Incas region

The Incas: History of Andean Empire
February 12, 2021 – 06:27 pm
The Incas: History of Andean

Villagers in Cuzco, Peru, dressed in colorful shawls, or chompas, mingle with city-folk and tourists during a festival..

Credit: Jesse Lewis

The Inca Empire was a vast empire that flourished in the Andean region of South America from the early 15th century A.D. up until its conquest by the Spanish in the 1530s. Even after the conquest, Inca leaders continued to resist the Spaniards up until 1572 when its last city, Vilcabamba, was captured.

The Incas built their empire without the wheel, powerful draft animals, iron working, currency or even what we would consider to be a writing system. One of the Inca civilization's most famous surviving archaeological sites is Machu Picchu, which was built as a retreat for an Incan emperor.

The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu, the “Land of the Four Corners, ” and its official language was Quechua. The empire was divided up into four “suyu, ” which intersected at the capital, Cuzco. These suyu in turn were divided into provinces. By the time of the Spanish conquest, much of the Inca Empire was made up of numerous non-Inca groups.

The empire reached its peak after the conquests of Emperor Huayna Capac, who reigned from 1493 until around 1527, when he apparently died of smallpox. At its peak, the empire extended from “the border of Ecuador and Colombia down to about 50 miles [80 kilometers] south of modern Santiago, Chile, ” said Terence D'Altroy of Columbia University, in a 2007 PBS Nova interview. “In terms of square miles, we're probably talking something like 300, 000 square miles [more than 775, 000 square km], ” he said, adding that its population was as high as 12 million people.

To support this empire, a system of roads stretched for almost 25, 000 miles (roughly 40, 000 km), about three times the diameter of the Earth.

As the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire, they were impressed by what they saw. “Inca cities were as large as those of Europe, but more orderly and by all accounts much cleaner and more pleasant places in which to live, ” writes Gordon McEwan of Wagner College, in his book “The Incas: New Perspectives” (ABC-CLIO, 2006), also noting that the road and aqueduct systems the Spanish encountered in the Andes were superior to those in Europe.

Inca origins

The Inca Empire originated at the city of Cuzco in what is today southern Peru. It appears to have started out as a small local state until it rapidly expanded into a vast empire during the 15th century A.D.

The origins of the Inca are murky, but McEwan points that, in pre-Inca times, Cuzco was located at a nexus point between two earlier empires, one called the Wari and another based at the city of Tiwanaku. This central location gave the Inca a number of advantages when they were able to expand, one of the most important being the availability of infrastructure, which these earlier empires had already created. “The hydraulic and highway systems of the earlier empires would have provided the basis for rapid expansion of the early Inca state, ” McEwan writes.

Inca oral history, recorded by the Spanish, suggests that the expansion of the Inca began in earnest during the reign of the emperor Pachacuti, who reigned 1438-1471. Oral traditions say that he became emperor after he halted an invasion of Cuzco that was being carried out by a rival group called the Chancas. Subsequently, he worked to expand the territory the Inca controlled, extending their influence beyond the Cuzco region.

D'Altroy notes that the Inca tried to get their rivals to surrender peacefully and only used military conquest as a last resort. They “worked very hard in diplomacy, negotiating relationships with neighbors or with people who were targets for incorporation into their expanding territory, and they tried to work out amicable relationships through gift exchanges, marital exchanges, or political alliances. Failing that, they would threaten those people with military conquest, and that having failed, they would actually undertake military conquest, ” he said in the PBS interview.

While the Inca did not develop what we would consider a formal system of writing, they did use recording devices, the best known being quipu, a cord with strings suspended from it. While modern-day scholars are unable to read them, it is known that they would have been used for creating records such as a census.


The Inca capital, Cuzco, was ordered rebuilt by Pachacuti, who allegedly had the city completely razed so that it could be rebuilt in the shape of a puma.

“The animal was represented in profile, with the residential blocks of the city forming its body … the great fortress or temple complex on the hill above Cuzco representing its head, and the confluence of the Tullu and Saphi rivers representing its tail, ” McEwan writes, paraphrasing the account recorded by the Spanish chronicler Juan de Betanzos. “Between the fore and hind legs of the puma were located the two great plazas of Cuzco, where the highways to the four imperial quarters of the empire, called suyus, converged.”

McEwan adds that commoners were not allowed to live in the city and had to reside in the outlying settlements.

Perhaps the greatest religious sanctuary in Cuzco was a sun temple called “Coricancha.” The Spanish chronicler Bernabé Cobo wrote (in translation), “This temple was called Coricancha, which means ‘house of gold, ’ because of the incomparable wealth of this metal which was embedded in the temple’s chapels and wall, its ceilings and altars.” (From “Ancient Cuzco” by Brian Bauer, University of Texas Press, 2004)

The presence of gold led the Spanish to plunder it thoroughly, but Cobo did record that it was dedicated to the Sun god Inti with other Inca deities also being honored in the temple.

After the Spanish conquered Cuzco, they built a new city in its place, one that survives to present day.

The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu.

Credit: dreamstime
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