|Machu Picchu, an Inkan Site|
Last time on World History we looked at the Triple Alliance, or as they are more widely referred to as the Aztecs. Before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 the Americas were home to a wide variety of civilizations and cultures, and today we'll look at another one. Originating in the Andes there was a short lived city-based empire which stretched from the Ecuadorian/Colombian border all the way down to Santiago in Chile. This empire was the Incan Empire. For the purposes of this post we shall refer to the empire and the people who made it as Tawantinsuyu, (the empire), and the Inka, (the ruling people). We will not be using Inca as this is the European spelling of the ruling people; Inka is the spelling in Quechua. The Inkas ruled a unique empire with the Spanish seeing it as a wealthy kingdom possibly home to El Dorado while in the twentieth-century some historians had started to portray them as the first socialists or even the first communists. Before we look the Tawantinsuyu and the Inka we must first look at the world they emerged in.
|Image of the Andes|
Historians, such as Nigel Davies, have stressed the continuation of the Inka with earlier Andean civilizations. You may be wondering how so many civilizations emerged in a mountain range though. When we've looked at other emerging civilizations ranging from the Maya to China to the Mexica to the Greeks none have appeared in mountain ranges. Peru, the heart of the Inkan Empire, has a very complex topography containing 84 of the 117 different types of life zones that can be found. It also experiences two ocean currents: El Niño and the Humboldt. In a small area we have coasts, puna (high grasslands), wet grasslands, rainforests, deserts, fog meadows (lomas) and rivers. El Niño supplies torrential rain to Peru's northern coast while fifty rivers cross the Peruvian desert. This helped create fertile land rich in nutrients for the first agriculturalists over 4,000 years ago. Through terracing great areas of arable land emerged in the Andes themselves. From around 1800 BCE the first pottery was made in the Peruvian lands.
Tawantinsuyu was not the first empire to exist in the Andes. Craig Morris and Adriana von Hagen put emphasis on two societies which laid the groundwork for the Inka, (although there were many others): Wari and Tiwanaku. These were both city states which both inspired the Inka and allowed them to rise. Tiwanaku was founded by 200 CE on the southern shores of Lake Titicaca which prospered for almost a thousand years with buildings made of sun-dried mudbrick. Around 600 CE to the north of Tiwanaku in the Ayacucho basin Wari was founded. Wari founded an empire which helped spread its art style across the central Andes, although it shares some iconography with Tiwanaku indicating that Wari borrowed some elements from Tiwanaku or that they shared a common ancestral tradition. Tawantinsuyu emerged four centuries after the collapse of Wari and Tiwanaku in Cuzco where the city-states either held sway, (Wari), or bordered, (Tiwanaku). There was a void in the Cuzco region left by these empires which the Inka filled. However, they borrowed or were inspired by both, particularly the Wari. The Inka adopted administrative tools and models from the Wari, (such as the khipu which we shall later address), and possibly even Quechua as a lingua franca for the empire. Now we must deal with the origins of the Inka and Tawantinsuyu.
|Colonial image of the first king, Manco Capac|
Through archaeological evidence, Spanish sources, and what remains of Inkan sources we can piece together the origins of the Inka. Until around 1200 CE the people who would become the Inka were pastoralists until they settled and founded the Kingdom of Cuzco. Through oral and Spanish written sources we do have a story for how the Kingdom of Cuzco was formed. The Inkan people emerged from a cave, called Pacariqtambo, led by four brothers and four sisters, (the brothers and sisters were married as well). They were led by Ayar Manco and his sister/wife Mama Ocllo. Manco had a golden staff which when planted would offer his people a place to live. On the way the strongest brother, who could level mountains, Ayar Cachi was sent into a cave to retrieve some golden cups, (in some versions a llama), to stop his boasting. When inside his brothers sealed the cave and Cachi was turned to stone becoming a huaca, a sacred object. When they reached Huanacauri, a hill, a second brother, Ayar Uchu, was turned into a huaca as he wished to stay to watch over the people. The last brother, Ayar Auca, grew tired and then grew wings so he could travel alone. He flew to Cuzco and became the Cuzco Huaca becoming the first city guardian. With no one to challenge him Manco goes to Cuzco with his sisters where they encounter the Huallas and Alcavizas. Depending on the version either the small band defeats the two tribes, or one of the sisters (Mama Huaca) kills a soldier with a bola scaring the rest off. After the battle Ayar Manco builds the first Coricancha temple and founds Cuzco and he changes his name to Manco Capac. Compared to the origin stories of Rome, the Aztecs and Athens this is a rather humble story. In some versions Manco Capac becomes undisputed king basically by accident rather than his own efforts.
