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The Inca civilization began as a tribe in the Cusco area, where the legendary first Sapa Inca Manco Capac founded the Kingdom of Cusco around 1200. Under the leadership of the descendants of Manco Capac, the state grew as it absorbed other Andean communities at that time. It was in 1438, when the Incas began a far reaching expansion under the command of Pachacutec, whose name literally meant earth-shaker. He formed the Inca empire (Tawantinsuyu), that would become the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.

After the civil war in the empire between the brothers Huascar and Atahualpa, the Spanish conquerors led by Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca territory in 1532. In the following years the conquistadors managed to consolidate their power over the whole Andean region, repressing successive Inca rebellions until the establishment of the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1542 and the fall of the resistance of the last Incas of Vilcabamba in 1572. The Inca civilization ends at that time, but some cultural traditions remain in some ethnic groups as Quechuas and Aymara people.


Origin myths

Manco Capac was the legendary founder of the Inca Dynasty in Peru and the Cuzco Dynasty at Cuzco. The legends and history surrounding this mythical figure are very jumbled, especially those concerning his rule at Cuzco and his birth/rising. In one legend, he was the son of Tici Viracocha. In another, he was brought up from the depths of Lake Titicaca by the sun god Inti. However, commoners were not allowed to speak the name of Inca Viracocha, which is possibly an explanation for the need for three foundation legends rather than just the first.

There were also several myths about Manco Capac and his coming to power. In one myth, Manco Capac and his brother Pachacamac were sons of the sun god Inti. Manco Capac, himself, was worshiped as a fire and sun god. According to this Inti legend, Manco Capac and his siblings were sent up to the earth by the sun god and emerged from the cave of Pacaritambo carrying a golden staff called tapac-yauri. They were instructed to create a Temple of the Sun in the spot where the staff sank into the earth to honor the sun god Inti, their father. To get to Cuzco, where they built the temple, they traveled via underground caves. During the journey, one of Mancos brothers, and possibly a sister, were turned to stone (huaca).

In another version of this legend, instead of emerging from a cave in Cuzco, the siblings emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca.

In the Inca Virachocha legend, Manco Capac was the son of Inca Viracocha of Pacari-Tampu, today known as Pacaritambo, which is 25 km (16 mi) south of Cuzco. He and his brothers ; and sisters lived near Cuzco at Paccari-Tampu, and uniting their people and the ten ayllu they encountered in their travels to conquer the tribes of the Cuzco Valley. This legend also incorporates the golden staff, which is thought to have been given to Manco Capac by his father. Accounts vary, but according to some versions of the legend, the young Manco jealously betrayed his older brothers, killed them, and then became the sole ruler of Cuzco.

Emergence and expansion

The Inca people began as a tribe in the Cuzco area around the 12th century AD. Under the leadership of Manco Capac, they formed the small city-state of Cuzco (Quechua Qosqo), shown in red on the map.

In 1438 AD, under the command of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacuti, whose name literally meant "earth-shaker", they conquered much of modern day southern Peru. He then rebuilt Cuzco as major city, and capital of an empire.

Pachacuti reorganized the kingdom of Cuzco into an empire, the Tahuantinsuyu, a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provincial governments with strong leaders: Chinchasuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Contisuyu (SW), and Collasuyu (SE). Pachacuti is also thought to have built Machu Picchu, either as a family home or as a Camp David-like retreat

Pachacuti would send spies to regions he wanted in his empire who would report back on their political organization, military might and wealth. He would then send messages to the leaders of these lands extolling the benefits of joining his empire, offering them presents of luxury goods such as high quality textiles, and promising that they would be materially richer as subject rulers of the Inca. Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli and acquiesced peacefully. The ruler's children would then be brought to Cuzco to be taught about Inca administration systems, then return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate the former ruler's children into the Inca nobility, and, with luck, marry their daughters into families at various corners of the empire.

It was traditional for the Inca's son to lead the army; Pachacuti's son Tupac Inca began conquests to the north in 1463, and continued them as Inca after Pachucuti's death in 1471. His most important conquest was the Kingdom of Chimor, the Inca's only serious rival for the coast of Peru. Tupac Inca's empire stretched north into modern day Ecuador and Colombia.

Tupac Inca's son Huayna Capac added significant territory to the south. At its height, Tahuantinsuyu included Peru and Bolivia, most of what is now Ecuador, a large portion of modern-day Chile, and extended into corners of Argentina and Colombia.

