Savage or Sophisticated? 6 Things you must know about the Inca

Savage or Sophisticated? 6 Things you must know about the Inca

Patrick Lynch - October 11, 2016

Although the Inca Empire only had a peak of around 100 years, it remains as one of the most intriguing empires in history. The Inca migrated from the Andes Mountains to the Cuzco Valley in Peru at the beginning of the 12th century and were led on this journey by Manco Capac. They called their empire Tahuantinsuyu or ‘Land of the Four Quarters’. At its peak, the Incan Empire stretched from Quito, Ecuador all the way to Santiago, Chile; a distance of approximately 2,500 miles.

The empire only began to flourish with the arrival of Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, also known as ‘reverser of the world’ in 1438. He helped defeat the Chanca which enabled the Inca to expand. The empire is said to have had over 10 million inhabitants and when Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores arrived in 1531, they were astounded by the gold temples and valuables they saw. Within a couple of years, the Spaniards had utterly destroyed the Inca.

Even though the Inca Empire was brief and its collapse was rapid, it can be credited with a number of remarkable achievements. In this article, I will look at 6 fascinating facts about this enduring empire.

Savage or Sophisticated? 6 Things you must know about the Inca (Qeswachaka Bridge)

1 – They Created an Incredible Transport Network

When you have a long and sprawling empire, an effective transport network is essential and the Inca created one which was extremely advanced for its time. When this road network was at its peak, it covered an estimated 40,000 kilometers and the roads were between 3 and 13 feet wide. Obviously, part of the network consisted of basic dirt roads but there were also sections covered with high quality paving stones.

There were two main roads in what was known as the ‘royal highway’ or qhapaq nan. The first road went down the coast while the second one went through the highlands. In addition, there was up to 20 so-called secondary routes and a host of other trails. There were also roads built outside Incan territory as a means of allowing them quick and easy contact with outsiders. On the important roads, there were milestones which marked out each Incan unit of measurement known as the topo. A topo is the equivalent of almost 7 kilometers. Only government officials could travel on the network; you needed special permission if you were a ‘commoner’.

This system also served as an efficient communication network with chasqui (runners) positioned along the roads at intervals of 1.5 kilometers. These runners were charged with verbally passing messages to one another and they also delivered important items. Estimates suggest that this system could allow messages to travel up to 240 kilometers a day. Of course, the Sapa Inca could use this system as he pleased so if he wanted fresh fish from the Pacific Ocean (400 kilometers away) for example, he could use his runners to receive the delicious seafood in under two days.

It should be noted that the Inca built upon routes created by previous people such as the Chimu, Tiwanku and Wari. However, they expanded these routes exponentially and tackled rough terrain routinely. Some of these roads were built in areas 16,000 feet above sea level. This road network is a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that the Inca only used bronze tools, wood and stone. The Qeswachaka is a famous suspension bridge from the era and each year, it is rebuilt by locals in the Inca fashion; the women weave the grass ropes and the men use these ropes to construct the bridge. It is considered bad luck to have women close by when the bridge is being rebuilt so they must stay away!

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2 – They Left Behind no Written Accounts

At least not in the commonly defined sense. When it came to communication, the Inca used a system of knotted strings called khipus. As well as relaying verbal messages, the ‘runners’ mentioned in #1 would also pass information via khipus. To date, no one has ever been able to decode these messages but in 2002, researchers at Harvard University began what is known as the ‘Khipu Database Project’.

The aim of the project is to centralize all the information known about khipus and place it in a database capable of analyzing khipu patterns. The hope is to ascertain the meaning of these messages in ‘Rosetta stone’ fashion. The trouble is, there are only 831 surviving khipu which may not be enough to derive the requisite information.

Khipu consist of a series of knotted strings of different lengths and colors, known as pendant cords. They are suspended from a main cord, also known as a primary cord. The Inca used the wool of the alpaca and llama to create their khipus. It could be that the number of knots, along with the type of knot and their position on the primary cord, was used for recordkeeping purposes. Khipu have been described as ‘abacuses’ mainly used for accounting although an increasing number of researchers now believe that some khipu were not numerical and were in fact a form of writing.