That story deals with the origins of Cuzco. There is a second myth which deals with the founding of Tawantinsuyu. Our sources are more reliable as we enter the fifteenth-century but then again Nigel Davies highlights how we can't take them at face value. The Inkas didn't really use their writing system to record chronology saving it instead for mainly recording things like censuses and tribute, and many which did record history were unfortunately burnt by the Spanish. Many of the chronicles that we do have are written post-Conquest and act more as histories, such as Comentaries Reales written in 1609 by Garcilasco de la Vega. We do have some good idea of what happened though. Bordering Cuzco was a loose confederation of the Chankas, (not a solidified threat as many chronicles made out), but it was enough to be a threat to the rising Inkas. During the reign of the eighth ruler Wiraqocha the Chankas sent a message to Cuzco demanding that the ruler surrender. He fled with his heir, Inka Urco, so his other son Inka Yupanki decided to defend Cuzco. He had a dream where the creator god Inti told him that he would be 'greater than any of his ancestors...because he would conquer the Chankas who were marching on Cuzco'. As the Chankas approached Cuzco the stones in the fields surrounding Cuzco turned into warriors, called pururaucas, who helped him defeat the Chankas. When he took the prisoners to his father, who was expected to tread on them as expected, his father got Inka Urco to do so disrespecting Yupanki. Apparently he staged a palace coup killing Urco, and then returning to Cuzco to fight the regrouping Chankas. The battle saw the slaughter of the Chankas and afterwards Yupanki became known as Pachakuti or 'transformer of the world'. It is quite possible though that this all never happened and that Inkan conquest of the Chankas was less sudden. Apparently Pachakuti had Machu Picchu constructed as a family retreat and he reorganized the empire around 1438. At the center was Cuzco surrounded by four provincial governments: Chinchasuyu, Antisuyu, Kuntisuyu and Qullasuyu. This formed Tawantisuyu, or the 'Four Regions'.
The khipu is so unique that I believe that it deserves to be talked about by itself. Charles Mann has described the khipu as being 'reminiscent of today's computer languages'. This was the Inkan writing system. Made of camelid fiber the khipu is a series of knots which recorded numbers in primarily a decimal system. For years it was believed that they only recorded numbers for purposes of tribute, censuses etc. but since 1981 when Robert and Marcia Ascher that it actually recorded writing. The material, spin, ply, and color of each string, and the direction of the knot referred to what we would call a letter. Gary Urton has described it as a 'seven-bit binary array' which had 1,536 'information units' compared to 1,500 cuneiform signs and the 600-800 Egyptian and Mayan hieroglyphics by the time of the Conquest. The Inka likely did not pioneer the khipu. Evidence suggests that the Wari had a similar system as well. As the khipu was made of string and knots it was easy for the Spanish conquerors to burn them compared to the stone writing system of the Maya and Mexica.
|Someone using a khipu. Image by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala in the later 16th/early 17th century|
The Inka had a very efficient administrative system recorded on the khipu. All this was done with Quechua as a uniting language as the empire covered many different cultures outside the Valley of Cuzco. Aymara and Uru were also widely used in the empire with Aymara being most popular after Quechua. As a result 'conquest' and 'annexation' of peripheral regions were never completed and what was conquered through force was done through other means. The Inkan roads were famous and linked the empire together. The roads were some of the greatest in history. Cuzco was the administrative center and the largest settlement which was described by Cristobal de Molina as being 'a town of more than forty thousand citizens in the city-center alone-with suburbs and outlying settlements around Cuzco to 10 or 12 leagues, I believe there must have been 200,000 Indians'. In Cuzco the emperor resided and was honored, Louis Baudin refers to him as a 'Man-God'. Incest happened as the emperor had to marry his eldest sister, as in keeping with their origin myth. The empress could hold immense power. Pachakuti's wife often ruled in his place when he was away conquering and personally organized relief for victims of an intense earthquake in Arequipa. Tupac Yupanqui's wife, (Pachakuti's daughter), even got the Yanayacu to join the empire. As mentioned earlier outside of Cuzco there were the four suyu ruled by what can be described as a governor.
