with threats from strong enemies or gain advantages over weak neighbors.

The Incas were no exception; they were not particularly strong, and had to form alliances to protect themselves. This was the state of things until late in the reign of the eighth Inca, Viracocha. The Cuzco realm was invaded by the Chancas, a powerful group who lived to the north. Viracocha feared that the Incas had no chance against the agressors, and fled with his son and designated heir, Inca Urcon, to a fort named Caquia Xaquixahuana.

One of Viracocha's other sons, Inca Yupanqui, refused to give in and remained behind to defend Cuzco. He quickly made alliances with other groups, including the Canas and Canchis, who sent soldiers to his aid. The Chancas attacked, and when all seemed lost, Inca Yupanqui called out that the stones in the fields were rising up and turning to men to help fight for the Incas. With this supernatural intercvention, the Chancas were repelled, with Inca Yupanqui and his forces winning a significant victory.

After his victory over the Chancas, which occurred ca. 1438 AD, Inca Yupanqui assumed control over the realm of Cuzco, and began to expand his kingdom by conquering more territory. He assumed the name "Pachacuti," which means "cataclysm" or "destroyer." This name was fitting, as he brought great changes to the Central and Southern Highlands of Peru by incorporating the people of those regions into the Inca state, and strengthening the Inca army with soldiers from those lands.

After his conquests, Pachacuti returned to Cuzco to rebuild the capital city in grand style, having many buildings constructed using the fancy stone architecture the Incas are known for. Around 1463 AD, while Pachacuti was busy organizing his conquests and remaking Cuzco, his son, Topa Inca, was allowed to take control of the Inca army and continue the task of conquest. During that time, Topa Inca conquered the Northern Highlands of Peru, the Southern and Central Highlands of Ecuador, and then the Northern and Central Coastal areas of Peru.

Around 1471 AD, Pachacuti died, and Topa Inca became Sapa Inca. During his rule, the empire virtually doubled in size, with the conquest of the lands of the Southern Coast of Peru, the northern half of Chile, Northwest Argentina, and Eastern Bolivia. In fact, the vast majority of land that came under Inca control was conquered by armies under the command of Topa Inca either during his reign or during that of his father.

Thus, two men were responsible for conquering most of the territory of Tawantinsuyu and creating the institutions that enabled the Incas to govern that vast land. In a span of approximately 55 years, the small realm of Cuzco had turned into the most powerful state in the New World.

When Topa Inca died ca. 1493 AD, he was succeeded by his son Huayna Capac. By that time, the task of conquering more territory was becoming increasingly difficult. The empire had expanded rapidly to absorb millions of people spread over thousands of kilometers of land, and the Incas had to concentrate much of their effort on consolidating their control over those regions, extracting goods and labor from them, quelling various rebellions, and defending a vast border. Thus the amount of land added to the empire under Huayna Capac (ca. 1493 AD - ca. 1527 AD) was minor compared to that of Pachacuti and Topa Inca.

Because he lived closer to the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, more is known about the life and achievements of Huayna Capac. It is said that he spent much of his reign in the highlands of what is now Ecuador (and referred to then as Quito.) He showed great favor toward the settlement of Tomebamba (now the city of Cuenca) in the land of the Cañaris, and had many fine buildings constructed there. Tomebamba was a major regional center of Inca control, and it is said that it was second only to Cuzco in splendor and importance, and that it may have been considered the second Inca capital.

Huayna Capac spent much effort conquering the northern highlands of Ecuador, and also gained control over some lands in the northeast of Peru. It is possible that he also campaigned and conquered some territory on the southern coast of Ecuador, but supporting evidence for Inca control in the area is lacking.

Nonetheless, Huayna Capac seemed to be very popular with his subjects, and probably would have extended Inca control still further if he had not died suddenly in 1527 AD. It is likely that he died of small pox or another such disease brought to the New World by the Spaniards. Unfortunately, his sudden death left the question of succession unsettled, leading to a struggle between two of his sons.

Spanish Conquest

Unfortunately for Atahuallpa Inca, who seemed to have gained the advantage over his brother Huascar in the struggle to become emperor, the Spaniards arrived at exactly the wrong time. Francisco Pizarro, fueled by Cortez's success in conquering the Aztecs and acquiring riches in Mexico, determined to go south to a land where stories told of a great kingdom of fabulous wealth. After two preliminary excursions, Francisco Pizarro, with 168 Spaniards and a number of horses, arrived in Inca territory in May, 1532.

He landed at Tumbez, located in what is now the northern coast of Peru. From there, he marched into the Andean highlands to the town of Cajamarca. At that point, Atahuallpa's generals had captured Huascar near Cuzco, and Atahuallpa was heading south from the northern reaches of the empire toward the capital.

Atahuallpa was informed that some strangers were waiting to meet him in Cajamarca. But he was not concerned about any foreign threat, and instead was pre-occupied with the issue of Huascar and consolidating his power. So he went into Cajamarca with his guard down.

Pizarro had other ideas. On November 16, 1532, he and his men ambushed Atahuallpa, using the advantages provided by their horses and a surprise attack to overcome the Inca and his retinue. Atahuallpa was perplexed at his capture, but still considered Huascar to be a greater threat. In return for his life, Atahuallpa offered Pizarro a fabulous ransom: he would have a room, measuring about 22 by 17 feet, filled with objects of gold to a height of about 8 feet. Then he would fill the room twice more with objects of silver.

While waiting for the ransom to arrive, Atahuallpa ordered his generals to kill Huascar before he could be brought to Cajamarca. Eventually, the gold and silver arrived, and Atahuallpa fulfilled his promise. In return, Pizarro had Atahuallpa executed on July 26, 1533.

By being in the right place at exactly the right time (or wrong place at the wrong time, if you will), and by being ruthless and deceitful, Franciso Pizarro was able to quickly capture the ruler of the Incas, throw the empire into disarray, and rapidly gain wealth through Atahuallpa's ransom. But Atahuallpa's generals and other Incas continued to resist for many years before the Spaniards had full control of all the lands and people of Tawantinsuyu.

With the fall of Atahuallpa and the Inca Empire, Pizarro and his associates brought to end the most powerful native state in the New World, whose institutions represented thousands of years of indigenous cultural developments. The Incas cannot be considered to have been benevolent masters by any means, but the abuses and exploitation suffered by the native peoples under Spanish rule were far worse.

SOURCE: Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara.
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