Created | Updated Oct 21, 2013
The Incas were a South American race first discovered by the Spanish in the 16th Century. Their empire covered modern-day Peru and beyond its borders. They are known for their downfall by way of the Spanish conquistadors, but also most importantly they are known for their gold...
The Search for Eldorado
In the year 1511 in the Spanish settlement of Panama, a rumour began to circulate that a few days' journey away lay a land where gold was so plentiful that commonplace objects were made from it.
In 1522 two conquistadors - Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro - decided to set out in search of this legendary kingdom of Biru (modern-day Peru). This trip was not the first. Earlier that year Pascual de Andagoya had undertaken a brief trip to the south. The Spanish adventurer had heard from native merchants of an empire of untold wealth, yet further to the south.
Pizarro and de Almagro's first trip, financed by a priest from Panama, took place in 1524. This trip turned out to be inconclusive. They travelled along the west coast of South America, but the two boats they were sailing in were damp and mosquito-ridden. The last straw for this expedition was when they reached a point on the Colombian coast where they came across a cannibalistic tribe. At this, disgusted, they turned back to Panama.
During a second expedition from 1526 to 1527, they had more success. Pizarro stayed on land to learn more about the natives while his navigator, Bartolome Ruiz, travelled further south. While sailing, Ruiz saw a sailing raft heading for the ship. Not only was this the first boat to be seen in these waters, but the Andean natives were wearing beautifully embroidered fabrics that impressed the Spanish. Interpreters explained to the explorers that the ship came from a port named Tumbes on the border of modern day Peru. The native South Americans also informed the Spaniards of the llamas from which they spun the beautiful wool. The explorers also learned of the Inca; the emperor of this empire of gold.
Pizarro did not have a large enough force to investigate the claims further so some of the crew went back to Panama to seek reinforcements. Meanwhile, Pizarro and his men waited on an island. When the reinforcements finally arrived, the troop of men who had been waiting with Pizarro were tired and dispirited and wished only to return home to Panama. At this Pizarro drew a line on the ground and declared:
On this side we return to Panama and poverty,
On that side we go to Peru and become rich.
He crossed to the Peruvian side and was followed by 12 faithful followers1. This group sailed once more along the South American coast, but all they could see were the imposing Andes mountains blocking the way to the Inca's kingdom.
Back at the port of Tumbes one Spaniard had stayed on land. When he returned to Pizarro he told of the fine fabrics and gold that the Incas had. When another Spaniard was sent to confirm these stories the Inca natives were in awe of the Spaniard's armour that reflected the sun's rays. They were also terrified of the thunderclap noise of the conquistador arquebuses (muskets).
As the adventurers travelled, searching for an entrance to this land of gold, they found many varying societies and realised that the Inca had only recently conquered many of these peoples. This caused unrest among the subjugated, but the elite classes were also often at odds.
The Inca System of Rule
The Inca system of rule was basically a monarchy. The Inca claimed direct descent from the Sun and was consequently a god. In fact he was worshipped as the son of the Sun. Unlike European monarchies, however, it wasn't always the first son of the last Inca that became the new Inca. The previous Inca would choose which of his many sons would succeed him. As you can imagine, this caused more jealousy and infighting even than the European system of the time. Of course it can always be disputed what a dead man has said because the dead man can't speak for himself.
As said before, the Inca was worshipped as a god and was in charge of most decisions, but he had various administrative aides just as a monarch would in Europe. The Inca Empire was divided into four quarters, centred around the capital city, Cuzco. The four quarters corresponded to the points of the compass:
- North - Chinchasuyu
- South - Collasuyu
- West - Cuntisuyu
- East - Antisuyu
This last quarter stretched through the Amazonian rainforests and was never under the complete control of the Incas.
From this layout the capital of the empire got its name - Cuzco - 'the navel'. If a lord offered his loyalty to the Inca he would receive cipu. The cipu were beautifully woven garments or other objects that would secure the lord's loyalty. All land belonged to the Inca, so a man's position in the empire's hierarchy could not be measured by the land he owned. The people that worked the land had to pay tribute to the Inca. It operated like a large-scale version of the feudal system. A man's position in society could, however, be measured by objects such as woven items, golden ornaments and other cipu - but he could also be measured by the size of his earlobes.
At puberty Inca noblemen would have large discs inserted into their earlobes, the larger the discs, the higher the status of the man. These noblemen were nicknamed orejon - or 'big ears' - by the Spanish. This tradition has continued until modern times though examples of it are now very rare. Of course, the Inca would have the largest discs of all, often encrusted in precious stones.
