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The Inca Empire - South America's Kings

Late Horizon Rulers of South America


Qorikancha, Cuzco, Peru

The Qorikancha (also called Intiwasa or Sun Temple) was enlarged in 1438 by Pachacuti, who also built Machu Picchu. Built atop it today is the Santo Domingo (St. Dominic) Convent and Church, but the smooth basalt foundations are still extant.

Yan-Di Chang
Inca Bridge

Inca Bridge

Alun Salt
Inca Textile Tunic, Peru

Inca Textile Tunic, Peru

John Weinstein © The Field Museum

Overview of the Inca Empire

The Inca Empire was the largest pre-hispanic society of South America when it was 'discovered' by the Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century AD. At its height, the Inca empire controlled all of the western part of the South American continent between Ecuador and Chile. The Inca capital was at Cusco, Peru, and the Inca legends claimed they were descended from the great Tiwanaku civilization at Lake Titicaca.

Origins of the Inca Empire

Archaeologist Gordon McEwan has built an extensive study of archaeological, ethnographic, and historical sources of information on the Inca origins. Based on that, he believes that the Inca arose from the remnants of the Wari Empire based at the site of Chokepukio, a regional center built about AD 1000. An influx of refugees from Tiwanaku arrived there from the Lake Titicaca region about AD 1100. McEwan argues that Chokepukio may be the town of Tambo Tocco, reported in Inca legends as the originating town of the Inca, and that Cusco was founded from that city. See his 2006 book, The Incas: New Perspectives for more detail on this interesting study.

In a 2008 article Alan Covey argued that although the Inca arose from the Wari and Tiwanaku state roots, they succeeded as an empire-compared to the contemporary Chimú State-because the Inca adapted to regional environments and with local ideologies.

The Inca began their expansion from Cusco about 1250 AD or so, and before the conquest in 1532 they controlled a linear stretch of some 4,000 kilometers, including nearly one million square kilometers in area and over 100 different societies in coastal regions, pampas, mountains and forests. Estimates for the total population under Incan control range between six and nine million persons. Their empire included land in what are the modern countries of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Architecture and Economics of the Inca Empire

To control such a huge area, the Incas built roads, including both both mountainous and coastal routes. One existing fragment of the road between Cusco and the palace of Machu Picchu is called the Inca Trail. The amount of control exercised by Cusco over the rest of the empire varied from place to place, as might be expected for such a huge empire. Tribute paid to the Inca rulers came from farmers of cotton, potatoes, and maize, herders of alpacas and llamas, and craft specialists who made polychrome pottery, brewed beer from maize (called chicha), wove fine wool tapestries, and made wooden, stone, and gold, silver and copper objects.

The Inca were organized along a complex hierarchical and hereditary lineage system called the ayllu system. Ayllus ranged in size from a few hundred to tens of thousands of people, and they governed access to such things as land, political roles, marriage, and ritual ceremonies. Among other important duties, ayllus took maintenance and ceremonial roles involving the preservation and care of honored mummies of the ancestors of their communities.

The only written records about the Inca that we can read today are documents from the Spanish conquistadors of Francisco Pizarro. Records were kept by the Inca in the form of knotted strings called quipu (also spelled khipu or quipo). The Spanish reported that historical records--particularly the deeds of the rulers--were sung, chanted, and painted on wooden tablets as well.

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