The empire also used a policy called mitmaq or mitma. This was a policy which combined colonization with ethnic cleansing at its worst. The mitmaq was a policy to encourage submission without wasting resources suppressing an unruly people. This policy of ethnic cleansing moved less cooperative communities to loyal communities breaking up the unruly peoples so they could not organize resistance against Cuzco. It was described by Spanish chronicler Juan de Betanzos: These Indians were young married men with their wives, their things, and seeds from their lands so they could be placed as mitimaes in the valleys and lands surrounding Cuzco...If the natives should rebel, and the [mitmaq] supported the [Inka] governor, the natives would be punished and reduced to service of the Incas. Likewise, if the [mitmaq] stirred up disorder, the natives put them down. In this way these rulers had their empire assured against revolt.'Thousands could be moved with this system. This was done via the roads.
|An Inkan Road|
The Inkas built over 20,000 km of road! They are now officially a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These systems were linked by way-stations offering shelter to official travelers. The roads aren't consistent throughout the empire. From Cuzco to Quito in modern Ecuador with large impressive roads whereas in the south, (Chile and Argentina), they are rather small.
|An image of Viracocha|
Religion was extremely important for the Inka. Many different religions existed in the empire, and like the Romans knew that imposing their religion onto the conquered meant that they could not sustain an empire. To ensure their power sometimes the Inka would associate themselves with local deities and oracles, as well as honoring local shrines. However, the conquered had to acknowledge that the sun and moon were superior to local gods. A Spanish chronicler, Juan de Betanzos, who spoke Quechua and was married to Emperor Atawallpa's niece/consort has spoken in detail about Inkan religion. The Inkas were polytheistic and even have several creation stories, (with one concerning Lake Titicaca to possibly link themselves to the Wari). The creator god, Viracocha, had created a race of shadowy people but was displeased with them so turned them to stone. He then emerged from Lake Titicaca where he created the sun, moon and the first humans. It was also stated that he was the ancestor/father to Manco Capac. The sun god Inti, however, was most revered where in some stories he is the father of Manco Capac. It is believed that the worship of Inti above all was put forward by Pachakuti.
Religion varied for the aristocracy and commoners. For one, commoners could not utter the name Viracocha. Rituals were vital for everyone and were recorded on a lunar calendar of 354 days although the elite used a precise solar calendar to link with Inti. Temples were important centers, especially the temple for Inti in Cuzco called Qorikancha, where thousands congregated to observe sunrises and sunsets. Sacrifice was done but this was largely a sacrifice of maize or a llama. Human sacrifice did occur but in many areas figurines made of silver, good or wood were used. Here we see a difference between the Mexica and the Inka. For the Mexica humanity was in debt so repaid the debt via blood sacrifice; for the Inka this was not present and veneration of ancestors was more prevalent. Mummification was common for the ruling elite, especially for emperors. For commoners religious worship was common with many praying daily to household gods. Pregnant women offered more in sacrifice to ensure that her baby would survive, (curious side note Inkan children weren't referred to as a human until age 2/3 due to high infant mortality rate and not given a gender specific name until age 7).
|An Inkan terrace for farming|
At the start I mentioned that the Inkas have sometimes been described as being communist or socialist. The reason for this is that the Inkas didn't have markets or currency. While in Mexico the Spanish spoke often of the markets being blown away by them; in Peru they make no mention of them. Instead of a market economy the economy was ran through reciprocity. In exchange for corvee labor, military obligations and taxes in the form of crops or textiles people would be supplied with food during hard times, feasts, and projects terraces. Although bartering did occur most of the economy was ran via reciprocity. The Inkas were famous for their precious metals like gold and silver. How then did this fit into the Inkan world? The value of goods depended on their role in the system of social relationships and rituals. Gold and silver were needed for ceremony which formed the backbone of society. Hence these precious metals became important in society.
