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Inca Empire, vast kingdom in the Andes Mountains of South America that was created by the Quechua, a Native American people, in the 15th century. The term Inca comes from the Quechua word inka, meaning “king” or “prince”, which was applied to the people by the Spanish. The Inca Empire was conquered by the Spanish in the early 16th century. The Incas built a wealthy and complex civilization that ruled between 5 million and 11 million people. The Inca system of government was among the most complex political organizations of any Native American people. Although the Incas lacked both a written language and the concept of the wheel, they accomplished feats of engineering that were unequalled elsewhere in the Americas. They built large stone structures without mortar and constructed suspension bridges and roads that crossed the steep mountain valleys of the Andes.
The Incas conquered a number of neighbouring peoples as they expanded their area of influence outwards from their home in the Cuzco valley of highland Peru. Inca lands eventually totalled about 906,500 sq km (350,000 sq mi). This territory centred on the peaks of the Andes, but extended to the Pacific Coast and the Amazon basin. The political centre of the empire was in what is now Peru, and its territory included parts of present-day Ecuador, Bolivia, northern Chile, and north-west Argentina. The terrain included high grass plateaux, low-lying jungles, deserts, and fertile river valleys.
Most of the major ideas and institutions incorporated within Inca culture developed from a series of earlier Native American civilizations in the Andes. According to legend, the people later known as Incas began as a small group of warlike people and lived near Lake Titicaca in south-eastern Peru sometime before the 13th century. According to Inca myth, the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac, and his three brothers and four sisters emerged from caves in the Earth. Around the year 1200, Manco Capac led ten Inca ayllus, or clans, from Lake Titicaca north to the fertile valley of Cuzco. The Incas conquered the people of the area and took it over for themselves. They founded the city of Cuzco as their capital. Manco Capac married one of his sisters to establish the royal Inca bloodline. He and succeeding emperors increased their power through marriage alliances and the conquest of neighbouring groups. By the reign of Viracocha Inca, the eighth emperor, the Incas dominated an area stretching about 40 km (25 mi) around Cuzco. Recent archaeological evidence, however, shows that Inca culture was developing in the Cuzco valley for centuries.
The Incas dramatically expanded and unified their territory after the conquest of the Chancas, under Viracocha's son, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. Pachacuti (whose name means “earthquake” or “cataclysm”) reorganized the Inca social and political system. He and his son, Topa Inca Yupanqui, were brilliant soldiers and statesmen who extended the empire from northern Ecuador to central Chile. Under their leadership, the Incas united the diverse native peoples along 4,800 km (3,000 mi) of coast into a far-flung empire with a common Quechuan language and way of life. These leaders brought Inca civilization to its peak: they made the capital city of Cuzco into the centre of Inca society and government, developed a state religion, and set up an elaborate administrative system to control their widely scattered subjects and territories.
Inca society was strictly organized, from the emperor and royal family down to the peasants. The emperor was thought to be descended from the sun god, Inti, and he therefore ruled with divine authority. All power rested in his hands. Only the influence of custom and the fear of revolt checked the emperor’s power. The emperor had one official wife, but he had many royal concubines and his children by these wives often numbered in the hundreds. The emperor chose his most important administrators from among his sons.
Just below the emperor came the aristocracy, which included descendants and relations of all the emperors. These pure-blooded Incas held the most important government, religious, and military posts. The nobles of conquered peoples also became part of the governing aristocracy and were considered Inca by adoption.
For administrative purposes the empire was divided into regions known as the “four suyus (parts) of the world”, with Cuzco at its centre. The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu, a Quechuan word meaning “The Four Parts Together”. One suyu, the Antisuyu, stretched to the east of Cuzco and contained deep, forest-covered valleys that gradually descended into the jungles of the Amazon basin. Indian groups in this region, many of whom were only partially pacified, continued to launch attacks against the Incas. Cuntisuyu included all the land west of Cuzco, including the coastal regions of Peru from Chan Chan to Arequipa. Collasuyu was the largest of the four suyus. Located south of Cuzco, it took in Lake Titicaca and regions of Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Chincasuyu contained the remaining land to the north of Cuzco.
