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Economy, Architecture and Religion of the Inca Empire

Inca Empire Study Guide


Inca Textile Tunic, Peru

Inca Textile Tunic, Peru

John Weinstein © The Field Museum
Quipu pendants showing three common types of multi-colored cords.

Quipu pendants showing three common types of multi-colored cords.

Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin, Germany. Photo (c) Gary Urton. VA#42554

Important Facts about the Inca Empire

  • Alternate names: Inca, Inka, Tahuantinsuyu or Tawantinsuyu ("the four parts together" in Quechua)
  • Population: Estimates widely accepted by Inca scholars range between six and 14 million within an area extending from Colombia to Chile, in 1532 when the Spanish arrived.
  • State language: Inca rulers adopted a form of Quechua for their administrative language, and doing so spread it into outlying areas of their empire, but the Inca incorporated many different cultures and their languages. The Inca called their form of Quechua "runasimi" or "man's speech".
  • Writing system: The Inca apparently kept accounts and perhaps historical information using a quipu, a system of knotted and dyed string; according to the Spanish, the Inca also chanted and sang historical legends and painted wooden tablets.
  • Ethnographic sources: Lots of ethnographic sources are available about the Inca, primarily Spanish military leaders and priests who were interested in conquering the Inca. These texts are variously useful and often quite biased. Some few examples include Bernabé Cobo, "Historia del Nuevo Mundo" 1653, and "Relacion de las huacas", among many other reports; Garcilaso de la Vega, 1609; Diez Gonzalez Holguin, 1608; anonymous "Arte y vocabulario en la lengua general del Peru", 1586; Santo Tomas, 1560; Juan Perez Bocanegra, 1631; Pablo Joseph de Arriaga, 1621; Cristobal de Albornoz, 1582

Inca Economics

  • Intoxicants: Coca, chicha (maize beer)
  • Markets: A widespread trade network facilitated by open markets
  • Cultivated crops: Cotton, potatoes, maize, quinoa
  • Domesticated animals: Alpaca, llama, guinea pig
  • Tribute was paid to Cusco in goods and services; tribute tallies were kept on quipu and an annual census was kept including the number of deaths and births
  • Lapidary arts: Shell
  • Metallurgy: Silver, copper, tin and to a lesser extent gold were cold-hammered, forged, and air-annealed
  • Textiles: Wool (alpaca and llama) and cotton
  • Agriculture: When necessary in the steep Andean terrain, the Inca built terraces with a gravel base and stepped retaining walls, to drain excess water and allow water flow from the terrace tread to the next terrace down slope.

Inca Architecture

  • Construction techniques used by the Inca included fired adobe mud bricks, roughly shaped stones interspersed with mud mortar, and large, finely shaped stones coated with mud and clay finishing. The shaped stone architecture (sometimes called 'pillow-faced') is among the finest in the world, with large stones sanded into tight jigsaw like patterns. Pillow-faced architecture was reserved for temples, administrative structures and royal residences like Machu Picchu.
    Read more about Inca Architecture
  • Many Inca military installations and other public architecture were constructed throughout the empire, at sites such as Farfán (Peru), Qara Qara and Yampara (Bolivia), and Catarpe and Turi (Chile).
  • The Inca Road (Capaq Ñan or Gran Ruta Inca) was built connecting the empire, and included some 8500 kilometers of major thoroughfare crossing fifteen distinct ecosystems. 30,000 kilometers of subsidiary trails branch off the main road, including the Inca Trail, which is the part that leads from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
    See the Inca Road Photo Essay for more about the Inca Road
  • Royal palaces and residences Machu Picchu, Coricancha in Cusco

Inca Religion

  • Ceque system, a system of shrines and ritual pathways radiating out from the capital city of Cusco. Emphasis on ancestor worship and fictive kinship structures (ayllus).
  • Millenarian cult Taqui Oncoy 1560-1570
  • Capacocha ceremony: a state event that involved the sacrifice of objects, animals and sometimes children.
  • Burials: The Inca dead were mummified and placed in open sepulchers so that they could be disinterred for important annual ceremonies and other rituals.
  • Temples/shrines known as 'huacas' included both built and natural structures
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