The Incas

Cuzco was the center of the Incan empire.

The Incas, an American Indian people, were originally a small tribe in the southern highlands of Peru. In less than a century, during the 1400s, they built one of the largest, most tightly controlled empires the world has ever known. Their skill in government was matched by their feats of engineering. Roads, walls, and irrigation works constructed by the Incas are still in use today. Spanish conquerors captured the Inca emperor in 1532 and began to break up the empire. But the Indian people of Peru never forgot their Inca heritage. Many, even now, believe that a new Inca king will someday arise to restore the glory of their ancestors.

Social Order
To fully appreciate the Inca achievement, it helps to visualize the difficult terrain of western South America. Along the coast are some of the world's driest deserts. Next to these flat coastal lands rise the jagged peaks of the Andes, whose eastern slopes are covered with rain forests. The native people of this varied region all lived under the rule of a single man, the emperor, addressed as "Chief Inca," "Son of the Sun," and "Lover of the Poor."

The Empire
The basic unit of Inca society was the village, or neighborhood, in which the residents thought of each other as at least distantly related. Marriage was within the neighborhood. Villages, as well as towns with two or more neighborhood units, were grouped into provinces. The empire as a whole was divided into four quarters, with the capital, Cuzco, at the center.

The Emperor. As a supposed descendant of the sun, the "Chief Inca" ruled by divine right. He ate from gold and silver dishes and never wore the same clothes twice. When messengers came before him, he remained hidden behind a screen. Like the pharaohs of Egypt, he took his own sister as his queen.

Established custom guaranteed that the emperor behave responsibly. He attended to the needs of his subjects and, to a limited extent, took part in public activities. When it was time for planting, the emperor himself broke the first clod of earth with his golden spade.

Nobles. The noble class came from Cuzco, home of the original Inca tribe. But as the empire grew, there were not enough nobles to fill all the offices. Men of ability, therefore, were chosen to form a second class of nobles. All men who were nobles, whether of the first or second class, wore ear ornaments to set them apart from commoners.

The four nobles who governed the four quarters of the empire served as the emperor's council.

Language. Many different languages were spoken in ancient Peru. The Incas of Cuzco spoke Quechua (KETCH-wah). To unify the empire, they spread the language, and as a result Quechua became, and still is, the most widely spoken Indian language in the Americas.

Way of Life
There are many gaps in our knowledge of Inca life. But we do have written accounts from several explorers and missionaries, as well as from two Incas: Garcilaso de la Vega and Waman Puma (Falcon Lion).

From these we know that most Incas lived in villages. Even Cuzco, the capital, was not a large city. Workers who supplied its needs lived in small settlements in the surrounding countryside.

Dress. When Inca people got up in the morning, they did not have to get dressed. They slept in their clothes. Women wore long gowns with a sash at the waist. Men wore loincloths and sleeveless shirts that hung almost to the knees. Both sexes wore sandals and long capes.

Food. The first meal of the day was at eight or nine in the morning. Most dishes were soups or stews. Beans, peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, and sweet manioc were used. But the more important foods were maize (corn) and potatoes. So-called Irish and Idaho potatoes actually originated in ancient Peru. Almost the only meat regularly used was guinea pig.

Work. Men, if they were not on military duty, worked in the fields. Women did spinning and weaving and took care of the home. Often, however, wives went to the fields and helped their husbands with the farming. Since there was no regular schooling (except for the children of nobles), most young people learned adult chores by watching their parents.

Some workers tended flocks of llamas. The llama, a relative of the camel, provided coarse wool for spinning and was used as a beast of burden. There were no wheeled vehicles, but a llama could carry 100 pounds (45 kilograms).

Shelter. The average house was a one-room structure of stone or mud brick, roofed with thatch. At night the whole family slept together on the floor. There were no mattresses (not even for the emperor). People doubled a huge blanket and crawled inside.

The most sacred shrine in Peru was the Temple of the Sun, in Cuzco. There was also a temple dedicated to the god of creation, Viracocha (wee-rah-KOH-chah). Other important deities were the Earth Mother and the spirit called Thunder, or God of the Weather.

People everywhere worshiped their ancestors. Each neighborhood kept a mummy, supposedly of the ancestor from whom all the living were descended. Mummies of the emperors were kept in palaces in Cuzco.

Feasts and the Calendar. The Incas developed an accurate calendar by observing the movements of the sun. By observing the moon, they divided the year into twelve months and planned their major religious feasts accordingly.

A feast celebrating the harvest was held in the month corresponding to May. June marked the great feast of the Sun. Rituals of planting were held in August. Sacrifices of guinea pigs and llamas were required on such occasions. Sometimes human beings were sacrificed.

Crafts and Engineering
The Incas were competent artists, but their works are valued less for beauty than for technical perfection. They are known not so much for sculpture and painting as for weaving, road and bridge construction, and stone masonry.

Textiles. Inca weaving rivaled the best work done in Europe. The finest cloth was a kind of tapestry, finished on both sides, with intricate designs in many colors. This was a woman's craft. Most other works were done by men.

Metalwork. The science of metallurgy was more advanced in Peru than anywhere else in the Americas. Deep ming was practiced, as well as a kind of smelting to remove metal from raw ore. Copper and tin were combined to produce bronze, which made stronger weapons and tools. Metalworkers also knew about casting, soldering, and riveting.

Masonry. Stone walls built by Incas were so perfectly fitted that even today a knife blade cannot be inserted in the joints. Stone buildings in Cuzco rose to heights of two and three stories.

Waterworks. Streams were rechanneled to bring in fresh water and carry off sewage. To irrigate fields in the highlands, hillsides were terraced, like the rice paddies of China.

Roads. Roads connected all towns and villages with Cuzco. In the mountains the roads were built with retaining walls, switchbacks, culverts, and tunnels. Swift streams were crossed by suspension bridges.

Along the roads there were post houses, where runners waited to relay messages. Messengers carrying a quipu or a small package could travel 150 miles (240 kilometers) a day. It is said that in this way the emperor in Cuzco, high in the mountains, received fresh fish from the sea.

Inca Heritage
Quechua, the language of the Incas, is still widely spoken in Ecuador, Bolivia, and northwest Argentina. In Peru it is the native language of approximately half the population. Most of the Quechua people of Peru live in the highlands. However, in recent years many have migrated to Lima and other coastal cities, where they live in crowded neighborhoods.

Inkarrí. The memory of the Incas remains alive. Modern legends say that an Inca ruler will yet return, bringing a better life for the Quechua. Sometimes this hero is called Amaru (from Tupac Amaru), more often Inkarrí (from Inca and the Spanish word rey, meaning "king").

In the 1960s and 1970s the Peruvian government took steps to improve conditions for the Quechua people and to give the Inca heritage more prominence in national life. Quechua was made an official language of Peru, together with Spanish. The portrait of Tupac Amaru II now appeared on Peruvian paper money. And government officials made speeches to Quechua audiences, proclaiming, nkarrí" s=""Inkarri"-->"Inkarri is here!"

At the same time, schoolchildren in Peru were being taught to recite the names of the Inca emperors — the way young people everywhere learn multiplication tables and the alphabet. Some Peruvians can recite all 13 names in a single breath.

John Bierhorst
Author, The Mythology of South America