It was the western hemisphere's largest empire ever, with a population of nearly 10 million subjects. Yet within 100 years of its rise in the fifteenth century, the Inca Empire would be no more.
The Powerful Inca Empire
The most powerful of the Andean civilizations—the Inca civilization—came into being in the 1100s with the founding of its first dynasty. For the next three centuries, the Inca civilization stood out no more than any other. But in 1438, an historic change occurred. Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (pahch-ah-koo-tee ing-kuh yoo-pang-kee), a skilled warrior and leader, proclaimed himself Sapa Inca, or emperor.
From his small kingdom at Cuzco in a high mountain valley, Pachacuti set out on a campaign of conquest. Once he subdued neighboring peoples, he enlisted them in his armies. His son, emperor Topa Inca Yupanqui, continued the expansion. With Cuzco as its capital, the resulting empire stretched more than 2,500 miles along the Andes, from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south.
Pachacuti Sapa Inca was a master strategist who expanded the Inca empire by taking over enemy territory both by force and through peaceful negotiation.
The Sapa Inca held absolute power. Claiming to be divine, the son of the sun itself, he was also the empire’s religious leader. Gold, considered the “sweat of the sun,” served as his symbol. His queen, the Coya, carried out important religious duties and sometimes governed in his absence.
The Sapa Inca laid claim over all the land, herds, mines, and people of his empire. As the Inca people had no personal property, there was little demand for items for barter or sale, and trade played a much smaller role in the Inca economy than it had in the earlier Maya economy. Periodically, the Sapa Inca would call upon men of a certain age to serve as laborers for short periods, perhaps a few months. By so doing, he could access millions of laborers at once.
Inca rulers ran an efficient government. Nobles ruled the provinces along with local chieftains whom the Inca armies had conquered. Below them, officials carried out the day-to-day business of enforcing laws and organizing labor.
Specially trained officials kept records on a quipu, a collection of colored strings that were knotted in different ways to represent various numbers. Scholars think that the Inca, who never invented a writing system, may have used quipus to record economic, bureaucratic, religious, and other information. The Inca then took the quipa and used it with the yupanas, a system of stone grids representing various mathematical values, to make complex calculations.
Uniting the Empire with Language and Roads
To unite their empire, the Inca imposed their language, Quechua (kech wuh) and their religion on the people they conquered. The Inca also created one of history’s great road networks. At its greatest extent, it wound about 14,000 miles through mountains and deserts, passing through an area inhabited by almost 10 million people. Hundreds of bridges spanned rivers and deep gorges. Steps were cut into steep slopes and tunnels dug through hillsides. The expanse of the Inca road system was unmatched in the early Americas.
The roads allowed armies and news to move rapidly throughout the empire. At stations set regular distances apart, runners waited to carry messages.
What makes the Inca Empire so fascinating to archaeologists and historians is that they specialized in achieving the impossible. They conquered a huge empire without the use of wheeled vehicles or horses to pull them. They had no system of writing but managed somehow to maintain administrative control of far-flung provinces thousands of miles from their capital. Without survey instruments, blueprints, photographs, and machines for construction, they were still able to produce magnificent mountainside terraces, highways, bridges, cities, towns, temples, and royal estates. Many of their projects were built in seemingly impossible places, including sheer cliffs, steep mountain peaks, and raging rivers. And they did this in a remarkably short time of less than 100 years.
Relays of runners could carry news of a revolt swiftly from a distant province to the capital. Inca soldiers stood guard at outposts throughout the empire. Within days of an uprising, they would be on the move to crush the rebels. Ordinary people were restricted from using the roads at all.
Machu Picchu, built at the height of the Inca empire, is a complex located almost 8,000 feet above sea level. It is composed of some 220 structures that were used for agricultural, ceremonial, and astronomical purposes.
