The Incan Empire

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Incan Empire

Little beyond legend is known of early Incan history. Most accounts state that around AD 1200, Manco Capac and his brothers and sisters traveled a few miles southwest of their home in the town of Pacaritambo to settle in the valley of Cuzco. Manco Capac is considered the first Inca ruler.

The Incas held the valley by force of arms, attacking and conquering adjoining lands, until by AD 1438 they had taken over the entire Cuzco valley. Led by Prince Inca Yupanqui, the Incas fought and won a decisive battle against invaders from the south. Inca Yupanqui took the name Pachacuti and became the first of the great Incan emperors. Under Pachacuti’s rule, the Incas built their capital city of Cuzco, expanded their empire, and subdued all other peoples in the region.

The Incan government was a hereditary monarchy. The emperor was the chief male member of the ruling family, and his successors were his direct descendants. Each of the four quarters of the Incan Empire had its own governor. Members of the extended royal family and the nobility filled these posts, as well as most other important government offices. They were considered the only purebred Incas and comprised the highest social rank. The Hahua Incas, nobles from the outlying provinces, filled any remaining high offices. Hahua were considered Incas by adoption and ranked below the purebred Incas. Below them were the lower-ranking provincial nobles, who ruled the large estates and the people who worked the land on them. Lowest of all in the social scale were the artisans, traders, workers, peasants, and slaves. Incan society was not mobile; a soldier might rise in rank, or a servant might become a royal favorite, but most Incans died in the same social position in which they were born.

The Incan government provided an unusual degree of social services, including food, clothing, and public feasts on holidays. However, it was authoritarian, requiring travel permits and maintaining strict laws about dress.

Pachacuti’s son, Topa Inca, succeeded him in AD 1471. Within five years, Topa Inca had greatly expanded the empire. His soldiers conquered the Chimú, the only serious remaining threat to Inca supremacy in the region. Conquest brought cultural exchange, with Chimú artists influencing Incan artistic styles and methods.

Huayna Capac succeeded his father Topa Inca in AD 1493. He abandoned Cuzco to fight wars in the north, and his long absences created difficulties at home. Rivals for power began gaining followers. When Huayna Capac and his heir both died in 1527, it was apparent that others would have to fight for the throne. Atahualpa, one of two rival brothers, won the conflict after a bloody war. He was the last of the independent Inca rulers before the Spanish conquest of Latin America.

The planned city of Cuzco was designed in the shape of a puma, or mountain lion, an animal sacred to the Incas. A fortress temple was built at the head of the puma, and the residential buildings and palaces were laid out in a grid along the shape of its body. Houses were built in groups around rectangular or square enclosures. Four highways, one leading to each of the four quarters of the Incan Empire, originated in Cuzco’s central plaza. Because the region was mountainous, many Incan roads were built in a zigzag pattern rather than going straight up the steep grade of the slope. This meant that the army would be able to march farther, as climbing the gradual slope of the zigzag path takes much less energy than marching straight up a steep hill.

The Incas undertook many other building projects. They were highly skilled architects, able to build stone walls that needed no mortar to hold them together. They built roads, highways, and palaces, including Pachacuti’s estate Machu Picchu. This palace remained unknown except to locals until 1911, when American historian Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it. High in the Andes, Machu Picchu provides a breathtaking record of Incan civilization.

The empire’s well-built roads made the postal system possible. Runners called chasqui carried messages along the roads. Every three miles, they would come to a rest house where they would pass their message on to the next runner. Soldiers on the march could also stop to refresh themselves at these rest houses. Despite the remarkable level of their artistic and architectural achievements, the Incas had no writing system; therefore, the runners had to carry the messages in their memories. If the message involved numbers or amounts of money, a runner might carry a quipu —a long string to which several smaller strings were tied. Knots, different colors of string, and methods of twisting the strings indicated different numbers or amounts.

The Incan religion, like many other ancient religions, was polytheistic, with gods who represented and controlled various aspects of nature—thunder, the sun, the moon, the earth, and the sea. The sun god was the special patron of the Incas. Their chief god was Viracocha, whom they considered the creator of their people. In addition to the gods, the Incas believed in nature spirits called Huacas. Any unusual natural phenomenon, such as an oddly shaped rock, indicated the presence of a Huaca.

The emperor Pachacuti was the first to organize the Incan system of beliefs into a state religion. He ordered temples built to all the major gods. Under his rule, the Incas developed a specific calendar of religious festivals, most of which were tied to important seasons in the farming year, such as planting and harvesting. Their chief religious concern was to pray to the gods for good health and a good harvest.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

East Asian and American Civilization Practice Test

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