When reading about the Inca, it is vital to bear in mind that they had no written language so all information is open to dispute, discussion and speculation. Much of the history comes either from archaeology or from the Spanish conquistador chronicles which were not necessarily subjective.
The Inca were, and are, a people with a spiritual and historical heartland around the Peruvian city of Cusco – an enormously popular destination nowadays on any holiday to Peru.
Until the early 1400s the Inca were simply another regional people living in the high Andes.
Then, under the leadership of the great emporer Pachacuti, the Inca empire suddenly and aggressively began to expand.
For a period of roughly 100 years between the 1430s and 1530s, the Inca became the dominant force along the line of the Andes, from modern day Colombia in the north to Chile in the south.
Incredibly, given their legacy, there were really only three Inca emporers: Pachacuti (1438-71), Topa Inca (1471-93) and Huayna Capac (1493-1527).
When Huayna Capac died (possibly from smallpox) in 1527, the empire effectively descended into civil war at the same time as the Spanish were beginning their ‘reconquest’. By 1533 the game was up and the Spanish had taken Cusco and defeated the Inca.
A guerilla war did break out in 1535, lasting until 1572 when Tupac Amaru was executed in the main square of Cusco, bringing the Inca empire to a final end.
Structure of Empire
The Inca empire was very quick to expand and equally quick to contract.
First it is worth considering the empire as more of an agressively imposed trading structure than an empire in the sense of the earlier Roman or later British empires where the entire structure of civil society was replaced by the arriving culture.
Think of it as a spider’s web of roads with Cusco at its heart.
Produce from the Amazon basin, the Pacific coast, the altiplano, the fertile valleys and the desert all flowed into Cusco along a comprehensive network of Inca pathways and roads.
As you might imagine, relatively very few Inca were not capable of producing thousands of miles of hand crafted roads in a few short decades. The expansion of empire was achieved using a system of forced labour or ‘mita’.
As new territories were taken, peoples were forced to provide hard labour – basically building the network of the Incan empire. Beyond this, the Inca were not interested in the day to day running of other territories – they just wanted access to new and ever more exotic things.
Perhaps the Inca were the most hopelessly consumeristic society to date, burning themselves out in the persuit of the beautiful and the exotic.
It is often said that the emporers would enjoy fish brought to them from the coast, eaten with tropical fruits or manioc from the Amazon. All such deliveries were made by a tag-team of runners.
In the Juanita museum in Arequipa one can see the most precious artifacts which were left alongside the sacrificial victims, notably Juanita herself.
These items include stunning weavings of the finest baby alpaca hair – incredible colours and a silk like texture survive to this day. Or exquisite figures adorned with briliantly coloured macaw feathers and even hummingbird feathers. These things would have been unimaginable to people in Cusco pre-1430s.
Decline of Empire
It would appear that the arrival of the Inca in neighbouring territories therefore brought no appreciable benefit, simply the obligations of ‘mita’.
Little wonder that, on the outbreak of the power struggle in Cusco, the empire began to rapidly contract as subsumed peoples bit back.
When a Spanish force of 180 men and 37 horses led by Francisco de Pizarro started to head inland towards Cusco in 1532, they found many people only too happy to help them.