The Inca were exceptional collectors of information and Spanish conquistadores were in awe of the Inca state’s organizational skills. Khipucamayocs, specially trained khipu readers, were employed to keep track of the immense amount of food and textiles stockpiled in warehouses. According to one Spanish chronicler of the era, the khipu readers were so skilled that “not even a pair of sandals” would be missing from their tallies.

Savage or Sophisticated? 6 Things you must know about the Inca

3 – They Had a Scientific Method of Farming

Given their mountainous surroundings, the Inca didn’t have the benefit of level fields for farming so they came up with an innovative solution. Terrace farming helped create arable land and the terraces were constructed in such a way as to give each crop the best chance of surviving. Another challenge was the fact that the empire spanned four climate zones but yet again, the Inca succeeded and the result was diversity of produce.

The Inca had a specific method of creating their terraces. First of all, stone retaining walls were built to absorb the sun’s heat during the day and radiate it at night. This process helped prevent crops from freezing during cold nights. A base layer of medium-sized gravel was used to fill every terrace while more gravel and fine sand were added on top. The steps were finished off with a layer of topsoil; the farmers would then place the seeds of their crops in this soil. Different crops were placed on each step and the Inca grew a wide range of food including potatoes, corn, quinoa, cashews, cucumber, avocado and much more.

If the terraces were unproductive, the Inca used Plan B which was known as ‘the three sisters’. Step one involved planting corn and once it reached a certain height, they would grow beans in the same ground which would grow up the stalks of the corn. Squash was then planted in the remaining space. The end result was three crops grown in a small space. What was so clever about this method is that the beans made nitrogen available as a nutrient for the corn while the squash kept the soil moist and relatively free from weeds.

There were tens of thousands of storehouses (called qollqa) built across the empire which were designed to hold surplus food. These qollqa were built on hillsides in order to benefit from cool breezes and were designed to keep food fresh for as long as possible. This was achieved by building gravel flooring and drainage channels while having ventilation on the roof and floor. This kept the inside of the qollqa cool and dry enough to store goods for up to two years while certain foodstuffs could be freeze-dried and kept in the store for up to four years. During crop failures, rulers would give maize and cocoa to the masses as a means of keeping them onside.

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4 – They Were Polytheists

As was the case with many ancient civilizations, religion was inextricably linked with history, politics and life in general for the Inca. They believed that the successes and failures they had in life were the will of the gods. Again, like many ancient peoples, the Inca were polytheists which means they believed in several different gods. They also believed their emperor was a god on earth.

According to the Inca, their gods occurred in a trio of realms: Hanan Pacha (The Sky), Uku Pacha (The Inner Earth) and Cay Pacha (The Outer Earth). Inti was the most important Inca god; he was the sun god and the Sapa Inca was said to be descended from him. Inti’s wife, Mama Quilla, was the Goddess of the Moon and the defender of women. According to the Inca, lunar eclipses were the result of Mama Quilla being attacked by an animal. Other important gods included Pachamama (Goddess of Earth), Viracocha (the first god to create the Earth) and Supay (God of Death).

Shamans were respected and feared in the empire as they were said to have the ability to cast certain spells. There were almost 500 shamans in the empire’s capital Cuzco alone. The most important shaman was the yacarca as he was the emperor’s personal advisor. Many Inca beliefs came from earlier Andean civilizations such as the Tiwanku and Wari. Indeed, most local communities had their own belief system which they followed in conjunction with the religion of the Inca.

They built an array of stunning temples of worship including the remarkable Temple of the Sun at Cuzco’s sacred Coricancha complex. It was built to honor Inti and included a magnificent gold statue of the sun god which was brought outside the temple each day to bask in the sun. Predictably, this statue vanished once the Conquistadores arrived and the estimated 1,400 kilograms of gold on the exterior and interior of the temple was also stolen by the invaders.

