Inca Empire

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Ancient History, Classical History and Mythology; General history

Tawantin Suyu
Inca Empire


1197 —  1548

Flag of Inca Empire


Location of Inca Empire
Capital Cuzco
Language(s) Quechua
Government Value specified for "government_type" does not comply
Sole ruler Sapa Inca
 - Established 1197
 - Conquest 1548
 - 1527 2,000,000 km2
772,204 sq mi
 - 1527 est. 15,000,000 
     Density 7.5 /km² 
19.4 /sq mi

The Inca Empire was the largest empire in Pre-Columbian America, and one of the largest empires in the world at the time of its collapse. The administrative, political and military centre of the empire was located in Cuzco. It arose from the highlands of Peru in 1197; from 1438 to 1533, the Incas used conquest and peaceful assimilation to incorporate a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean mountain ranges, including large parts of modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.

In 1533, Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor ( Qhapaq Inka, also Sapa Inca) not being a puppet or freedom fighter, was killed on the orders of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, marking the beginning of Spanish rule. The Inca Empire was organized in “señoríos” (dominions) with a stratified society, in which the ruler was the Inca. It was also supported by an economy based on the collective property of the land. In fact, the Inca Empire was conceived like an ambitious and audacious civilizing project, based on a mythical thought, in which the harmony of the relationships between the human being, nature and Gods was truly essential.

The Quechua name was Tawantin Suyu which can be translated The Four Regions or The Four United Regions. Before the Quechua spelling reform it was written in Spanish as Tahuantinsuyo. Tawantin is a group of four things (tawa "four" with the suffix -ntin which names a group); suyu means "region" or "province".

The empire was divided into four suyus, whose corners met at the capital, Cuzco (Qusqu), in modern-day Peru.

The official language of the empire was Quechua, although over seven hundred local languages were spoken.

There were many local forms of worship, but the Inca leadership encouraged the worship of the Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Because the sun was very important in Inca mythology, there is a common misbelief that the foremost god was the Inti or sun god.

Origin stories

A view of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," now an archaeological site.
A view of Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas," now an archaeological site.

The Inca had three origin myths. In one, Ticei Viracocha of Colina de las Ventanas in Pacaritambo sent forth his four sons and four daughters to establish a village. Along the way, Sinchi Roca was born to Manco and Ocllo, and Sinchi Roca led them to the valley of Cuzco where they founded their new village. There Manco became their leader and became known as Manco Capac.

In another origin myth, the sun god Inti ordered Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo to emerge from the depths of Lake Titicaca and found the city of Cuzco. They traveled by means of underground caves until reaching Cuzco where they established Hurin Cuzco, or the first dynasty of the Kingdom of Cuzco.

In the last origin myth, an Inca sun god told his wife that he was lonely. She proposed that he create a civilization to worship him and keep him company. He saw this as a wise plan and carried it out. The Inca were born from Lake Cuzco and populated the Andes and worshipped their sun god.

The myths are transmitted via oral tradition, since the Incas did not have writing. There probably did exist a Manco Capac who became the leader of his tribe. The archeological evidence seems to indicate that the Inca were a relatively unimportant tribe until the time of Sinchi Roca, also called Cinchi Roca, who is the first figure in Inca mythology whose existence is supported by physical evidence.

Legacy of the Incas

The major languages of the empire, Quechua and Aymara, were employed by the Roman Catholic Church to evangelize in the Andean region. In some cases, these languages were taught to peoples who had originally spoken other indigenous languages. Today, Quechua and Aymara remain the most widespread Amerindian languages.

The legend of the Inca has served as inspiration for resistance movements in the region. These include the 1780 rebellion led by Tupac Amaru II against the Spanish, as well as the contemporary guerrilla movements, Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) and Sendero Luminoso in Peru and Tupamaros in Uruguay.

In modern times a flag has been associated with the Tawantinsuyu and is displayed as a symbol of the Peru's Inca heritage.


The most powerful figure in the empire was the Sapa Inca ('the unique Inca'). Only descendants of the original Inca tribe ever ascended to the level of Inca. Most young members of the Inca's family attended Yachay Wasis (houses of knowledge) to obtain their education.

The Tahuantinsuyu was a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provinces: Chinchay Suyu (NW), Anti Suyu (NE), Kunti Suyu (SW), and Qulla Suyu (SE). The four corners of these provinces met at the centre, Cuzco. Each province had a governor who oversaw local officials, who in turn supervised agriculturally-productive river valleys, cities and mines. There were separate chains of command for both the military and religious institutions, which created a system of partial checks and balances on power. The local officials were responsible for settling disputes and keeping track of each family's contribution to the mita (mandatory public service).

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 Machu Picchu constructed by Incan engineers. The stone temples constructed by the Inca used a mortarless construction process first used on a large scale by the Tiwanaku. The Inca imported the stoneworkers of the Tiwanaku region to Cusco 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 in the frequent earthquakes that hit the area. The Inca used straight walls except on important religious sites and constructed whole towns at once.

An important Inca technology was the Quipu, which were assemblages of knotted strings used to record numerical and other information.

Inca tunic
Inca tunic

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.

The Inca diet consisted primarily of fish, vegetables, nuts, and Maize (corn), supplemented less frequently with the meat of cuyes (guinea pigs) and camelids. In addition, they hunted various animals for meat, skins and feathers. Maize was malted and used to make chicha, a fermented alcoholic beverage. The Inca road system was key to farming success as it allowed distribution of foodstuffs over long distances. The Inca also constructed vast storehouses, which allowed them to live through El Niño years while neighboring civilizations suffered.

