The Culture and Economy of the Inca Empire (2022)

The Inca Empire was the largest prehispanic 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

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

To control such a huge area, the Incas built roads, including 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 tapestriesand 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.

(Video) The rise and fall of the Inca Empire - Gordon McEwan

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.

Timeline and Kinglist

The Inca word for ruler was capac, or capa, and the next ruler was chosen both by heredity and by marriage lines. All of the capacs were said to be descended from the legendary Ayar siblings (four boys and four girls) who emerged from the cave of Pacaritambo. The first Inca capac,the Ayar sibling Manco Capac, married one of his sisters and foundedCusco.

The ruler at the height of the empire was Inca Yupanqui, who renamed himself Pachacuti (Cataclysm) and ruled between AD 1438-1471. Most scholarly reports list the date of the Inca empire as beginning with Pachacuti's rule.

High-status women were called coya and how well you could succeed in life depended to a degree on the genealogical claims of both your mother and father. In some cases, this led to sibling marriage, because the strongest connection you could have would be if you were the child of two descendants of Manco Capac. The dynastic king list which follows was reported by the Spanish chroniclers such asBernabé Cobofrom oral history reports and, to a degree, it is somewhat under debate. Some scholars believe that there was actually a dual kingship, each king ruling half of Cusco; this is a minority viewpoint.

Calendrical dates for the reigns of the various kings were established by Spanish chroniclers based on oral histories, but they are clearly miscalculated and so are not included here (some reigns supposedly lasted over 100 years). Dates included below are those forcapacsthat were personally remembered by the Inca informants to the Spanish.

Kings

  • Manco Capac (principal wife his sister Mama Occlo) ca. AD 1200 (foundedCusco)
  • Sinchí Roca (principal wife Manco Sapaca)
  • Lloque Ypanqui (p.w. Mama Cora)
  • Mayta Capac (p.w. Mama Tacucaray)
  • Capac Yupanqui
  • Inca Roca
  • Yahuar Huacac
  • Viracocha Inca (p.w. Mama Rondocaya)
  • Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (p.w. Mama Anahuarqui, built theCoricanchaandMachu Picchu, reformed Inca society) [ruled AD 1438-1471], royal estates at Pisac,Ollantaytamboand Machu Picchu
  • Topa Inca (or Tupac Inca or Topa Inca Yupanqui) (principal wife his sister Mama Occlo, first capac considered supernatural in his lifetime) [AD 1471-1493], royal estates at Chinchero andChoquequirao
  • Huayna Capac [AD 1493-1527], royal estates at Quespiwanka and Tombebamba
  • [civil war between Huascar and Atahuallpa 1527]
  • Huascar [AD 1527-1532]
  • Atahuallpa [AD 1532]
  • (Inca conquered by Pizarro in 1532)
  • Manco Inca [AD 1533]
  • Paullu Inca

Classes of Incan Society

The kings of the Inca society were calledcapac. Capacs could have multiple wives, and often did. Inca nobility (calledInka) were mostly hereditary positions, although special persons could be assigned this designation.Curacaswere administrative functionaries and bureaucrats.

(Video) History of the Inca Empire DOCUMENTARY

Caciqueswere agricultural community leaders, responsible for maintenance of agricultural fields and tribute payment. Most of the society was organized intoayllus, who were taxed and received domestic goods according to the size of their groups.

Chasquiwere message runners who were essential to the Inca system of government. Chasqui traveled along theInca road systemstopping at outposts ortambosandwere said to be able to send a message 250 kilometers in one dayand to make the distance from Cusco to Quito (1500 km) within one week.

After death, thecapac,and his wives (and many of the highest officials) were mummified and kept by his descendants.

Important Facts

  • 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 languageand 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 aquipu, 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 includeBernabé 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

Economics

  • Intoxicants:Coca, chicha (maizebeer)
  • Markets:A widespread trade network facilitated by open markets
  • Cultivated crops:Cotton, potatoes,maize, quinoa
  • Domesticated animals:Alpaca,llama,guinea pig
  • Tributewas 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 andllama) 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 downslope.

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. The pillow-faced architecture was reserved for temples, administrative structures and royal residences like Machu Picchu.
  • 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 empireand 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.

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).
  • 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/shrinesknown as huacas included both built and natural structures

Sources:

  • Adelaar, W. F. H.2006Quechua. InEncyclopedia of Language & Linguistics. Pp. 314-315. London: Elsevier Press.
  • Covey, R. A. 2008Multiregional Perspectives on the Archaeology of the Andes During the Late Intermediate Period (c. A.D. 1000–1400).Journal of Archaeological Research16:287–338.
  • Kuznar, Lawrence A. 1999 The Inca Empire: Detailing the complexities of core/periphery interactions. Pp. 224-240 inWorld-Systems Theory in Practice: Leadership, production, and exchange, edited by P. Nick Kardulias. Rowan and Littlefield: Landham.
  • McEwan, Gordon. 2006The Incas: New Perspectives.Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Online book. Accessed May 3, 2008.
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FAQs

What was the economy like in the Inca Empire? ›

Central Economy

In the Inca economy there was no large scale trade within its borders. Barter was done among individuals. The Incas had a centrally planned economy, perhaps the most successful ever seen. Its success was in the efficient management of labor and the administration of resources they collected as tribute.