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5 – They had Fabulous Riches

The Inca had beautiful temples, an advanced transport network and an innovative method of farming; yet they achieved all this without money or marketplaces. The government controlled the production, distribution and usage of the empire’s commodities with every citizen receiving essentials from state storehouses. These necessities included food, clothing and raw materials so there was no need to buy or sell anything. Since there were no shops or markets, there was no point in having a form of currency.

Yet when the Conquistadores arrived in 1531, they were astounded by the wealth on display. A prime example of Inca riches came with the infamous tale of Atahualpa’s Ransom Room. When Francisco Pizarro and his men tricked and defeated the Inca and kidnapped their emperor, he is said to have demanded a ransom. One account suggests that Pizarro was paid $50 million worth of gold (by today’s standards) in order to release the emperor but the Spaniard had Atahualpa strangled instead in 1533.

Another version says that a huge group of Inca were coming to Cajamarca with 750 tons of gold only to turn back when they heard about the death of their emperor. The leader of this group, Ruminahui, was eventually captured and tortured but he never revealed the location of the treasure. Known as the Treasure of Llanganates, it is said to be in the mountain range which bears this name and an innumerable amount of adventurers have tried and failed to find it. Yet another tale suggests a Spaniard called Valverde found the gold and left directions after he died.

A Conquistador by the name of Ciezo de Leon wrote a firsthand account of what he saw when he arrived at Cuzco. As well as being astounded by the craftsmanship of the Inca, he saw houses with golden statues along with vases of silver and emeralds. Atahualpa allegedly had a portable throne made from 15 karat gold which weighed 183 pounds!

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6 – They Preferred Diplomacy Over Brutality

The Inca were skilled diplomats and typically preferred to offer peace and friendship (on their terms naturally) to enemies before resorting to violence. As you would expect, a number of regions resisted so the Inca were forced to engage in battle. Emperors knew that conquest was crucial to their prestige; not only during their lifetime but also after their deaths when tales of their exploits would be told for generations. The Inca would normally begin by trying to negotiate trade agreements, engage in gift exchanges, inter-marry or offer to relocate rivals. They would only fight if all diplomatic avenues failed.

The Inca Empire really began to expand from 1438 onwards when Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui emerged victorious over the Chancas. This enabled the Inca to control Cuzco Valley. By 1470, they had conquered the Chimu civilization and during the reign of Inca Tupac Yupanqui (1471-1493), the empire doubled in size. The empire reached its peak in 1530 but within three years, Cuzco had been taken by the Spanish and the Incan empire was finished. As it happens, the Spanish benefitted from fortuitous timing because they arrived near the end of a bitter six year Inca Civil War.

The Inca army was mainly comprised of conquered soldiers. As part of the tribute, defeated tribes agreed to send men for use in the empire’s army. Since these soldiers came from different regions and spoke different languages, communication was a problem. Eventually, the Inca created a professional army with units divided into separate groups of 10, 100, 1,000 and finally 10,000 men. Each group had its own leader and officers sometimes had joint command although we don’t know how they divided the duties between them.

Some Inca armies had over 100,000 men with weapons such as wooden clubs, spears and javelins. Most battles involved hand-to-hand combat and were often disjointed and confused affairs. Indeed, the Inca usually won due to sheer weight of numbers rather than tactical brilliance.

The Battle of the Maule was one of the most important battles fought by the Inca. The date of the battle is unknown but it probably happened during the reign of Tupac Yupanqui. The Inca fought the Mapuche people of Chile in what was an extremely bloody battle with tens of thousands of casualties on both sides. After rejecting the diplomatic approaches of the Inca, the Mapuche retreated but claimed a tactical victory as their enemy lost too many men to proceed any further. In fact, this defeat marked the end of southern Inca expansion. It would appear that a lack of tactical innovation was one of the reasons for this loss.