The various nobility also received some tribute for their contribution to the administration and expansion of the empire. This would partly come as cipu from the Inca and partly as food, livestock and gold from the province that they ruled over.
What was considered a commodity differed from region to region. For instance in the region of Lake Titicaca, llamas and vicuna (two camelids) were considered particularly valuable for their wool. Most other regions also valued these animals because their hair was used in the weaving of clothes and offerings to the gods, and therefore had religious significance. Though gold was plentiful in Peru it was still considered a commodity. The Spaniards noted everyday things were made from it, but this was not strictly true. Some Spanish saw knives made of gold, but these were not knives to eat with; they were religious and sacrificial knives. Gold was thought of as a gift from the sun. It glowed with the golden light of the sun and was therefore spiritually important. Mines were set up by the Incas and the Spanish took over the running of these mines, using forced labour.
What the Spaniards found when they arrived in the empire of the Incas was an excellent infrastructure and ruling system. To keep rebellious regions under control the Inca would send groups of loyal families to the regions. These families stabilised these areas. Some of the rebellious natives were also moved to stable regions nearer the capital city Cuzco. This simple policy was a key factor in ensuring the smooth running of the Empire. This would be completely unacceptable by modern standards, but it has to be recognised as a clever neutralisation of regions. Mostly in Europe the reaction to a rebellious province would be military force and the crushing of the rebel leaders. This often engenders dissent from otherwise happy citizens. The Inca method was much more effective.
In the end the only flaw in the system helped bring the Empire down.
The Spanish Conquest of Peru
As the Spanish army continued deeper into Peru they found a divided empire. Two brothers Atahualpa and Huascar were fighting over who should become Inca. When Pizarro returned to the once lively port of Tumbes, he found it ravaged by civil war and disease, brought to South America by the Europeans.
The Spaniards, led by Pizarro, used the huge road network which was reputedly built by the first Inca, Manco. They once more found a highly organised infrastructure. Where the roads met gorges or rivers they found pulley systems to carry travellers and their luggage across. These systems were run by people who collected a toll for the use of them. In these and others they found an empire almost as organised as the Romans' and in certain aspects it was better.
The group headed towards Cajamarca, a town near where Lima is today. Cajamarca was where Atahualpa had set up camp in war against his brother. Here the Spanish began to realise that their force would not be enough. At first the Incas had been frightened by the horses2 and the arquebuses, but they soon realised that the Spanish were vulnerable. The Spanish needed to use all their cunning to keep the Incas at bay.
In Cajamarca they found a city of beautiful architecture. The centrepiece of this city was a temple devoted to the Sun. All the buildings were made with stones which fitted perfectly together. The cult of the Sun was very important because of the Inca's position. On Midsummer's day there was a festival in Cuzco to celebrate the Sun. Lords from all around Peru came and paid tribute to the Inca and children from each province were sacrificed. In return for their tribute, the lords received women and prestige goods.
The Spanish demanded to see Atahualpa, but were told that he was fasting. The Spanish waited and exchanged messages with Atahualpa. Finally Pizarro sent his brother Hernando to meet Atahualpa. Atahualpa sat on a low chair surrounded by some of his wives and dignitaries. He was veiled and his earlobes were disfigured by huge gold discs. Hernando requested Atahualpa remove his veil and Atahualpa did so, though he did not bestow a single glance on Hernando. After a cold exchange Atahualpa agreed to meet Pizarro in the main square of Cajamarca.
The next day Atahualpa appeared on a beautiful litter carried by men dressed in gold and beautiful costumes. Before the litter walked a small group of men who carefully and meticulously swept the ground. A band played music as the procession moved towards Pizarro - whose men had hidden themselves ready, in case of trouble. One of the most important hours in the history of Peru approached.
The Fall of Atahualpa
Under Pizarro's orders, a Dominican priest stepped forward and said to Atahualpa:
I have come to teach you the words of God.
At this Atahualpa grabbed the bible the priest was holding forward. He listened intently to the book and heard nothing. Disgusted that a holy man could tell such lies, he threw the book to the ground. He could hear no 'words of God'. This was too bad for Pizarro. Enraged, he leapt at Atahualpa and did the unthinkable. He grabbed Atahualpa by the arm and wrested him from the litter to the ground. Shocked that Pizarro had touched the 'son of the Sun', chaos ensued.