A blood relative of the emperor served as governor of each suyu. The Incas further divided each suyu into progressively smaller units, with officials of descending rank overseeing the activities of these units. Serving under each governor were ten district governors, each of whom ruled over a district containing about 10,000 peasants. Another official, ideally a leader of a large village, ruled over a smaller area containing about 1,000 peasants. At the level below, ten foremen each supervised a total of 100 peasants. At the lowest organizational level, an official oversaw a group of ten peasants. For every 10,000 people, there were 1,331 officials.
Inca state affairs were complex and tightly controlled. Whole native populations were at times uprooted and resettled in other communities. Often, groups were relocated to areas where they were needed for agricultural or mining activities. Sometimes relocations were politically motivated. Placing Quechua-speaking populations in newly conquered areas impaired the ability of local groups to unite against the Incas. Furthermore, these relocations facilitated the spread of Inca ideas and culture and promoted unity in the empire.
In order to deal efficiently with such matters, government officers kept strict accounts of all the people, gold, land, crops, and projects of the empire. Since the Incas had no system of writing, they kept records by means of a quipu—a series of short, knotted strings hung at intervals from a long top string. By varying the colours and kinds of string used and the spacing of the strings and knots, the Incas could record populations, troops, and tribute, as well as information about their legends and achievements. The quipu was a complex memory aid rather than a literal record, and only a trained quipucamayo, or memory expert, could create or interpret it. An oral comment accompanied each quipu and allowed the quipucamayo to make sense of its meaning. Following the Spanish conquest and the introduction of records written in Spanish, the Incas lost the ability to read quipus. Modern scholars still have not deciphered the codes used in the creation of quipus.
The Incas’ public works were built through a labour tax known as mit’a. This tax required most people incorporated into the Inca Empire to provide labour for public works during certain portions of each year. This labour tax supported large-scale public works that required the marshalling of large labour forces, such as for the building of forts, roads, and bridges, or the mining of metals and gems. It also allowed the emperor to raise large armies to undertake wars of conquest.
Road building was important in establishing communication throughout the huge, complex empire. The Inca emperors built a 16,000-km (10,000-mi) network of stone roads. Trained runners carried official messages, working in relays to cover up to 400 km (250 mi) per day. Government officials travelled on two main north-south roads and lesser crossroads that ran to every village in the empire. Local government officers managed tambos, or rest houses, which were spaced a day's journey apart and stocked with food and equipment.
To span the deep river gorges separating cities, the Inca built suspension bridges of rope that were marvels of engineering. Some of these rope bridges were nearly 100 m (330 ft) in length. One of the Incas’ greatest engineering feats was a bridge that crossed a dangerously steep gorge along the Apurímac. Constructed in 1350, this bridge—made from ropes of twined plant fibres—survived for more than 500 years, until it was abandoned in 1890.
To increase agricultural production, the government commissioned stone terraces in the steep, narrow Andean valleys. Officials also oversaw the construction of grain warehouses, which served as storage centres for each year’s grain harvest from the state’s farms. The government distributed this grain as forms of payment for labour, as well as to underwrite activities such as diplomatic hospitality and warfare.
Among the most impressive of the Incas’ building projects were their vast temples, palaces, and fortresses. Massive stone buildings, such as the fortress at Sacsahuaman near Cuzco, were skilfully erected with a minimum of engineering equipment. The wall of Sacsahuaman was made of enormous stones, the largest of which weighed 200 tonnes. Stones were transported with the help of wooden rollers, and they fitted together so exactly that no mortar was necessary.
Cuzco itself was a marvel of Inca building and metalwork. The great Temple of the Sun was almost entirely sheathed with gold plate. In its courtyard, figures fashioned of gold depicted scenes from Inca life. Gold corn appeared to grow out of clods of earth made of gold, and golden llamas grazed on gold grass. Other great cities included Machu Picchu.
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