The Inca Civilization

1. Territory

The period around 1200 AD saw the rise of the Aztec culture in Mexico. This is also the period when the Inca civilization in Latin America began to expand its territory.

The Incas were originally a warlike tribe from the Andes mountains above Cuzco. Around 1000 AD this tribe successfully conquered neighboring tribes and began moving down into the valley of Cuzco. From this convenient location, they eventually began their conquests of the surrounding area. By 1500 the Incas were the largest and richest of the ancient empires of the Americas. By the time of the Spanish conquest, the Inca empire extended some 2500 miles from their capital city of Cuzco along the western coast of Latin America - roughly the area of modern-day Peru. Their territory was very diverse both in climate and in terrain, for it included the high peaks and fertile valleys of the Andes mountains, the tropical forests on the eastern edges of the mountains and a long strip of drought-stricken desert along the western coast.


2. History

Not much is known about the early history of the Incas. Sometime around 1100 AD they founded a city called Cuzco in the fertile lowland valley and began to dominate other kingdoms nearby. Several centuries later the Incas began to expand their empire on a large scale. This occurred during the reign of Pachacuti in the mid-1400's. During this period Pachacuti's army invaded neighboring areas and ruthlessly crushed tribes that resisted. Many other tribes and kingdoms then entered into an alliance with the Inca conquerors out of fear. Soon the Incas became the dominant power along the western coast. After Pachacuti's death, his sons continued to expand the empire both northwards as far as modern-day Ecuador, southward along the coast to northern Chile, and eastward into portions of modern-day Argentina and Bolivia.

By the early 1500's the Inca empire was already beginning to weaken, however. One reason for their weakness is that the territory had become too large to manage. This also made it difficult to distribute food and other goods efficiently. It became more and more difficult to put down the rebellious tribes, especially those in the remote jungle areas in the east. Furthermore, the Inca control over so many diverse and far-flung peoples had depended on a series of strong rulers. Their stable government ended in 1525 when their king, Huayna Capac, died without having named a successor. Two of his sons, Atahualpa and his brother, Hus-car, began a bitter fight over the right to succeed him as king. The fight plunged the country into a civil war that seriously weakened the empire politically and militarily.

The mighty empire of the Incas collapsed abruptly in 1532 with the arrival of a small band of Spanish conquerors led by Pizarro. The Inca king, Atahualpa, had believed the light-skinned Spaniards were demigods and trusted them. This made it easy for Pizarro to capture and later execute Atahaulpa. Although the Incas greatly outnumbered Pizarro's band of 180 soldiers, the Incas' primitive weapons were no match against the Spaniards' guns and canons. The Incas' resistance did not last long. When the last Inca ruler was killed the long period of Spanish domination began. During the Spanish domination huge numbers of Incas died from the diseases brought by the Spanish colonists, as happened also with the native people in Central America and Mexico. Those natives who did survive had to work more or less as slaves on the plantations and in the silver and gold mines run by the Spaniards.


3. Inca Society

Unlike the Mayans and Aztecs, the Incas had not developed a written language. Nor did they develop a transportation system based on wheeled vehicles. Therefore, it is remarkable that they were able to control and administer such a large area. The Incas ruled over people from hundreds of different tribes who spoke many different languages. They maintained control by developing sophisticated ways of organizing their society, by maintaining a large army, and by inventing very advanced agricultural, building and engineering methods.

One of the most important inventions of the Incas was the elaborate system of stone roads and bridges they built to connect all the parts of the country. They had no horses, but trained runners running in relays could cover as much as 250 miles per day so that messages and reports could be quickly delivered to distant areas. And since the Incas forced all the conquered people to learn their language, having a common language also helped people communicate throughout the empire.

Although they had no written language, the Incas had developed a number system using knotted strings, called a quipu, that they used to keep accurate records of troops, supplies, population data, and agricultural inventories. Thus, they could plan which crops to plant to meet future needs, and they could assign people with particular skills to work on specific tasks, such as road building, hauling materials, tending crops, serving as soldiers, making pottery, or constructing houses and temples. Government experts taught the farmers new techniques for irrigating their crops, for draining marshlands, and for terracing the land to plant on steep hillsides. The government also took a portion of each harvest. Some of the harvest went to support the ruler, the noblemen and government officials. But much of the harvest was kept in a central storage place and then given out to the people as needed. This way a stable supply of food was available even when crops failed.

The Inca society was rigidly structured under a god-like, all powerful ruler, called the Inca. Beneath the Inca were the royal family, several levels of nobility, priests, the administrators and government experts, and the large mass of common people - craftsmen, farmers and soldiers. People's lives were strictly controlled, but the government protected them and made sure that they were well fed and had what they needed to live and work.

The Inca society was supported by their good agricultural methods. Potatoes and maize (corn) were their most important corps. The Incas had a variety of domesticated animals: llamas to transport goods, alpacas for wool, and dogs, guinea pigs and poultry. They manufactured ceramic pottery, clothing and blankets, metal ornaments, tools, and weapons.


4. Art, Architecture and Religion

Although the Incas produced many ornaments and figurines of gold and silver, very few of these have remained. This is because the Spaniards, in their greed for precious metals, melted down the jewelry and statues to ship to Spain. The outstanding art of the Incas that remains are the ruins of magnificent temples and large cities they constructed, such as the city of Machu Picchu. The ruins of this large city are located on a high ridge in the Andes northwest of Cuzco. The buildings are constructed of massive blocks of white granite, carefully shaped and fitted together without mortar. Archaeologists are still trying to figure out how the Incas were able to transport stone blocks weighing 10-15 tons to the building site without using wheeled vehicles. Likewise, they do not know what kinds of tools and techniques they used to make the blocks fit together into perfect joints. Like Roman cities, Inca cities had elaborate aqueducts, or canals that carried water to the houses.

The Inca religion centered on the worship of the sun. The ruler, or Inca, was worshipped as a god who was a descendent of the sun god. The capital city of Cuzco was considered to be the center of the universe, and one can still see the ruins there of a large temple dedicated to the sun. Like other cultures of Central America, the Incas developed a remarkably accurate calendar, based on the movement of the stars and planets. They planned religious festivals and the planting and harvesting of crops according to this calendar.

In addition to the sun god-creator of the universe the Incas worshipped a large number of gods representing the weather, the earth, the sea and the moon. Ancestors were also worshipped as protective spirits who acted as links between the living Incas and the gods. The bodies of dead rulers were preserved as mummies and sealed in stone tombs, and people came there to pray. They brought sacrifices usually in the form of cloth, plants, and animals. Only in times of great disaster were humans sacrificed. The Incas believed in an afterlife with a heaven for the souls of virtuous people where they lived with the sun god himself; evil people went to a cold underworld with only stones for food. After the Spanish conquered the Inca empire, many of the people were converted to Catholicism. However, the Incas continued many of their original traditions and beliefs, such as the worship of ancestors. Today their religion is a mixture of Catholicism and traditional elements.