Tahuantinsuyu was a patchwork of languages, cultures and peoples. The components of the empire were not all uniformly loyal, nor were the local cultures all fully integrated. For instance, the Chimu used money in their commerce, while the Inca empire as a whole had an economy based on exchange and taxation of luxury goods and labour (it is said that Inca tax collectors would take the head lice of the lame and old as a symbolic tribute). The portions of the Chachapoya that had been conquered were almost openly hostile to the Inca, and the Inca nobles rejected an offer of refuge in their kingdom after their troubles with the Spanish. They were conquered by the group of Francisco Pizarro.

Spanish conquest and Vilcabamba

Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro explored south from Panama, reaching Inca territory by 1526. It was clear that they had reached a wealthy land with prospects of great treasure, and after one more expedition (1529), Pizarro traveled to Spain and received royal approval to conquer the region and become its Viceroy.

At the time they returned to Peru, in 1532, a war of succession between Huayna Capac's son Huascar and half brother Atahualpa and unrest among newly-conquered territories-- and also smallpox, which had spread from Central America-- had considerably weakened the empire.

Pizarro did not have a formidable force. With just 180 men, 27 horses and 1 cannon, he often used able diplomacy to talk his way out of potential confrontations that could have easily ended in defeat. Their first engagement was the Battle of Puna, near present-day Guayaquil, Ecuador where his force rapidly overcame the indigineous warriors of Puna island. Pizarro then founded the city of Piura in July 1532. Hernando de Soto was sent inland to explore the interior, and returned with an invitation to meet the Inca, Atahualpa, who had defeated his nephew in the civil war and was resting at Cajamarca with his army of 80,000 troops.

Pizarro met with the Inca, who had brought only a small retinue, and through interpreters asked that he convert to Christianity. A disputed legend claims that Atahualpa was handed a Bible and threw it on the floor, the Spanish supposedly interpreted this action as reason for war. Though some chroniclers suggest that Atahualpa simply didn't understand the notion of a book, others portray Atahualpa as being genuinely curious and inquisitive in the situation. Regardless, Atahualpa's actions provoked the attack of the Spanish force on the Inca's retinue (see Battle of Cajamarca), capturing Atahualpa. It was later known that in fact, Atahualpa was planning to speak with the Spaniards and then arrest them. He planned to put Pizarro and his officers to death and retain the needed specialists, such as the horsebreaker, blacksmith, and gunsmith to equip his army.

Atahualpa offered the Spaniards enough gold to fill the room he was imprisoned in, and twice that amount of silver, in order to be freed. The Incas fulfilled this ransom, but Pizarro refused to release the Inca. During Atahualpa's imprisonment Huascar was assassinated. The Spanish maintained that this was at Atahualpa's orders; this was one of the charges used against Atahualpa when the Spanish finally decided to put him to death, in August 1533.

The Spanish installed his brother Manco Inca Yupanqui in power; for some time Manco cooperated with the Spanish, while the Spanish fought to put down resistance in the north. Meanwhile an associate of Pizarro's, Diego de Almagro, attempted to claim Cusco for himself. Manco tried to use this intra-Spanish feud to his advantage, recapturing Cusco (1536), but the Spanish retook the city.

Manco Inca then retreated to the mountains of Vilcabamba, where he and his successors ruled for another 36 years, sometimes raiding the Spanish or inciting revolts against them. In 1572 the last Inca stronghold was discovered, and the last ruler, Tupac Amaru, Manco's son, was captured and executed, bringing the Inca empire to an end.


Social Structure

The Incan social structure was quite straightforward. The ranking levels of power in society were (in descending order) the Inca, who had absolute power, the royal family, tribal leaders, clans and squads.


The Inca used quipu or bunches of knotted strings, for accounting and census purposes. Much of the information on the surviving quipus has been shown to be numeric data; some numbers seem to have been used as mnemonic labels, and the color, spacing, and structure of the quipu carried information as well. Since it isn't known how to interpret the coded or non-numeric data, some scholars still hope to find that the quipu recorded language.

The Inca depended largely on oral transmission as a means of maintaining the preservation of their culture. Inca education was divided into two distinct categories: vocational education for common Inca and formalized training for the nobility.


The belief system of the Incas was polytheistic. Inti, the Sun God, was the godhead, which the Incas believed was the direct ancestor of the Sapa Inca, the title of the hereditary rulers of the empire. They believed in the sun god.

