Spotlight: Inca Civilization & Culture (1200 – 1530 AD)


The Inca Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. The administrative, political and military center of the empire was located in Cusco in modern-day Peru.

From 1438 to 1533, the Incas used a variety of methods, from conquest to peaceful assimilation, to incorporate a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean mountain ranges, including, besides Peru, large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile, and a small part of southern Colombia into a state comparable to the historical empires of Eurasia.

There were many local forms of worship, most of them concerning local sacred “Huacas”, but the Inca leadership encouraged the worship of Inti—the sun god—and imposed its sovereignty above other cults such as that of Pachamama. The Incas considered their King, the Sapa Inca, to be the “child of the sun.”

Architecture was by far the most important of the Inca arts, with textiles reflecting motifs that were at their height in architecture. The main example is the capital city of Cusco. The 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 a knife could not be fitted through the stonework.

Inca calendars were strongly tied to astronomy. Inca astronomers understood equinoxes, solstices, and likely zenith passages, not to mention the Venus cycle. The Inca calendar was essentially luni-solar, as two calendars were maintained in parallel, one solar and one lunar. As twelve lunar months fall 11-days short of a full 365-day solar year, those in charge of the calendar had to adjust every winter solstice. The twelve lunar months were each marked with specific festivals and rituals. Time during a given day was not reckoned in hours or minutes, but rather in terms of how far the sun had traveled or in how long it takes to perform a task.

The economy of the Inca Empire has been characterized as involving a high degree of central planning. While evidence of trade between the Inca Empire and outside regions has been uncovered, there is no evidence that the Incas had a substantial internal market economy. While axe-monies were used along the northern coast, presumably by the provincial mindaláe trading class, most inhabitants of the empire would have lived in a traditional economy in which male heads of household were required to pay taxes both in kind (e.g., crops, textiles, etc.) and in the form of the mit’a corvée labor and military obligations.  In return, the state provided security, food in times of hardship through the supply of emergency resources, agricultural projects (e.g. aqueducts and terraces) to increase productivity, and occasional feasts. The economy rested on the material foundations of the vertical archipelago, a system of ecological complementary in accessing resources, and the cultural foundation of ayni, or reciprocal exchange.

Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro and his brothers explored south from what is today 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 in 1529, Pizarro traveled to Spain and received royal approval to conquer the region and be its viceroy. This approval was received as detailed in the following quote: “In July 1529 the queen of Spain signed a charter allowing Pizarro to conquer the Incas. Pizarro was named governor and captain of all conquests in Peru, or New Castile, as the Spanish now called the land.”  When they returned to Peru in 1532, a war of the two brothers between Huayna Capac’s sons Huáscar and Atahualpa and unrest among newly conquered territories—and perhaps more importantly, smallpox, which had spread from Central America—had considerably weakened the empire. Pizarro did not have a formidable force; with just 168 men, 1 cannon and 27 horses, he often needed to talk his way out of potential confrontations that could have easily wiped out his party.

The Spanish horsemen, fully armored, had great technological superiority over the Inca forces. The traditional mode of battle in the Andes was a kind of siege warfare where large numbers of usually reluctant draftees were sent to overwhelm opponents. The Spaniards had developed one of the finest military machines in the pre-modern world, tactics learned in their centuries-long fight against Moorish kingdoms in Iberia. Along with this tactical and material superiority, the Spaniards also had acquired tens of thousands of native allies who sought to end the Inca control of their territories.

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

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