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Aspects of America's past

The Inca Empire

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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It seems that, although there are signs of settlement in Peru earlier than 9000 BC, agriculture only became an important part of life in about 1000 BC, and even then only along the desert coast. Our knowledge of the Andean cultures is, however, very limited.

We know that the Incas had developed into a high civilization only about 100 years before the arrival of Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors, and we therefore do have written records of what they found.

The Andean cultures, on the other hand, left no written records, only the knotted strings which probably allude to arithmetic records. Historians have therefore to depend almost entirely on archaeological evidence.

Furthermore, we have no verbal record because the stories told to the Spaniards have been twisted to such a degree that within a single generation all Peruvian Indians came to believe that their culture stemmed solely from the Incas.

What is clear from archaeological evidence is that the Incas, like their Meso-American counterparts, absorbed the relatively advanced culture already in existence at the time of their arrival.

In fact, most of the Inca culture, especially building techniques, ceramics and the highly advanced bureaucratic state, were developments of earlier cultures. The Incas were therefore not a civilization but simply an empire within an already existing civilization.

The Andean culture differed from the Meso-American variety in three specific ways. First, while the Meso-Americans domesticated no beast of burden, the Andean peoples did, in the form of the llama and the alpaca (both camelids).

The former were used as pack animals, while the latter were more specifically for food and wool. Since neither was suitable for pulling, the Andean peoples had therefore no use for the wheel.

The Andean peoples were also much more advanced as technicians and engineers. Metallurgy was better developed and put to more practical uses.

They were also more advanced in road and canal building, being able to span deep gorges with their bridges. Their statecraft too was more highly developed, although they lagged behind in the development of writing.

Although the basic Andean cultural patterns were probably set as early as 2000 BC, there were nevertheless three distinct eras in their evolution: the Chavin people (900-200 BC), the Tiahuanacan Dynasty (600-1000 AD) and the Inca Empire (1476-1534 AD).


Very little is known about the Chavin Dynasty except that it had its centre in the ruins called Chavin de Huantar, a religious site in the Andes. The people had already reached the highest level of artistry, and their forms of pottery are found in a wide area of Peru.

The Chavin era ended in about 200 BC and was replaced by what is known as an intermediate period during which a variety of regional cultures flourished for a period of about 800 years.

During the early years of the Christian era, however, the very definitely imperial state known as Tiahuanaco began to arise in the southern highland, around Lake Titicaca, at an altitude above 14000 feet.

By 600 AD its influence was clearly spreading to other regions, wiping out all the other regional styles which existed. It was the period during which the artistic evolution of the Andean peoples reached its peak in both architecture and ceramics.

This probably also meant that political and economic unity was such that people had reached a balance of labour, so as to have the time to devote their attentions to more aesthetic occupations. It appeared to be some form of a theocratic state, where massive temples and stone platforms dominated.

With the collapse of the Tiahuanacan state in about 1000 AD, another intermediary period set in, with the development of local cultures.

In about the mid-15th century the Incas, a barbarous tribe from southern Peru, began systematic conquests until they carved out a vast empire which stretched throughout Peru and parts of Ecuador, Argentina and northern Chile.

They thereupon adopted the culture and administration of the peoples whom they overran. Although the Inca Empire was extremely short-lived, being cut down in its prime by the Spaniards in the mid-16th century, it is nevertheless the culture which we know most about because of descriptions from Spanish missionaries and soldiers.


The Inca Empire was based upon a system of tight bureaucratic administration. At the head was the emperor, believed to be a descendent of the Sun and who had to marry his sister in order to keep the blood-line pure. Below him royal officials controlled all the higher administrative posts.

In the provinces the conquered peoples were controlled through a system of indirect rule, i.e. using the local chiefs wherever possible, under the supervision of a governor. To ensure loyalty of the chiefs, their sons were generally carried off as hostages.

The Inca language became the official language, and worship of the Sun (with the Inca as its incarnation) was the official religion.

If the population proved rebellious, they were moved in their entirety into an area which was already subdued and loyal (in the same way that Babylon moved populations, including those of Judah).

The whole area was then kept under domination by means of a brilliant network of roads along which communications moved rapidly, and soldiers could reach trouble spots quickly.

The Incas also developed a detailed system of book-keeping by means of their knotted strings called quipus.

A Spanish contemporary described them as follows: "In the capital of each province there were accountants whom they called quipu-camayocs, and by these knots they kept the account of the tribute paid by the natives of that district in silver, gold, clothing, flocks, down to wood and other more insignificant things, and by these quipus at the end of the year, or ten or twenty years, they have to report to one whose duty it was to check the account so exact that not even a pair of sandals was missing."

The writer continued to explain how the use of these quipus enabled the Incas to sustain the Spanish invasion, at least in an economic sense.

The wars, cruelties, pillaging and tyranny of the Spaniards was such, he said, "that if these Indians had not been so accustomed to order and providence they would all have perished . . . After [the Spaniards] had passed through, the chieftains came together with the keepers of the quipus, and if one had expended more than the others, those who had given less made up the difference, so that all were on an equal footing."

The class structure, as in India, was clear-cut and no man could rise above his caste. At the top were the nobility who were marked out from the rest of the population by having their ears pierced and the holes constantly enlarged to take gold and jewelled earplugs.

Women were apparently not quite as bound to caste as men. When a girl reached puberty, there would be a hair-combing ceremony and if she were particularly beautiful or showed exceptional ability, she would be chosen to attend school in one of the provincial capitals where she might find herself married to one of the nobles.

She could also be chosen to become a "Daughter of the Sun", living a life of segregation as a royal concubine at the disposal of the Inca alone. If she was chosen to have sex with the Inca, she could not then go back to the convent but would either become a royal lady-in-waiting or be sent back to her village richly endowed.

There were also the "Virgins of the Sun", women chosen at puberty for their beauty and royal lineage while it was certain they were still virgins. Their main function was to spin and weave for the Inca and his wife, and to make the sacrificial cloths.

Religion did not apparently play as rigid a roll in Inca life as it did among the Aztecs of Meso-America. Human sacrifice did exist, usually of captives, and sometimes parents sacrificed their children but usually in a time of severe crisis.

Normally llamas or alpacas were sacrificed, with their hearts being ripped out, but more common was a simple sacrifice of meat or the burning of candles to the gods, customs which exist to the present day amongst Peruvian Catholics. They also did not have as many gods as the Aztecs.

There can be no doubt the Inca rule was heavy upon the common people but the Spanish conquest (from 1532 to 1538) was no deliverance. As so often happens in conquests, the conquerors merely changed one set of rulers for a worse.

In the Spanish case, the new conquerors were not merely bad. They carried out a material and spiritual oppression which today would be called genocide.

Civilizations as large and vigorous as those of the Andes and Meso-America, however, cannot be wholly exterminated.

Whether partially absorbed into a larger but sympathetic society, as in modern Mexico, or isolated and despised by their neighbours, as in the Andean countries, the Indians of Central and South America have managed to keep alive many of the ancient traditions of their once glorious past.

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