Arts and technology

Monumental architecture

Architecture was by far the most important of the Inca arts, with pottery and textiles reflecting motifs that were at their height in architecture. The main example is the capital city of Cuzco itself. The breathtaking site of Machu Picchu was constructed by Inca engineers. The stone temples constructed by the Inca used a mortarless construction that fit together so well that you couldn't fit a knife through the stonework. This was a process first used on a large scale by the Pucara (ca. 300 BCAD 300) peoples to the south in Lake Titicaca, and later in the great city of Tiwanaku (ca. AD 4001100) in present day Bolivia. The Inca imported the stoneworkers of the Tiwanaku region to Cuzco when they conquered the lands south of Lake Titicaca . The rocks used in construction were sculpted to fit together exactly by repeatedly lowering a rock onto another and carving away any sections on the lower rock where the dust was compressed. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable.

Ceramics, precious metal work, and textiles

Almost all of the gold and silver work of the empire was melted down by the conquistadors.

Ceramics were painted in numerous motifs including birds, waves, felines, and geometric patterns. The most distinctive Inca ceramic objects are the Cusco bottles or aryballos. Many of these pieces are on display in Lima in the Larco Archaeological Museum and the National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History.


The Inca lived in mountainous terrain, which is not good for farming. To resolve this problem, they cut terraces into steep slopes so they could plant crops. They grew maize, quinoa, squash, tomatoes, peanuts, chili peppers, melons, cotton, and potatoes.


Mathematics and astronomy

A very important Inca technology was the Quipu, which were assemblages of knotted strings used to record information, the exact nature of which is no longer known. Originally it was thought that Quipu were used only as mnemonic devices or to record numerical data. Recent discoveries, however, have led to the theory that these devices were instead a form of writing in their own right .

The Inca made many discoveries in medicine. They performed successful skull surgery, which involved cutting holes in the skull to release pressure from head wounds . Coca leaves were used to lessen hunger and pain, as they still are in the Andes. The Chasqui (messengers) chewed coca leaves for extra energy to carry on their tasks as runners delivering messages throughout the empire.

Weapons, armor and warfare

The Incas used weapons and had wars with other civilizations in the area. The Inca army was the most powerful in the area at that time, because they could turn an ordinary villager or farmer into a soldier, ready for battle. This is because every male Inca had to take part in war at least once so as to be prepared for warfare again when needed.

The Incas had no iron or steel, and their weapons were no better than their enemies'. They went into battle with the beating of drums and the blowing of trumpets. The armor used by the Incas included:

Helmets made of wood, cane or animal skin

Round or square shields made from wood or hide

Cloth tunics padded with cotton and small wooden planks to protect the spine.

The Inca weaponry included:

Bronze or bone-tipped spears

Two-handed wooden swords with serrated edges

Clubs with stone and spiked metal heads

Woolen slings and stones

Stone or copper headed battle-axes

Stones fastened to lengths of cord (bola).

Roads allowed very quick movement for the Inca army, and shelters called quolla were built one day's distance in travelling from each other, so that an army on campaign could always be fed and rested.

See also

Peruvian Ancient Cultures

Cultural periods of Peru

History of Peru

War of the two brothers

Inca Garcilaso de la Vega

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala

Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire

Smallpox Epidemics in the New World

Population history of Amerindians

Spanish Empire

Inca cuisine


Amazonas before the Inca Empire

Additional reading

Adorno, Rolena. The Depiction of Self and Other in Colonial Peru. Art Journal, Summer 1990, Vol. 49 Issue 2, p110-19.

Crow, John A. The Epic of Latin America (Fourth Edition). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992 (1946).

Diffie, Bailey W. A Markham Contribution to the Leyenda Negra. The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 , 96-103.

Diffie, Bailey W. Latin-American Civilization: Colonial Period. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole and Sons, 1945.

Dobyns, Henry F. and Doughty, Paul L. Peru: A Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Mancall, Peter C. (ed.). Travel Narratives from the Age of Discovery. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Marett, Sir Robert. Peru. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1969.

Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Mexico & History of the Conquest of Peru. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000.


Aschmann, Homer. "Indian Pastoralists of the Guajira Peninsula." Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 50:4 (1960), 408-418.

Prescott, William H. "Conquest of Peru." The Book League of America. New York: 1976. Ch.5, 7:Pp. 49-80.

Murphy, Robert C. "The Earliest Spanish Advances Southward from Panama along the West Coast of South America." The Hispanic American Historical Review. Vol. 21:1 (1941) Pp. 3-28.

Eeckhout, Peter. "Ancient Peru's Power Elite." National Geographic Reasearch and Exploration. March 2005. Pp. 52-56.

Frost, Peter. "Lost Outpost of the Inca." National Geographic. February 2004. Pp. 66-69.

Gwin, Pat. "Peruvian Temple of Doom." National Geographic. July 2004. Pp. 102-106.

External links

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