Geography: Borrowing, agreeing, and conquering

Pre-Empire Incas

The Inca empire started very humbly. The original village nestled high in the Andes Mountains of South America became the capital of their eventual empire. This village was called Cuzco.  The Incas borrowed customs, scientific knowledge, and cultural particulars such as religion and farming techniques from the closest villages to their own. The growth of the empire gave them further skills that they put to work throughout the empire. We will talk more about that at the achievements station. As with many ancient empires, a strong leader helped build a legacy.

Expanding an empire with a firm hand

In the mid 1400s, an Inca leader called Pachacuti led the charge in creating an empire. He made contact with villages up and down the west coast of South America. He arranged agreements with tribal leaders to give up ruling rights and come live at the capital. He later led warriors to conquer those who wouldn’t comply. In this way, the Inca Empire spread from the jungles and forests of Ecuador, down through Peruvian, Bolivian, and Argentinian valleys and peaks, and the desert coastline of Chile. In later years, emperors continued to send delegates and only resorted to war if necessary.


Achievements: Masonry, Textiles, arts, and Infrastructure

Achievements — The lasting contributions of a civilization.

The Inca people learned many things from the tribes that they overtook, and used them to create their own legacies.  Inca masonry, or the use of stone to build, shows precision and dedication. All of the major cities, water canals, and religious temples were built out of giant bricks of stone. These bricks were so well-crafted to fit together that even today it’s nearly impossible to get knife blades or other tools between them. Many of these marvelous buildings are still being used today, and show limited signs of age.

In addition to working with stone, the Incas developed masterful skills in creating jewelry and art with gold and silver from the mountains. Many of these creations became sacrifices for their gods. The high elevations and steep terrain of much of the Inca Empire made it ideal for raising llamas, a herd animal prized for its soft fur. The Inca dyed and spun the wool into beautiful textiles, such as blankets and clothes. That skill is still used today by the natives from the empire’s regions.

Though the Inca had no writing system, they had other ways of recording information to maintain their empire. Oral traditions kept religious stories and other literature alive from generation to generation.

Another major achievement of the Incas was the creation of a network of roads. They literally built roads on every type of terrain, including cliff sides, rope bridges, and  across deep, river-filled gorges. This road system maintained the power of the government by getting warriors to trouble areas, relaying messages, and keeping trade alive and well.


Government: Roads, knots, and Leadership replacement

Leadership/ Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Centralized government meant more control

As the Incas conquered other tribes along the western side of South America, they had to implement ways to keep control of their millions of subjects. They did this in several ways:

First, elders of each tribe were removed and sent to the capital of Cuzco, either as sacrifices to the Gods if they had opposed the Inca take over, or as nobles working within the government if they’d made peaceful agreements with the Inca leadership. Those leaders were replaced by loyal Inca subjects. The children of conquered tribes were also sent to Cuzco to learn the government and religion of the Incas, and then sent home to teach what they had learned to others in their tribe.


Another way the Incas kept their subjects in check is that they implemented an official language called Quechua. It was the only way that business and government could be done. This encouraged their subjects to give up their own languages so that they could trade and practice their new religion.

Intricate recording systems called Quipu, used knots of different sizes and colors, placed in different places on strings to keep track of important information such as crops, inventory, population, troop size, and messages back to the Inca government. You’ll get to play with this concept more at the Quipu Station.

The Importance of Roads

Perhaps the most important way that the government stayed as strong as it did was the construction of its road network. Nearly 15,000 miles of roads linked the empire together. Two main roads, the Royal Road of the inland and the Coastal Road, ran north and south, mimicking one another, with smaller roads connecting the two in a pattern similar to a ladder. These roads provided Inca officials transportation with resting shelters every 30 miles or so, and also created a relay system for news and messages between them and Cuzco, with transfer stations about every other mile. Quipu were used as reminders for the verbal messages that were sent this way. These roads are what truly kept the Inca Government in control of their empire.


Economy: Taxed and Supplied

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Work and distribute

Like many of the American empires, the Inca insisted that their subjects pay tribute, or give items to be used as gifts to their gods. However, this was not the primary way that the Inca government taxed their subjects. Their mita, or labor tax, gave each household in their empire a certain job to do. Some were farmers in a certain region, while others tended government farmland for crops such as potatoes, maize (or corn), peanuts, and squash. Still others were recruited as religious scholars or priests, and others tended llama and other livestock or had a quota of cloth or jewelry to create each year. The emperor also assigned government officials, warriors and war lords, and tax officials to maintain and enlarge their vast empire.

Minus the markets

Thought it may seem like the peasants of Inca society were treated poorly, they actually got some unique return on their designated labor. In exchange for working hard all year, they were well provided for.  Rather than the centralized markets of many other world-wide civilizations of this same time, the Inca government distributed all the goods created to its people, according to their status. In addition to this, all participated in religious ceremonies to celebrate with the best food and experiences the empire had to offer.


