Who were the Incas? Where did the Incas come from?
The Inca Civilization
The Incas were a civilization in South America formed by ethnic Quechua people also known as Amerindians. In 1400AD they were a small highland tribe, one hundred years later in the early 16th century the Incas rose to conquer and control the largest empire ever seen in the Americas forming the great Inca Empire. Its capital was located in Cusco, Peru and extended from what today is Ecuador in the north, Chile in the South, Bolivia in the east and limited by the Pacific Ocean in the west. In less than a century the Incas conquered a vast territory through war and watchful diplomacy.
The Inca Civilization was an agrarian civilization and at its height in 1500 AD reached more than 10 million people. It had a complex stratified vertical society governed by the Inca and his relatives. They shared a common polytheistic religion based on the worship of the Sun and the Sapa Inca as his son. Their centrally planned economy, the collection of tribute, a draconian law system, food security and its fair distribution along with free health care and education were the basis of its economic and social success and in that sense securing the loyalty of its subjects. The government was highly organized even without the benefits of a writing system. The organization of the empire rivaled that of the Romans.
The Inca civilization achieved highly developed art forms such as pottery, weaving techniques, metallurgy, music and architecture. A great example of their architectural achievement is Machu Picchu built by Inca Pachacuti around 1460AD. Their exquisite buildings were built without the use of modern tools and the wheel and they have withstood five centuries in an earthquake prone zone.
For the Incas being “Inca” meant being a member of the group identified by that name. They considered themselves superior to the other tribes and being Inca was a source of pride; only descendants of the original tribe were true Inca or children of the Sun. All others were subjects of the Child of the Sun.
The decline of the Incas started before the Spanish arrived in Inca territory. Their arrival accelerated its decline and eventually its fall. The conquest of Peru officially started in 1532 when a group led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in the city of Cajamarca to meet Atahualpa.
Where did the Incas come from?
The ancestors of the Incas were hunters who came from Asia crossing the Bering Strait. Over 20,000 years ago the Bering Strait connected Siberia and Alaska, it took several thousand years to populate and create civilizations in the Americas. Groups of people settled along the way creating communities. Others continued south and between 13,000 BC and 10,000 BC they reached the Pacific coast of South America and the Andes Mountains where they settled and found a new way of life. They learned how to cultivate plants such as corn and potatoes. Among the most important and first animals they domesticated were llamas and alpacas, this occurred between 3000 and 2500 BC. These animals were useful in many ways, they served as source of food, their wool was used for clothing and they were also used as pack animals. Between 3800 and 3000 BC they learned to grow cotton.
From around 8000 BC pre-Inca cultures started flourishing in the Andes and along the coast; Caral and Kotosh are one of the first cultures known in this area. They were followed by Chavin, Paracas, Nazca, Moche, Tiawanaku, Wari and Chimu. Between 1150 and 1250BC the Incas, by then a small tribe, were searching for farmland which they found in the fertile mountain valleys of Cusco. They dominated and improved on their ancestors’ achievements creating the largest pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas, the Inca Civilization. The Incas explained their origin through legends, the best known are the legend of the Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo who emerged from Lake Titicaca and the Legend of the Ayar Brothers.
From around 1200 to 1438 the Incas were a small tribe that gradually grew. Starting around the year 1438 the Incas started expanding when Inca Pachacutec came to the throne, at this point the Inca civilization became an empire. Their successful expansion and conquest of new territory would not have been possible without the construction of roads and bridges. It is important to note that the Incas developed a highly advanced engineering and architectural technology even without the benefit of the wheel.
When the Incas arrived in a new region they tried to establish a relationship with the tribe’s head. He offered gifts such as wool clothing, coca leaves and mullu (shell believed to be food for the Gods). If the gifts were accepted they also accepted the Inca’s authority. To consolidate this alliance they established family ties. If they did not accept the gifts they used force to subdue the tribe and since the Incas had a more powerful military force they always succeeded. The local leaders were executed to secure loyalty among the population. Read more about Inca expansion and its government.
Ruins in Peru tell stories of the fallen Inca Civilization and its predecessors. Some of them like Machu Picchu laid buried for centuries before it was discovered in 1911. Other Inca cities, yet to be discovered, may lay buried under modern buildings . What brought the collapse of such an advanced civilization?
The invasion of the Spaniards brought warfare and disease, they also brought a new culture that wiped out the local one imposing their own system of beliefs and government. Even before the Spanish arrived in Inca territory disease had spread from central America to South America. It is believed that in ten years between 50% and 90% of the population was attacked by diseases like smallpox, flu, typhus, diphtheria, chicken pox and measles to which the Inca population had no inmunity. The first disease to make its mark was smallpox when in 1527 it took the lives of Sapa Inca Huayna Capac and Ninan Cuyochi, the heir to the throne. According to Inca tradition the next in line to the throne was the oldest son of the Inca and the Coya, his wife, and following this tradition, Huascar was the next in line. He was stationed in Cusco and was crowned as Sapa Inca by the Cusco nobility. Among Huayna Capac’s many illegitimate sons was Atahualpa, a more capable warrior and administrator who was in charge of the northern territories in the administrative capital of Quito. Atahualpa’s supporters considered him the Sapa Inca and a civil war broke out between the two brothers and their supporters . In 1532 Huascar was defeated and Atahualpa was proclaimed the emperor.
As the Spanish made their way to Inca territory from the north they encountered a diminished and weak population. Francisco Pizarro arrived in the city of Cajamarca in 1532 with 110 armed men and a cavalry of 67. The following day he sent an invitation to Atahualpa to visit him. It appeared obvious to Atahualpa that this was to be a peaceful meeting where the foreigners were to show their respect to him as his entourage was not armed. As the King of the Incas walked into the square he was approached by a priest named Valverde who handed him a bible and tried to make him swear loyalty to the Pope and the King of Spain. Atahualpa threw the Bible to the floor and the attempt to capture him started. The conquerors showed their superiority by capturing Atahualpa and killing most of his warriors in less than thirty minutes.
As a payment for his freedom Atahualpa offered to fill two full rooms of silver and one of gold. He was never let go even when the ransom was paid, instead he was charged of treason and crimes against the Spanish state. He was executed on August 29, 1533.
The Spanish easily advanced south conquering and dominating the rest of the Inca territory and wiping its culture and its civilization, spreading their religion and governance along the way.