Today, the Incan Empire is known as the largest in pre-Columbian America, and the most efficient.
For all of its glaring holes in civic structure – no currency or legal code to name just two, their political and administrative structure was nevertheless the most developed of all the south- and Mesoamerican societies.
Theirs was a relatively short tenure but impactful nonetheless.
It was a remarkable civilisation, flourishing in spite of challenges posed in no small part by the terrain they occupied, as well as other factors that we will now explore in-depth.
Outlining the Inca Civilisation
Before their organisation into an empire, the people who occupied the land the empire was founded on were pastoral – animal farmers.
While there is nothing written down about the founding of the Inca empire, oral history details a story in which eight siblings, 4 male and 4 female, stepped out of a cave.
One brother, Ayar Manco, carried a fine staff made of gold. It was said that, wherever his staff should touch the earth, people would settle.
Cusco is where his staff finally touched the ground.
The people already on that land put up a fight but, after one of Manco’s sisters killed one of the land’s defenders, the rest ran away, frightened, leaving the Cusco dwellers to surrender and submit.
The brother with the golden staff, Manco, became the founder of the Inca.
A more pragmatic (and possibly provable) beginning of the Incan civilization is that the empire builders were actually refugees of the urban-dwelling Wari and the pastoral Tiwanaku.
This theory certainly makes sense when we consider the remnants of Inca civilisation, especially the magnificent structures they built.
Centred in the Andes mountains, the Inca Empire covered a large portion of western South America.
At its height, it encompassed Peru and parts of Equador, as well as parts of Bolivia, Argentina and most of Chile.
The seat of the empire, Cusco (also spelt Cuzco), is located in southeastern Peru, high in the Andes Mountains – 34,000 meters above sea level, to be exact.
While not close to a body of water – Lake Titicaca is several miles away, the Incans nevertheless managed to engineer ways of harnessing water for bathing, for drinking and for their crops.
They were also keen strategists, using their territory and their knowledge of the Peruvian highlands to maximise their military strength when fighting against the Spanish conquistadors.
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Much like the United States today, the Incan Empire followed a federal model of government: several independent states that ultimately fell under the rule of a central body of legislators.
However, unlike the US and its 50 states, the Inca only had four quarters whose corners ‘met’ in Cusco.
Each quarter, or suyu was governed by an Apu, a man of high distinction and status. The same term was used to identify especially venerated mountains!
Each Apu held rule over several districts within his quarter; it is estimated that, at the height of Incan rule, there may have been more than 80 such districts.
We must bear in mind that there are no actual records of the Inca model of government. What we know comes from Spanish documents of the time and they are often misleading and/or open to interpretation.
At the federal level, the Incan governing body was strikingly similar to what we see in modern-day politics.
At the top of the hierarchy would be the overall leader, often with a religious leader in tandem. Below would fall a person akin to a prime minister, who oversaw a sort of Council of the Realm.
This council was comprised of 16 noblemen, with a fair representation of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ divisions of the empire.
Said ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ reflect social stratification – the separation of nobles versus commoners; it is not an indication of the altitude at which those people lived.
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As mentioned before, the Inca left not codified laws; possibly because they lived by a strict moral code that had only three premises:
- Do not steal (ama sua)
- Do not lie (ama llulla)
- Do not be lazy (ama quella)
To ensure enforcement, it became everyone’s civic duty to report on wrongdoers. In addition, they had inspectors to oversee compliance.
This moral code tied in with their religious belief that good people would inherit heaven – snow-capped mountains topping a beautiful pasture.
They especially feared not being ‘good’ because it was told that they would spend their eternity in the cold earth.
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Curiously, the Incan Empire used no money and established no markets. The people used a bartering system among themselves and among groups.
To pay their duty to the state – what would be considered taxation if currency were involved, individuals or groups performed labour for the good of the empire.
This work could be building roads or monuments, serving in a military capacity or being a runner.
The Incas perfected a form of long-distance communication by having runners stationed at intervals along their more than 8,000 km of roads.
When a government official in Cusco needed to send a message to an official in a distant province, he would task a runner to carry the message.
From there, message delivery became a relay race. The first runner would arrive at the first outpost, pass on the message and the second runner would take off... and so on until the message reached the intended ears.
Because of instances such as this, in economic terms sociologists have described the Incan Empire as either a feudal state, a slave state or a socialist state.
Whether it was a socialist paradise or social tyranny is still being debated.
Life in the Incan Empire
Diligence was highly valued in Incan society; much of what people did revolved around civil service.
Curiously, even though everyone was considered a servant – even the kings served the Incan ideal, and there was no wealth to amass, there were sharp distinctions between people.
Naturally, kings or supreme leaders were at the very top of the pile. They were called Capacs and they often came to their position as a matter of heredity. They were permitted several wives.
Inca nobility, called Inka, also inherited their social position. They were easy to recognise because their heads would be oddly conical from having been wrapped when they were infants.
Such head wrapping was considered a mark of distinction in many cultures, not just the Inca!
