With the Inca Empire (1200-1532) came the culmination of the city-building phase and the beginnings of a kind of Peruvian unity, with the Incas, although originally no more than a tribe of around forty thousand, gradually taking over each of the separate coastal empires. One of the last to go – almost bloodlessly, and just sixty years before the Spanish Conquest – were the Chimu, who for much of this “Imperial Period” were a powerful rival.

Based in the valleys around Cuzco, the Incas were for the first two centuries of their existence much like any other of the larger mountain tribes. Fiercely protective of their independence, they maintained a somewhat feudal society, tightly controlled by rigid religious tenets, though often disrupted by inter-tribal conflict. The founder of the dynasty – around 1200 – was Manco Capac, who passed into Inca mythology as a cultural hero. Historically, however, little definite is known about Inca developments or achievements until the accession in 1438 of Inca Pachacuti, and the onset of their great era of expansion.

Pachacuti, most innovative of all the Inca emperors, was the first to expand their traditional tribal territory. The beginnings of this were in fact not of his making but the response to a threatened invasion by the powerful, neighbouring Chanca Indians during the reign of his father, Inca Viracocha.

Within three decades Pachacuti had consolidated his power over the entire sierra region from Cajamarca to Lake Titicaca, defeating in the process all main imperial rivals except for the Chimu. At the same time the capital at Cuzco was spectacularly developed, with the evacuation and destruction of all villages within a ten-kilometre radius, a massive programme of agricultural terracing (watched over by a skyline of agro-calendrical towers), and the construction of unrivalled palaces and temples.

Inca territory expanded north into Ecuador, almost reaching Quito, under the next emperor –Topac Yupanqui – who also took his troops down the coast, overwhelming the Chimu and capturing the holy shrine of Pachacamac. Not surprisingly the coastal cultures influenced the Incas perhaps as much as the Incas influenced them, particularly in the sphere of craft industries. With Pachacuti before him, Topac Yupanqui was nevertheless an outstandingly imaginative and able ruler. During the 22 years of his reign (1471-93) he pushed Inca control southwards as far as the Río Maule in Chile; instigated the first proper census of the empire and set up the decimal-based administrative system; introduced the division of labour and land between the state, the gods and the local allyus; invented the concept of Chosen Women (Mamaconas); and inaugurated a new class of respected individuals (the Yanaconas). An empire had been unified not just physically but also administratively and ideologically.

At the end of the fifteenth century the Inca Empire was thriving, vital as any civilisation before or since. Its politico-religious authority was finely tuned, extracting what it needed from its millions of subjects and giving what was necessary to maintain the status quo – be it brute force, protection or food. The only obvious problem inherent in the Inca system of unification and domination was one of over-extension.

When Inca Huayna Capac continued Topac Yupanqui’s expansion to the north he created a new Inca city at Quito (today the capital of Ecuador), one which he personally preferred to Cuzco and which laid the seed for a division of loyalties within Inca society. At this point in history, the Inca Empire was probably the largest in the world even though it had neither horse nor wheel technology. The empire was over 5500 km long, stretching from southern Colombia right down to northern Chile, with Inca highways covering distances of around 30,000 km in all.

Almost as a natural progression from overextending the empire in this way, the divisions in Inca society came to a head even before Huayna Capac’s death. Ruling the empire from Quito, along with his favourite son Atahualpa, Huayna Capac installed another son, Huascar, at Cuzco. In the last year of his life he tried to formalise the division – ensuring an inheritance at Quito for Atahualpa – but this was totally resisted by Huascar, legitimate heir to the title of Lord Inca and the empire, and by many of the influential Cuzco priests and nobles.

In 1527, when Huayna Capac died of the white man’s disease smallpox, which had swept down overland from Mexico in the previous seven years killing over thirty percent of the indigenous population, civil war broke out. Atahualpa, backed by his father’s army, was by far the stronger and immediately won a major victory at the Río Bamba – a battle that, it was said, left the plain littered with human bones for over a hundred years. A still bloodier battle, however, took place along the Río Apurimac at Cotabamba in 1532. This was the decisive victory for Atahualpa, and with his army he retired to relax at the hot baths near Cajamarca. Here, informed of a strange-looking, alien band, successors of the bearded adventurers whose presence had been noted during the reign of Huayna Capac, they waited.

Europe and Spain before the Conquest

At the time of the Spanish conquest of what is now Peru, the empire that the Incas had built up was the largest and most sophisticated to be found in the New World. Before Pizarro’s capture of the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, there had been little contact between the new and old worlds of Europe and the Andean region. However, once the contact was made there was no stopping the destruction that quickly followed. In the footsteps of Hernán Cortez, Francisco Pizarro and the men who followed him managed to bring about the overthrow of an entire civilisation in just seven short years.