From this Atahualpa emerged bound and then he offered a deal which is famous and is included in a play by Peter Shaffer about the Incas called Royal Hunt of the Sun. He promised to fill his room with gold if he were to be released. Gold was sent for from all around the Empire and as Atahualpa waited he struck up a friendship with Hernando. The gold piled up. The soldiers could hardly believe their luck. Though one fifth of the gold was reserved for the Spanish crown, the volume of the gold was incredible. Some estimations set the amount of gold at nearly 6,000kg and almost twice as much silver. In fact silver was more plentiful than iron so the soldiers shod their horses with it.
One of the tragedies of this tribute to the Spanish is that most of the gold arrived in Cajamarca in the form of beautiful figurines, ornaments or statuettes. The Spanish melted this fine workmanship down into ingots; because of this, hardly any of the Inca gold artefacts remain.
Soon, Pizarro accused Atahualpa of breaking the pact they had sworn. This was probably not completely without basis as some of Atahualpa's allies were organising small armies to free him, though not called for by Atahualpa. Pizarro sentenced Atahualpa to be executed, by burning at the stake.
This was a terrible blow for the Inca as the Incas believed that if the body was destroyed the person could not be reincarnated. So Atahualpa converted to Christianity on the condition that he would be beheaded, swearing that he would return and avenge his people. In fact, today, there is still a legend, not unlike the various manifestations of the King Arthur legend. It says that the Inkaru will return to Peru as a messiah3.
The execution of Atahualpa was the final blow to a weakened Inca empire. The Spanish raided Cuzco and its magnificent Temple of the Sun. They ravaged across Peru and came across no resistance from the puppet Inca Maneo, one of Atahualpa's younger brothers put in place as Inca by Pizarro.
The result broke up the Empire into various factions: some in favour of the old Incas, others angry at either the Spanish, the useless Incas or both. The warring took its toll and Peru became yet another Spanish colony in South America. This is not to say that the Incas vanished without trace. Still today there are some festivals of Inca culture, despite the Spanish attempts to eradicate them.
Peru under Spanish Rule and its Liberation
One of the first things the Catholic Spaniards wanted to do was to erase the pagan beliefs of the Incas and teach them the Christian faith. Jesuits or Franciscans travelled the land teaching the Incas the word of the Bible. To the Spanish, the Inca death rituals and sacrifices were sent from the devil and it was a matter of life and death to eradicate them. To the Incas - who were open to new ideas - Christianity was just another bunch of thoughts that they stirred into their own religion. This new mix helped the Spanish control the population better and in turn the Spanish also kept some of the Inca civic traditions.
In the old empire each nobleman had yana. These were hereditary servants that looked after the nobleman's household and some of his affairs. They would have privileges and were mostly exempt from tax. These yana were still exempt from forced labour after the conquest, though they often had to take up labour to survive.
In Spain there were noblemen just as in Peru so the Spaniards partially recognised the Inca noblemen's status in society. Though these caciques (meaning chief, chieftain or boss) became rulers of small areas, they had no more political autonomy than the ordinary Peruvians. The caciques became an interface between the Peruvian population and the Spanish. The children of the caciques were taught Spanish and Christianity so that they could serve as interpreters and teachers.
There were also mayors and councils elected from commoners to balance out the power of the tax-collecting caciques. This combination between religion and state meant that for a while the citizens were satisfied.
Along with the Spanish came other European blights. There was disease, alcohol and new social problems. The Spanish brought laziness and rebellion to the hitherto passive Peruvian population. Before the conquest, the Incas were hard-working and loyal. Of course, there were rebellions, but they were only small ones. The civil war between Atahualpa and Huascar was the first major split in more than 500 years of Inca history. Meanwhile Europe was about twice the size of the Inca Empire and was divided into perhaps 50 different states.
Slowly communities fermented. The caciques were in trouble. To the farmers they were collaborators with the Spanish, to the Spanish they were pretentious natives. Of course, the caciques were put in place by the Spanish, but the Spanish all wanted more power. So these natives were almost insulting to the presumptuous Spanish noblemen, who saw them as an obstacle to power. Spanish clergy also tried to repress old festivals and were resented by the communities who still felt inherently Peruvian.