Part1 Social classes: Of the upper and lower elements

Social Classes – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Hanan-Cuzco: of the Upper element

As mentioned in the creation story on the “Achievements” station, the upper classes of Inca society were considered the elders created by the male element and meant to rule the people. These included the emperor himself, called the Sapa Inca, who was thought to be a descendant and oracle (or speaker) for the Sun god Inti. Emperors had to earn their own possessions through conquest to take to the after-world, which is why it’s believed the Incas were able to spread the empire so far. The other elders of society also included the priests and priestesses, warrior generals, and government officials that the empire assigned to various positions and locations throughout the empire.


Hurin-Cuzco: of the lower element

Anyone who was not of the upper class was simply the lower class. Allyus, or family clans, worked government-loaned land and homes to fulfill their mita, or labor tax. One curaca, or leader, oversaw ten households, assigned tasks, and made sure they completed their communal work. Another curaca would oversee fifty of the lower-level clan leaders, and another would oversee 1,000 or more of those leaders. The peasants of the Inca empire worked hard, and only enjoyed the pleasures that came from marriage and religion. Marriage was a simple act of holding hands and swapping sandals, then a small celebration would be completed for the couple. Religion played a major role in the finer details of life, since the Incas believed in many gods for daily things, such as, heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars), weather such as rain and wind, and the sea. Some deities had a larger claim on their lives, such as the creator god and Inti the sun and harvest god, who kept their livelihood intact.


The prejudice of blood

Although there were primarily two classes in Inca society, another element affected the way certain people were treated. The Inca army conquered many people to grow their empire, and many of the tribes they came to rule were not originally Inca people from Cuzco. Those that had this “true” Cuzco blood were considered better and more privileged than “lesser” tribes of people. This difference was felt in every level of society. Most upper class citizens were trusted, true Inca people, though some non-Inca citizens did manage to gain the emperor’s favor.


Part 2 Social classes: Primary Source Document Analysis

  1. Evaluate Which pictures are of Upper Class and Lower Class.
  2. Explain a Clue that influenced your decision.
  3. Which Picture most likely depicts a curaca (overseer)?

Religion: Many Deities, many Rites

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a culture.

Appeasing the gods

Like many Mesoamerican cultures, Inca religion was polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods. Each god represented a part of nature that affected the lives of the Inca people such as rain, wind, the sea, and the earth. Their primary god was Inti, who controlled the sun and agriculture. The emperor was thought to be a relative to Inti and able to communicate with the god. In addition to specific gods, the Incas believed the certain objects, people, or locations were sacred and called them huacas. The Incas paid tribute and prayed to huacas as much as they did the gods themselves.

Rituals of all kinds

The Inca priests also had a hand in the daily lives of the Inca people. They performed daily rituals to appease their gods, as well as occasional ones for special ceremonies. They also performed divination, or spiritually-led predictions that helped an individual make important decisions. Like some other Mesoamerican cultures, though not as often as some, the Inca performed blood sacrifices. Usually this was done with the blood of animals such as, llamas or guinea pigs, but on rare occasions such as natural disasters, they used the extreme human sacrifice to intercede on their behalf.

Girls are given honor

One unique part of Inca religion was the draft of girls between 9-12 years of age to become the “Chosen Ones,” an honor for any clan or family. Government officials would search the empire for the most beautiful, talented, or unique girls and send them to a covent. There, they would learn many aspects of the Inca religion and prepare for a life of servitude at a temple or as a wife of a noble or the Emperor himself.

The quipu or “The Talking knots”

The government of the Inca Empire had dozens of cities, thousands of roadways, and millions of citizens to account for and keep control over. Oral tradition was alive and well, but a written language was never established because they had another form of recording important information: the quipu. The quipu was an intricate string and knot system that was portable for the wearer and easy to relay on the extreme roads of the Inca empire. Each location off the main strand or attachment to another strand, each loop, and each color of a knot indicated a different item, amount, and other pertinent information. In this way they could discuss troops, inventory of goods, and more!



Decline: Civil war and strangers

Fighting among each other


In 1530, a civil war broke out among the Incas. A ruler had just died and his two sons each wanted to be the next Sapa Inca. The army was divided by who they thought should be ruling, and battles broke out to defend their champion. This crippled the once-powerful Inca army and left it ripe for destruction.


The Spanish take advantage

Of the two sons fighting the civil war, Atahualpa ended up the victor. As he was taking his place in Cuzco, he received word that a group of foreigners was in Peru. The stories he heard were fantastical, and he wanted to meet them. So he invited them to his home. When the Spaniards arrived, they insisted that he convert to Christianity, but he refused. The Spaniards then captured the Emperor. He begged his people to collect gold and silver in a certain room as a ransom for him. They obliged, bringing nearly 24 tons of precious metal in the hopes of saving their king. However, the Spaniards, lead by Francisco Pizzaro, killed Atahualpa anyways. The Incas fought to  get rid of the intruders, but the army was already weak from civil war. After several battles rallied by the Incas, the Spaniards finally defeated them in 1537.