The Inca believed in reincarnation. Those who obeyed the Incan moral code — ama suwa, ama llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy) — went to live in the Sun's warmth. Others spent their eternal days in the cold earth. The Inca also practiced cranial deformation. They achieved this by wrapping tight cloth straps around the heads of newborns in order to alter the shape of their still-soft skulls. These deformations did not result in brain damage.


The Aqllawasi (Acllahuasi) which means "house of the sun virgins" was developed under the Incans in Peru at about 1438-1532 CE. Its central purpose was in the manufacturing of garments for the Inca royalty and the worship of the sun god, Inti.

Agriculture and food

Amaranth was one of the staple foodstuffs of the Incas, and it is known as kiwicha in the Andes today. The Inca used terraces, a sophisticated approach to the problem of farming mountainous terrain. An abundance of potato farming allowed the Incan community to flourish in trade as potatoes were a new thing to eastern civilization.

The Inca Empire was spread out over several extreme climates, requiring the use of a wide range of agricultural systems. Native Americans were responsible for some of the world’s most prolific crops, including tomatoes, peppers, lima beans, ancient ancestors to modern squash and, most importantly, the potato. Maize was also deeply integrated into Inca agriculture and daily life. However, the Inca Empire cultivated a large variety of distinctly Andean crops that were not appreciated or adapted by Pizarro or the Spanish. These crops included over a dozen different species of roots and tubers, several types of grain, three distinctive varieties of legume and many Andean fruits. Many of these crops were of great value to Inca society, like the grain called Quinoa, which was not only nutritionally superior to the grains of the western world, but thrived in cold, rugged terrain at high elevations. Other tubers, like Maca and Oca proved very hardy and were important staples in the Inca diet.

The Inca Empire was quite ecologically diverse. The Empire started in the low coastal valleys along the Pacific Ocean and stretched over the second highest mountain range in the world, the Andes, all the way down into the cloud forests of the Amazon Rainforest. This vast environmental diversity was mainly responsible for the large variety of Inca crops as well as a continuous abundance of food. Inca farmers used this wide range of terrain to their advantage, planting crops at several different elevations, so if one harvest failed, another could very potentially flourish. This practice then helped different crops to adapt to a larger variety of environments. The Inca used this same concept on a larger scale throughout the whole Empire. By building an extensive and thorough road system, the Inca could grow different crops across the various climates and harvest them to feed the entire population. The Inca were also good at assimilating other food sources into their agricultural system. They did this by not only forcibly instilling crops from conquered neighbors, but by also moving the farmers who had originally grown the crop to help with its incorporation.

The Inca had several original and inventive ways of turning their harsh landscape into an agricultural cornucopia. The first was the terracing of fields in the Andes Mountains. While terraced fields were widely used around the world, pre-Inca people developed their own rudimentary form of terracing that the Inca Empire then expanded upon to create more stable, aerated soil and efficient growing conditions. The Inca used guano, or bird dung, as fertilizer to help create bigger harvests on these terraced fields. Another Andean agricultural technique that made a huge difference in farming capacity was the waru waru, or raised fields. These fields were man-made platforms surrounded by canals, which provided a sophisticated irrigational effect, in which the canals provided water to plants’ roots during drought, and acted as drainage during heavy rains. These canals also created nitrate rich sediment which could be used as fertilizer, on top of helping regulate the temperature of the fields. There are remnants of raised fields surrounding Lake Titicaca that are at least two thousand years old, and recent studies have shown that the raised fields were actually more productive than modern day, fertilized fields.

There were two reasons that the Inca Empire thrived agriculturally. The first was the aforementioned wide range of crops grown under resourceful agricultural systems, which consistently produced food for the Empire. The second reason the Inca never suffered from lack of food was their ability to preserve and store their crops. It is estimated that at any given time in Incan history, the Inca had three to seven years worth of food in storage. The Inca people had a unique way of freeze-drying root and tuber crops. In the high elevations of the Andes, setting these crops out in the dry days and cold nights would freeze-dry them in a matter of days. The farmers would help the process by covering the crops to protect them from dew, and by stomping on them to release the excess water quickly. In addition to fruits, vegetables and roots, the Inca also preserved meat by drying and salting it, making for complete nutritional stores. These food preservation techniques, combined with their far-reaching road system, allowed the Inca Empire to easily withstand natural disasters such as droughts and El Niño, as well as making the Inca capable of feeding a standing army.

Cooking in the Inca Empire was simple and rather conservative. Because so much of the Empire was in the high mountains and barren costal plains, wood was saved as much as possible. The Inca used several kinds of grain to make bread, and they raised ducks, dogs and guinea pigs as supplemental meat when there was no wild game.

Governors ate venison, roast duck, fresh fish, and tropical friuts (bananas, guavas). Peasants ate squash, vegetable stew, and fish if available. They also ate maize, potatoes, cassava, and a highland plant called oca. Both peasants and nobles drank chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from maize.

Manners: Nobles ate and drank from wooden plates and painted beakers called keros. Peasants drank and ate from gourds.

Tropical Menu: avocado pears, beans, tomatoes, chili-peppers, and guavas.

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