Cuzco as Capital
All roads led through Cuzco. People from all the culture groups ruled by the empire lived in the city. Members of a given group lived in a particular part of the city and wore the traditional clothing and practiced the traditional crafts of their region of origin. In the heart of the city stood the great Temple of the Sun, its interior walls lined with gold. Like Inca palaces and forts—and like the temples and other buildings of the Maya and the Aztec—the temple was made of enormous stone blocks, each polished and carved to fit exactly in place without mortar used to secure it. Inca engineers were so precise that many of their buildings have survived severe earthquakes.
Why wasn’t trade an important part of the economy of the Inca?
The Sapa Inca preferred to conquer neighbors than to trade with them.
Ordinary people like traders and merchants could not use the roads.
The Inca never developed a true writing system to keep records.
People had nothing to trade because only the emperor owned property.
The Inca strictly regulated the lives of millions of people within their empire. The leaders of each Inca village, called an ayllu (eye loo),carried out government orders. They assigned jobs to each family and organized the community to work the land. Government officials arranged marriages to ensure that men and women were settled at a certain age.
Inca farmers expanded step terraces built by earlier Andean peoples. They carved out flat strips of land on steep hillsides and built stone walls to hold the land in place. The terraces the Inca created kept rains from washing away the soil and made farming possible in places where naturally flat land was scarce.
Farmers spent part of each year working land for their community, and part working land for the emperor and the temples. The government allotted part of each harvest to specific groups of people or for particular purposes. It stored the rest in case of disasters such as famine.
The Inca used stone retaining walls to build terraces for farming, selecting varying types of stones for the best water retention and drainage. The retaining walls trapped heat from the sun during the day and kept plant roots warm by releasing that heat at night.
Masters of Metalwork and Weaving
The Inca were some of the most skilled metalworkers in the Americas. They learned to work and alloy, or blend, copper, tin, bronze, silver, and gold. While they employed copper and bronze for useful objects, they reserved precious metals for statues of gods and goddesses, eating utensils for the nobles, and decoration.
The Inca also mastered the art of weaving, a practice passed down to them from earlier Andean peoples. They raised cotton and sheared the wool from llamas and alpacas to create colorful textiles to be worn as clothing or as adornments, such as belts and bags.
The Inca developed important medical practices, including surgery on the human skull. In such operations, they cleaned the area to be operated on and then gave the patient a drug to make him or her unconscious—procedures similar to the modern use of antiseptics and anesthesia.
This is not dissimilar from the Aztec, whose doctors set bones and prepared prescriptions to cure illnesses. The Inca also used medical procedures to mummify the dead.
Religion and Ritual
The Inca worshipped many gods linked to the forces of nature. People offered food, clothing, and drink to the guardian spirits of the home and the village. Each month had its own festival, from the great ripening and the dance of the young maize to the festival of the water. Festivals were celebrated with ceremonies, sports, and games.
A powerful class of priests served the gods. Chief among the gods was Inti, the sun god. His special attendants, the “Chosen Women,” were selected from each region of the empire. During years of training, they studied the mysteries of the religion, learned to prepare ritual food and drink, and made the elaborate wool garments worn by the Sapa Inca and the Coya. After their training, most Chosen Women continued to serve Inti. Others joined the Inca’s court or married nobles.
Astronomy was an important part of Inca religious beliefs. The Inca worshipped the sun god as their primary deity, and they placed buildings and art in locations that would best reflect the sun. They used the moon to calculate timing for planting and harvesting crops.
How did the worship of the god Inti help unify the Inca empire?
The god’s priests and attendants traveled about the empire conducting sacred rites.
Inti’s female attendants were selected from each region of the Inca empire.
The high priest served only one year, and then the next priest would be chosen from a new region.
Inti was a supreme deity that many Andean peoples honored, so that created a shared bond.
Archaeologists believe that the Incas first settled in Cuzco in what year?
Who was the first Inca ruler?
Which of the following is one of the most important medical advances developed by the Inca?
the development of antiseptics and anesthetics for surgery
the creation of penicillin
the invention of primitive splints to set fractures
the use of herbs to battle hormonal imbalances
What is one of the technical achievements of the Inca?
The Inca are known as master carpenters.
The Inca mastered the art of weaving.
The Inca were skilled chemists.
The Inca created new methods of watercolor painting.
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