The Incan Empire was the largest empire ever seen in the Americas and the largest in the world at that time extending across western South America from Quito in the North to Santiago in the South. The Inca civilisation arose from the highlands of Peru in and around the Cusco area where it flourished between c.1400 and 1533. Unfazed by the often harsh Andean environment, they successfully and rapidly conquered people in landscapes as diverse as mountains, deserts and tropical forests. Their amazing adaptation of the landscapes to their purpose with terracing, roads and mountaintop settlements such as the iconic Machu Picchu continues to impress modern day visitors.
According to Inca myth, in the beginning their creator god came out of the Pacific Ocean and on arriving at Lake Titicaca created the sun and all people. The Inca ruler was for them the sun god Inti’s representative and embodiment on earth, thus giving the Inca rules divine authority.
The growth the Empire
Archaeological evidence has revealed the first settlements around the Cuzco area date back to 4500 BCE when hunter-gather communities occupied the area. The region remained unremarkable until around 1000-1400 when a process of regional unification began under the first great Inca leader Pachacuti Inca Yapuanqui. The Incas then began to expand out from Cusco in all directions, introducing a system of tax and administration wherever they went and consolidating the power of their capital Cusco. At its peak, 40,000 Incas governed a huge territory with an estimated 10 million subjects speaking over 30 different languages. Although the Incas imposed their religion and extracted taxes from conquered people, they also brought benefits such as improved food production and storage facilities and redistribution in times of disaster as well as better roads.
Architecture & Roads
The Incas constructed large fortifications, as well as walls and buildings using extraordinarily finely worked stone blocks – both regular and polygonal – which fit together so precisely that no mortar was needed. Their trapezoid shapes, wider at the bottom and narrower at the top are not only very distinctive as being of Inca style, showing the Incan mark on their territories, but also means their constructions could withstand earthquakes which are common in this area and is why vast numbers still stand today. They also built a large network of roads, estimated to cover over 40,000 km to allow for the easy movement of armies and trade, with goods transported by porters and llamas as there were no wheeled vehicles in South America at this time.
The art and techniques of the Inca was influenced by previous civilizations (most notably the Chimu Civilization), however they most definitely created their own distinctive style. The most iconic and best is seen in the highly polished metalwork of gold, silver and copper (great examples of this can be seen at the Gold Museum in Cusco and also the Central Bank Museum in Quito) For the Incas however textiles were the most precious of all their artworks, with designed often using geometrical shapes. In many places the textiles and artworks were a form of tax from local communities so they developed their own standardised designs and motifs that represented the communities making them (as well as those imposed by their Inca rulers)
At first glance the collapse of such a mighty empire at the hands of just a few dozen Spanish invaders seems incredible. However there were two key factors behind this – internal division and disease. Like most empires, the Inca Empire was founded on, and largely maintained by force – with the ruling Incas often very unpopular with their subjects, especially in the northern territories. This meant when the Spanish conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizzaro, arrived they could take full advantage of this. Already rebellions were rife in the empire with the Spanish arrived with a full on war being waged in Ecuador, where a second Inca capital had been established. The other, more serious, factor was the disease that the Spanish brought with them such as small pox which had spread from Central America even faster than the Spaniards themselves. It is estimated that this killed a staggering 65-90% of the population. So these two factors together combined to bring the downfall of this mighty empire. However modern day visitors to Peru and parts of Ecuador will see that the Inca language Quechua still lives on and is spoken by over 8 million people.