|Depiction of the Conquest|
In less than a hundred years since the formation of Tawantinsuyu under Pachakuti the empire fell to invaders from another world. In 1492 Christopher Columbus brought the Americas to the attention of Europe. In the 1520s Wayna Qhapaq was consolidating his northernmost conquests in the far north, (modern Columbia and Ecuador). While there he heard stories of strangers being spotted. In 1521 Hernan Cortes had destroyed the Triple Alliance, (Aztec Empire), in Mexico. The Spanish Empire had been building an empire in the Americas bringing with it explorers and colonists but more importantly disease. Smallpox had devastated the people of Mesoamerica and the disease would spread across the Americas killing thousands if not millions in something called the Great Dying. Tawantinsuyu was no exception. Before they met the Spanish they encountered their diseases-measles, influenza and smallpox-and lacking resistance to the disease thousands died in the Inkan Empire. Wayna Qhapaq and his designated heir both succumbed to one of the diseases sometime between 1524 and 1528 causing a succession war. While this was happening a conquistador named Francisco Pizarro in 1524 had attempted to find a rich 'tribe', (and tried again in 1525), and in 1530/1 he made landfall at Tumbas in northern Peru. In 1532 with 150 men on foot and horse he set off to meet one of the brothers in the succession war, Atawallpa. Like Cortes in Mexico he recruited locals who had opposed Atawallpa. On November 15, 1532 they arrived at Atawallpa's temporary capital of Cajamarca where Pizarro's secretary commented that the city was 'larger than any city in Spain'. Atawallpa greeted them warmly but Pizarro feared that he would betray them so conspired to kidnap the emperor. They met with Atawallpa demanding that he accept Christianity and that he submit to the Spanish king. Due to translation errors the emperor threw a Bible which the Spanish used as a provocation to attack. It was a massacre leaving hundreds of Atawallpa's men dead. The emperor was captured but he had a chance to be released: he had to fill a room full of gold and twice that of silver. He did but Pizarro would not let him go. When the other brother was assassinated the Spanish used this as an excuse to blame Atawallpa and used it to execute him in 1533. Over the next thirty-five years the Spanish began a bloody genocide against the Inka. Atawallpa's nephew, Tupac Amaru, was leading the resistance against them until 1572 when he was captured and executed.
Although many died in fighting more were killed thanks to diseases including typhus, smallpox and influenza. Between 60 and 90% of the Inkan population died thanks to European diseases. Already broken thanks to disease and civil war the conquest was easy for the Spanish. With thousands dead through disease by the time of Tupac Amaru's death in 1572 nothing could bring back the Inkas.
The Inka remain a key point in South American history. Often overlooked their brief empire offered a way to unite a huge swath of land, (just 1000 km smaller than Alexander the Great's empire). With a unique writing system and an economic system which can be easily described as communistic the Inkas are a key point in history. Their legacy is also important. Their usage of Quechua spread the language so much that it is the official language of several countries, including Peru. Several sites including the roads and Machu Picchu are UNESCO World Heritage Sites showing their importance. Finally the leader of a Peruvian independence movement in the late eighteenth-century changed his name to be named after Tupac Amaru who resisted the Spanish years earlier. They may have been a short-lived society but they left a huge impact. Next time we will look closer at the Great Dying as well as other aspects of European colonialism.
Thank you for reading and the sources I have used are as follows:
-The Incas by Craig Morris and Adriana von Hagen
-The Discovery and Conquest of Peru by Pedro de Cieza de Leon, (translated by Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook)
-The Ancient Kingdoms of Peru by Nigel Davies
-Daily Life in Peru Under the Last Incas by Louis Baudin, (translated by Winifred Bradford)
-'Andean Societies before 1532' by John Murra, in The Cambridge History of Latin America, Volume 1: Colonial Latin America edited by Leslie Bethell
-1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
-'South America on the eve of European Conquest' in The Times Complete History of the World edited by Richard Overy
For other World History posts please see here. Please like our Facebook page and follow me on Twitter @LewisTwiby. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Please leave any comments and I'll see you at the next World History post when we discuss colonialism.