What was the culture of the Inca Empire? ›

Inca culture believed in barter as a form of payment that consisted of exchanging one thing for another. In addition, they were experts in agriculture, being their main activity, among their main crops are corn, potatoes, cotton and coca.

Was the Inca economy successful? ›

Inca society is considered to have had some of the most successful centrally organized economies in history. Its effectiveness was achieved through the successful control of labor and the regulation of tribute resources.

How did the Inca Empire make money? ›

The Incas traded bronze, animals, crops, and different tools to each state in turn for money or other materials. Higher points on the empire grew crops like potatoes and lower points grew corn and raised llamas. The government controlled the economy and maintained trade.

Was the Inca economy based on agriculture? ›

During the relatively short span of the Inca Empire, from 1438 to 1533, Inca society developed an impressive economic system, which allowed for extensive agricultural production, as well as for trade of goods between communities across vast distances.

What happened to the Inca culture? ›

With their royalty and focus of worship destroyed, the general population readily accepted Spanish rule as “what was done.” This created local assistance which, along with outside factors, allowed the Spanish to completely conquer the region by 1572, marking the end of the Inca Empire.

When were the Inca a powerful culture? ›

The Inca Empire was a vast empire that flourished in the Andean region of South America from the early 15th century A.D. up until its conquest by the Spanish in the 1530s.

What are the Inca best known for? ›

The Inca civilization is known for creating the largest empire ever seen in the Americas, their impressive agricultural techniques, and their art and architecture which uniquely combined geometrical stonework with the natural landscape.

How important was trade to the Inca civilization? ›

The Inca trade was a factor of unification and exchange between the different regions of the Empire. From the coast came the dried fish to the Andes mountain range, along the stone roads built by the people. In the same way, the inhabitants of the coast received the agricultural and artisan products of the mountain.

What kind of religion did the Incas have? ›

The Inca religion combined features of animism, fetishism, and the worship of nature gods. The pantheon was headed by Inti, the sun god, and included also Viracocha, a creator god and culture hero, and Apu Illapu, the rain god.

What jobs did the Incas have? ›

Most common people were farmers, artisans, or servants. There were no slaves in Inca society. Lower-class men and women farmed on government lands, served in the army, worked in mines, and built roads.

What are 10 facts about the Incas? ›

10 Interesting Facts About The Inca And Their Empire
  • #1 Manco Capac is considered as the founder of the Inca civilization. ...
  • #2 There were two known Inca dynasties named Hurin and Hanan. ...
  • #3 Pachacuti was the first king of the Inca Empire. ...
  • #4 The Inca Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.
31 Oct 2017

What language did the Incas speak? ›

Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire and still spoken by approximately 8 million people throughout the Andes, is the most spoken indigenous language in the Americas.

What type of government did the Incas have? ›

The Inca Empire was a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four quarters, or suyu: Chinchay Suyu (northwest), Antisuyu (northeast), Kuntisuyu (southwest), and Qullasuyu (southeast). The four corners of these quarters met at the center, Cusco.

What did the Inca use to buy and sell goods? ›

In the Inca Empire, nobles might trade amongst themselves with a barter system like - I'll give you this if you'll give me that, with goods they already had on hand. But there was no trading class in the Inca Empire. There were no shops or markets in the Inca Empire, not for nobles or commoners.

What was the Inca government like? ›

The Incas had a monarchical and theocratic government where the Inca emperor was the maximum figure because he symbolized the son of the sun god. The Inca government was also based on simple laws that valued work and punished idleness and theft.

How did the Incas survive? ›

They developed resilient breeds of crops such as potatoes, quinoa and corn. They built cisterns and irrigation canals that snaked and angled down and around the mountains. And they cut terraces into the hillsides, progressively steeper, from the valleys up the slopes.

Did the Inca have and trade system? ›

So the Inca did engage in trade, but only with outsiders - not among themselves. The secret of the Inca's great wealth may have been their unusual tax system. Instead of paying taxes in money, every Incan was required to provide labor to the state. In exchange for this labor, they were given the necessities of life.

What was the Incas main food source? ›

The most important staples were various tubers, roots, and grains. Maize was of high prestige, but could not be grown as extensively as it was further north. The most common sources of meat were guinea pigs and llamas, and dried fish was common.

Are the Incas still alive? ›

"Most of them still living in the towns of San Sebastian and San Jeronimo, Cusco, Peru, at present, are probably the most homogeneous group of Inca lineage," says Elward.

When did Inca start? ›

What aspect of Inca culture continues to the present day? ›

What aspect of Inca culture continues to the present day? Millions of people still speak the Quechua language. What would the Inca empire do if they wanted a smaller tribe to join there empire? Offer them powers and riches if they joined peacefully.