Curacas were bureaucrats and government functionaries and caciques were agricultural community leaders.
Chasqui is the last social rank above the general population. They were the runners along Incan highways that we mentioned earlier.
Spanish records allude to the Inca belief in reincarnation.
There was a prohibition of burning a body after death because doing so would threaten their passage to the afterworld. Hence, Incans would be mummified and stored, so that they could be retrieved at times of celebration.
Besides believing in reincarnation and following the Incan moral code – do not lie, steal or be lazy, the Incans worshipped a pantheon of gods:
- Viracocha (or Pachacamac): creator of all living things
- Pachamama: wife of Viracocha; mother of the Earth
- Inti: sun god who smiles with special favour on the city of Cusco
- he was their patron deity, meaning that he was thought to reside in the city, causing Cusco to be thought of as the City of the Sun.
- Mama Killa: wife of Inti, called the Moon Mother
- Illapa: goddess of lightning and thunder
- Ayar Cachi: a hot-tempered god whose tantrums cause earthquakes
- Mama Occlo: taught people how to be civilised; taught women how to weave cloth and build houses
Manco Capac was considered a god as well as the father of the Inca people. He taught them how to share resources and work together; he also taught them how to craft weaponry and plant crops.
It is hard to determine whether Manco Capac was real or merely a part of their oral history whose legend grew with each retelling.
Certainly, somebody had to found the empire, lead it and hand it off to a successor, as it is told Manco did. But trying to distinguish myth from fact with no records to examine...
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Much like the Mayans, the Inca routinely offered their gods a buffet of human sacrifice – especially child sacrifice.
Should water be lacking or if there wasn’t enough food; if the supreme leader died, one or several children would be offered to the gods in return for their renewed benevolence.
There is not much indication of what Incan people did for fun; accounts reverberate with a sense of pleasure in duty, of belonging to the greater whole and to be given tasks equal to one’s neighbour.
A fine example of that mentality is evident in the Incan principles of marriage.
Males were permitted to marry after age 20; females about four years younger and these unions were generally very businesslike. Nobody married outside of their social class.
Once a couple sets up on their own, the bride was expected to manage all aspects of the home and care for the children when they come, work in the garden and tend to livestock.
Males also tended to the animals and may work in the garden but their duties included building houses, carrying in firewood and joining in combat, if necessary.
Early fleets of Spaniards saw the division of labour between males and females as more of a slave/master relationship, with the man being the master.
The women could not seem to convince them that they were happy to have an equal burden of responsibility. And no matter how one looked at the matter, the life of the Inca, male and female, was one of servitude.
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In many ways, the Incas have it all over other ancient societies who performed magnificent feats of engineering.
For one, their use of agricultural terraces to capture and retain water while experimenting with crops is nothing short of brilliant.
Besides irrigating the agricultural terraces, those aqueducts brought fresh water into the living centres; they even built communal baths.
What is truly remarkable about the Incan waterways is that they were so precisely hewn out of solid rock rather than assembled, as the Roman aqueducts were.
When you think about their not having any metal tools, it makes that feat even more astounding.
To this day, thanks to their engineering savvy and hard work, those agricultural terraces, called the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is one of the most fecund areas of Peru.
Their other feats of engineering are no less amazing... take their rope bridges, for example.
Because the empire graced the top of the Andean Range, it was necessary to create passages from one outpost to the next without the messengers or workers having to descend through treacherous territory, only to have to climb more of the same.
Building a rope bridge entailed having a team of workers on either side of the gorge they sought to span.
One team would secure the bridge materials on their side of the gorge, and then fire an arrow to the other side with the other end of the rope attached.
The worker on the other side should catch the arrow and/or rope, fasten it on his end and then begin the death-defying journey across it to make sure it was sound.
What Remains of the Incan Empire Today
As with the original Australians, the Inca succumbed to the diseases brought by their European invaders: smallpox, influenza, measles and typhus.
By the time the third wave of Spanish conquerors landed, they found the population badly decimated.
Furthermore, the restive population was disenchanted with the sons of Sapa Inca, the overall leader, fighting for the throne.
When Atahualpa, who defeated his brothers to win the crown, met with a delegation of Spaniards, he soundly rejected the Spanish king’s order to surrender and hand over all Incan wealth. They promptly imprisoned him.
He bargained: with enough gold to fill his cell and twice that amount of silver, would they set him free?
The Spanish agreed to those terms but, once the wealth was delivered, they reneged, slitting Atahualpa’s throat.
Oddly enough, the Inca were relieved that their supreme leader was dead. Without much fuss, they let go of their gods, their rules and their way of life.
The last Inca holdout, a village high in the mountains named Vilcabamba, was conquered in 1572. The last ruler was executed and whatever was left of the Incan way of life was destroyed.
Unlike the Sumerians who invented one of the world’s first writing systems and recorded their deeds, the Incan legacy can only be reconstructed from Spanish documents; a fairly biased narrative.
However, they left us fantastic architecture to marvel over – Machu Picchu and other stone buildings, and many mysteries yet to understand.
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