Highlights of the Inca Empire
Although the Inca civilization started to flourish in South America in the 12th century A.D., only in 1438 A.D, under the rule of King Pachacuti, did it begin its expansion and acquired the status of Empire. The Inca Empire grew to comprise a huge area on the western side of South America, over the Andes and the plains, ranging all the way from northern Ecuador to contemporary Santiago in Chile.
Most of what we know about the Inca Empire – since they did not have a written language - was handed down to the future generations through the biased chronicles written by the victorious Europeans who conquered them; other sources of information are the anecdotal stories that have reached us from their few descendants. However, new archeological discoveries are under way, which allow different versions of the Inca history to start slowly being revealed. Here are a few highlights of these stunning findings:
The culture. The official language of the Inca Empire was called Techua. They did not have a written language system, but used quipus, a pattern of knotted strings of different sizes, shapes, positions and colors to keep and pass on their records. The Inca Empire was an amalgamation of peoples of different ethnicities, cultures and languages, comprising over 10 million souls at its peak. Most of those peoples were coopted into joining the Empire through peaceful assimilation, by receiving invaluable presents and the promise of benefits and development; their cultures were respected and kept as intact as possible by the Inca elite.
The Incas’ skills. A very wealthy civilization, whose temples were covered in gold, the Incas were skilled builders, having developed sophisticated stone masonry skills, which consisted of superimposing huge boulders on top of others, without the use of mortar, in a perfect fit, due to the precision of their cut. It’s said that not even a razor blade can be inserted between those stones.
The Incas also built a remarkable network of roads, with resting stations carefully spaced along them, which made the transportation of goods and the transmission of messages practical and efficient. In addition to that, the Incas also linked the many Andean mountains their civilization spread over through a cleverly built system of suspension bridges made by rope, crossing deep gorges and ravines. Staircases and terraces were also important parts of the constructions and farming system. In the end, the efficiency of these communication systems worked against them, allowing the Spanish Conquistadores, under the command of Francisco Pizarro in 1532, easier access to their cities and main centers.
The political system. It was monarchical. The king was seen as the son of the sun, Inti, whose cult was encouraged. The Incas were a wealthy people, and hunger was non-existent in the Empire. Efficient agricultural methods and the facility of transportation of goods through the Empire roads, usually on the back of llamas, guaranteed that there was enough food for everybody. The roads and communication systems also made it easy for the Inca elite to supervise and inspect the whole expansion of the Empire.
Cuzco, located on a valley surrounded by mountains, was the capital of the Empire, which consisted of four regions, being hence called the Land of the Four Quarters. It was the largest empire on earth at the time. Pachacuti was responsible for turning Cuzco from a small village into a thriving city in the shape of a puma. He also build a great temple dedicated to Inti, the Sun God.
Machu Picchu, located 8km to the west of Cuzco, 3,400m above sea level, over the Urubamba River valley, was built around 1450 under the rule of Pachacuti. With a population of over 1000 at the time, it was the royal family summer retreat, but also an agricultural and religious site. During the Conquest by the Spanish, most Inca cities were destroyed, but Machu Picchu was overlooked, due to its protected location. For the next 400 years, forests grew around it, making it invisible to the world, until its rediscovery 100 years ago, in 1911, by the American historian Hiram Bingham.
The Conquest. According to the European chronicles, the Incas were destroyed by a handful of Spanish conquistadores, totaling fewer than 200 men, who arrived at their shores looking for the chimeric city of El Dorado, coming down from Panama in 1532. It’s unlikely that such small number of conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizarro, could have annihilated a civilization of more than 10m people, despite the inequality of power between their weapons and the Incas’. Pizarro and his men counted on horses and arcabuces, whereas the Incas only had primitive weapons, such as spears, bolas and stone clubs. The stronger hypothesis today is that the Spaniards were aided in their fight by a huge number of Indians who, themselves, were opposed to the Inca rule and, therefore, aligned with Pizarro. In addition to that, a huge percentage - 60% to 94% - of the Incas were decimated by the diseases transmitted by the foreigners , such as small pox, the flu and measles – against which they had no immunity.
The capture of Atahualpa. During the Conquest, Francisco Pizarro captured the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, and demanded a ransom in gold. He got almost 24 tons of gold, which was melted and turned into golden bars to send to Spain. However, Pizarro didn’t release him. He strangled Atahualpa anyway in August 1533.
The legacy. After the fall of the Empire, the Conquistadores destroyed the Inca roads and wiped out most of what constituted their culture, including the sophisticated farming system they had set up. European Missionaries converted them to Christianity using their own language, Techua.
Despite the destruction of Inca Empire and culture, the fight they put up against Pizarro and his minions have inspired many political movements of resistance in the region ever since. In addition to that, Machu Picchu, the city in the sky, as it was known, and the Inca trail that leads to it, is today visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, being considered the most beautiful heritage site of the world. In 2007 it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.