How did Inca spread? ›

The Incas conquered a vast territory using reciprocity or alliances. Once 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).

How did the Inca start? ›

The Inca people began as a tribe in the Cusco area around the 12th century. Under the leadership of Manco Cápac, they formed the small city-state of Cusco Quechua Qosqo. In 1438, under the command of Sapa Inca (paramount leader) Pachacuti, whose name meant "world-shaker", they began a far-reaching expansion.

Who led the Incas? ›

The Inca began expanding their land holdings by the reign of their fourth emperor, Mayta Capac. However, they did not truly become an expansive power until the eighth emperor, Viracocha Inca, took control in the early 15th century.

What foods did the Incas eat and grow? ›

Crops cultivated across the Inca Empire included maize, coca, beans, grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, ulluco, oca, mashwa, pepper, tomatoes, peanuts, cashews, squash, cucumber, quinoa, gourd, cotton, talwi, carob, chirimoya, lúcuma, guayabo, and avocado. Livestock was primarily llama and alpaca herds.

What did the Inca build? ›

Surviving examples of Inca architecture include the Coricancha temple and Sacsayhuaman fortress at Cusco, the residential buildings of Machu Picchu, and the extensive Inca road system.

Where did the Incas live? ›

Inca, also spelled Inka, South American Indians who, at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1532, ruled an empire that extended along the Pacific coast and Andean highlands from the northern border of modern Ecuador to the Maule River in central Chile.

Did the Inca have and trade system? ›

So the Inca did engage in trade, but only with outsiders - not among themselves. The secret of the Inca's great wealth may have been their unusual tax system. Instead of paying taxes in money, every Incan was required to provide labor to the state. In exchange for this labor, they were given the necessities of life.

What jobs did the Incas have? ›

Most common people were farmers, artisans, or servants. There were no slaves in Inca society. Lower-class men and women farmed on government lands, served in the army, worked in mines, and built roads.

Was the Inca Empire communist? ›

By looking at information from various sources it can be seen that many elements of the Inca Empire were socialistic. The most noticeable are the communal ownership of some land by the ayllu in rural communities, and the requirement for the communities to take care of the sick and elderly.

What was the social structure of the Inca Empire? ›

Inca society was based on a strictly organized class structure. There were three broad classes: The Emperor and his immediate family, nobles, and commoners. Throughout Inca society, people who were “Inca by blood” – those whose families were originally from Cuzco – held higher status than non-Incas.

What technology did the Incas use? ›

The Inca's greatest technological skill was engineering. The best example is their amazing system of roads. The Incas built roads across the length of and width of their empire. To create routes through steep mountain ranges, they carved staircases and gouged tunnels out of rock.

What was the Inca known for? ›

The Inca civilization is known for creating the largest empire ever seen in the Americas, their impressive agricultural techniques, and their art and architecture which uniquely combined geometrical stonework with the natural landscape.

What was the religion of the Inca? ›

The Inca religion combined features of animism, fetishism, and the worship of nature gods. The pantheon was headed by Inti, the sun god, and included also Viracocha, a creator god and culture hero, and Apu Illapu, the rain god.

Did Incas go to school? ›

The general population did have access to the noble education of the elite people due to the rights given to them, but many did not go to formal schooling. These children got their education from the elder people in their families. The education was primarily on the culture and the artistic aspects of Inca life.

What was the language of the Incas? ›

Quechua, also called Runa simi, was the language spoken by the Incas and is the native language that has spread the most throughout South America. Today it is spoken by an average of 12 million people in different regions of Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Argentina and Bolivia.

What did the Incas do to survive? ›

They developed resilient breeds of crops such as potatoes, quinoa and corn. They built cisterns and irrigation canals that snaked and angled down and around the mountains. And they cut terraces into the hillsides, progressively steeper, from the valleys up the slopes.

What did the Inca eat? ›

Corn (maize) was the central food in their diet, along with vegetables such as beans and squash. Potatoes and a tiny grain called quinoa were commonly grown by the Incas. Avocados and tomatoes were mainly eaten by the Aztecs and Maya, along with a wide variety of fruit.

How long did the Inca Empire last? ›

From 1438 to 1533, the Incas incorporated a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean Mountains, using conquest and peaceful assimilation, among other methods.

Did the Inca have taxes? ›

Inca Taxes

Each ayllu was responsible for paying taxes to the government. The Inca had tax inspectors that watched over the people to make sure that they paid all their taxes. There were two main taxes that the people had to pay. The first tax was a portion of the ayllu's crops.

Who was the Inca leader? ›

Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, also called Pachacutec, (flourished 15th century), Inca emperor (1438–71), an empire builder who, because he initiated the swift, far-ranging expansion of the Inca state, has been likened to Philip II of Macedonia.

What did the Incas wear for clothing? ›

Inca clothes were simple in style, and most were made using either cotton or wool. The typical male attire was a loincloth and a simple tunic (unqo) made from a single sheet folded over and stitched at the sides with holes left for the arms and neck. In winter a cloak or poncho was worn on top.

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