From the 1740s onwards, rebellion against the Spanish began. One Juan Santes Atahualpa claimed he would restore the Inca Empire and fought against the Spanish from 1742 to 1761. The first small rebellions took place in the remoter jungle regions, but the first major insurrection took place in the southern region of Potosí. A cacique, José Gabriel Condorcanqui led the rebellion with the resources he had as cacique. He changed his name to Topa Amaru II, to point out his descent from Topa Amaru, a son of Atahualpa who struggled with the Spanish until 1572 when he was captured and executed.
The rebellion broke out in 1780 and the armies of the natives soon reached as many as 80,000 men. But when the armies reached large towns they were abandoned. The townspeople didn't want to have anything to do with the natives and by 1781 - just one year later - Topa Amaru II was captured, tortured and put to a horrible death. Each of his limbs were sent to one of the four centres of rebellion as a warning to any other rebellious subjects. The Spanish didn't stop there. They hunted down Topa Amaru's sons, daughters, cousins and many other relatives, and killed them all. Only his nephews survived by escaping to Surinam.
The end of the 18th Century was more brutal and repressive to the Peruvian people than ever. But it was splits in the Spanish government that destroyed the colony in the end: just as when the conquest originally took place it was a weakness, not a strength, that provided victory. A revolution by Spaniards born in Peru against the Spanish monarchy produced bloody wars. Between 1822 and 1824 Peru managed to win its independence along with Bolivia and Colombia. Forced labour was abolished in 1821, before independence was declared. A republican government was set up, but the feudal communities were finished. There could be no more working the fields of a nobleman or systems of tribute. The ownership of land was an alien concept and the natives slowly turned into a proletariat.
Machu Picchu, the Nazca Geoglyphs and Other Inca Sites
Machu Picchu is one of the most famous Inca sites in Peru. This city is perched precariously on a mountain in the Andes and is seen as one of the cities where the Incas managed to hold out longer than elsewhere. In fact Machu Picchu was only 'discovered' in 1911 by American Hiram Bingham. Now a popular tourist destination, Machu Picchu used to be almost unreachable. The route was a long trek through the Andes mountains. Now, perhaps unfortunately, you can get there relatively easily. Machu Picchu has also received publicity because of its endangered status. The precarious perch it sits upon is partly at risk of collapse. The city is very slowly sliding off the rock and help has been called for by the Peruvian government and world heritage organisations.
Other famous Peruvian sites include the Nazca Geoglyphs. Invisible from the ground these are huge drawings on the Nazca plain, only visible from the air. It is not clear what these drawings were for and there have been as many complex, scientific ideas as well as wild and ludicrous ones as to their purpose. Some people believe that the figures represent constellations and that the plain was an astronomical viewing station, which does fit with most of the evidence. Another, slightly less credible, theory is that aliens drew the huge pictures of condors, monkeys and other Andean animals. These pictures are actually not the work of the Inca Civilisation, but were made by one of the Pre-Inca cultures. They are attributed to the Nazca civilisation, which lived in the Nazca valley and the surrounding areas, before the Inca civilisation. The Nazca people are also famous for their pottery.
Lake Titicaca lies high in the Andes on the border between Peru and Bolivia. It is one of the highest lakes in the world. The Uros people live on large reed rafts which float on the lake. All life takes place on the rafts, including school, and livestock are also kept on them. The Indians also live on the islands of the lake as well as on the rafts. Lake Titicaca is where - in Inca legend - the first Inca and his wife sprung from. They arose from the lake; it's a story similar to the Egyptian story of the Lotus.
Sacsayhuaman is a huge Inca fortress, where the stones measure up to 9m high. The large stone slabs that make up Sacsayhuaman are fitted together with perfect accuracy. The walls that surround Sacsayhuaman are very imposing and still overlook the town of Cuzco, as they did at the time of the Sacsayhuaman rebellion in 1536. Manco Inca lead a rebellion against Pizarro in Cuzco. He took Sacsayhuaman and used it as a base to stage a siege against the Spanish. After six months, the Spanish cavalry managed to break free and attack Sacsayhuaman. They fought for two days but finally managed to win and secure their power in Cuzco.
Pisac (sometimes spelled P'isaq) is the name of both a modern market town and a ruin in Peru, just outside Cuzco. Although it is not as impressive as Machu Picchu, it is the remains of a great Inca city, and is more easily accessible and less visited.
The information in this entry is based on sources from the writing of the Spanish conquistadors, so the accounts may well be biased towards them. This entry refers to the Inca peoples as Incas. The main civilisation in the Inca empire were actually Quechua, but are referred to as Incas throughout this piece because this term covers all the peoples of the Inca Empire rather than just one group of people.