In order to better understand the impact the Spaniards had on the Inca civilisation, one must first see both civilisations as separate entities. To understand their backgrounds is to better realise the full effect such an encounter had. European society in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries can give some background into what sort of mentality the Spaniards were exposed to. Spain itself had been through many problems in the past century or so, not the least of which was chronic famine especially in the kingdoms of Andalusia and Castille. Most of the men that followed Pizarro on his conquest were from Andalusia and the neighbouring province of Estremadura.

Europe experienced death on a daily basis. Disease was rampant all over Europe and people died everyday. In Catalonia, a province of Spain, they experienced four attacks of the plague in the fourteenth century and six again in the fifteenth century. Its population of some 430,000 in 1365 had shrunk to less than 278,000 by 1497. On top of the bubonic and pulmonary plagues, there was also leprosy, scurvy, chorea, smallpox, measles, diphtheria, typhus, tuberculosis, and influenza, every one of which was not just debilitating but potentially deadly.

The nobility of Spain were an extremely privileged class. Even the lowest of nobles, the hidalgos, who enjoyed little more than local prestige and no taxes, was a difficult position to obtain, for there was little room for societal advancement. Other than the nobility, Spain was mostly a rural society. Their food depended on the labour of those who worked the land, the “campesinos.” And though they enjoyed comfortable lives, they were not rich by any means. Among the men that accompanied Pizarro to the New World, there were many who had been associated with the land. Some others were notaries, accountants, merchants, artisans, and others of that nature. The clergy was also important, for Spanish Catholicism was extremely powerful among the people. They were a class all their own and enjoyed many of the privileges of the nobility.

The Inquisition was also something that had an effect on the Spaniards, and it also tells us of the influence that the Church had with the monarchs as well as with the peoples of the country. The Catholic Monarchs wanted religious unity in their kingdoms and therefore authorised the Church to conduct an inquisition to weed out any of the unwanted religions from Spain. Together, the Church and the Spanish monarchs formed a kingdom that was extremely Catholic and not very tolerant of other religions.

All of the situations in Europe and especially in Spain help us to realise what the Spaniards that conquered the Incas may have been thinking, where they came from, and the kinds of things that influenced them such as famine, disease, the Church, and lack of social mobility that they faced in their homeland.

The Inca People

The Incas were the most civilised empire in what is now South America at the time of the Spanish conquest and lived a life very different from that of the Spanish. Their empire was extensive, covering the southern part of modern Ecuador, all of Peru, all of Bolivia, and the northern half of what is today Chile, and it spread out eastward as well. Cuzco was the centre of their kingdom, the name meaning navel. Their language was Quechua although since they had conquered many surrounding nations, it was not the only language spoken in the empire.

At the head of their vast empire was the Inca, a direct descendant of the Sun. It was their belief that the Sun had sent two of his children, Manco Capac and Mama Oello Huaco “to gather the natives into communities, and teach them the arts of civilised life”. The two were brother and sister but also husband and wife, a custom that assured the purity of the noble blood. The role of Inca was passed down from father to the eldest son of the Inca queen, not the Incas concubines, who herself had been selected from the best of the Inca’s sisters. In preparation for the role of Inca, the son was educated in general knowledge, religion, and military tactics.

The government was a despotism with the Inca at the head of the it. He was also the head of the priesthood, commanded the armies and was in charge of all taxes and laws. In effect, the Inca was the source from which everything flowed. The Inca nobility were also descendants of the Sun. And although the nations that the Incas conquered were incorporated into society, even the highest of their nobility could never become one of the Inca nobility. The highest stations, such as the courts, military officials, and the priesthood, were also held by these descendants of the Sun Also, one of the things that aided in holding together their tight knit society was the “ayllu” which were kinship groups, and made up the basic social structure of the Inca society.

Such was the structure of the Inca civilisation, but around the time just before the Spaniards arrived, there was an upset the otherwise stable empire. The Inca Huayana Capac wanted to split his empire in two, giving both of his sons an equal share to rule. But neither brother wanted to share, and thus the empire broke out into civil war between the brothers Atahualpa and Huáscar. Atahualpa came out the winner, overthrowing Huáscar, and taking control of his empire. Thus was the situation upon the arrival of the Spaniards in Peru.

The Inca emperors

Manco Capac (cultural hero, ca. 1200)
Sinchi Roca
Lloque Yupanqui
Mayta Capac
Capac Yupanqui
Inca Roca
Yahuar Huaca
Viracocha Inca
Pachacuti (1438-71)
Topac Yupanqui (1471-93)
Huayna Capac (1493-1525)
Huáscar (1525-32)
Atahualpa (1532-33)


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