Through their excavations, archaeologists of the 21st century have allowed scholars and historians to piece together a detailed account of the Incas, their society and achievements, though the mystery still remains as to where and how they derived certain unique aspects of their customs and lifestyle.
Among their findings was the fact that the history of the Incas went far further back than the 1600 and 1700’s to between 1150 and 1300. At that time, the Inca empire was ruled by powerful Wari warlords from their capital near modern day of Ayacucho, until they were driven away by severe cold and drought to the valley near Cusco. Here it was fertile and warm, with a plentiful supply of water, which allowed the Inca farmers to irrigate their fields. They also built terraces up the slopes and learned how to supply water by means of canals or aqueducts.
The royal dynasty established in Cusco produced military leaders so powerful that the Incas established through conquest the largest empire in the New World before Columbus ventured there. It was the 8th emperor, Pachacutec, who was chiefly responsible for the expansion of the Inca empire by persuading rival tribes to surrender peacefully or, if that was unacceptable, he subdued them by military conquest. Pachacutec ruled from 1438 to 1471 and, as a result, by the 1600’s the Quechua people who formed the Inca civilization had spread from Cusco in Peru to modern-day Ecuador in the north, Chile in the south, Bolivia in the east, and bound by the Pacific Ocean in the west. This phenomenal expansion took place, not only as a result of conquest, but also by alliances through marriage whereby they took the daughters of nearby lords as wives.
Pachacutec singled out for conquest the southern lords of the Colla people in the region of Titicaca, with its large population living round the lake, the land rich in gold and silver, the fertile meadows supporting enormous herds of llama and alpacas. Under his rule, Cusco was rebuilt in the shape of a puma, with lavish temples and dwellings for royalty, leaving the common people to live in the outlying areas. Since the Inca believed they were created by the sun god, Inti, they built among other temples the Coricancha Sun Temple or Home of Gold, its walls, ceilings and altars lined with gold. These were later plundered by the Spanish invaders.
After Pachacutec’s death, his descendants continued to conquer the southern rulers by their remarkable organizational ability. They moved populations from obscure villages to towns controlled by the Inca and built roads to connect the towns and facilitate the movement of troops. Additionally, they built storehouses along the routes for military provisions.
In short, they brought civilization, order and growth. Their technical skills were unsurpassed at the time: not only did they build about 22,530km (14,000 miles) of paved roads through rough terrain but they also built suspension bridges from natural fibre. This was made possible by the hierarchy of the civil organization from royalty to workers and it was a successful structure whereby royalty governed and workers benefitted by trading work for food, shelter, education and health care without the pressure of a monetary system. This did not exist in Inca society.
Inca farmers played a crucial role in the survival and expansion of the empire by mastering agriculture at high altitudes and very steep terrain, producing some seventy different crops, from corn to cotton, hot peppers to peanuts, potatoes and quinoa. The water canals were mostly carved from rocks and the joints sealed with clay. They were masters of hydraulic engineering, angling the canals to accommodate the steep slopes of the mountains.
Significantly, they could store food for between three to seven years in huge storehouses, the contents of which were monitored by imperial officials who took inventories by means of a quipu, with its coloured and knotted cords. These were used like a computer or calculator to record accounting particulars, whereby the knots represented numerical values within a decimal system. Keeping records by means of a quipu allowed the Incas to keep stock of any numerical information, including debts and production. The cords of this useful device were made from cotton, alpaca or llama threads and the system had existed from 2600BC in earlier civilizations. Hence the quipu demonstrated once again the Inca’s ability to find and use ancient methods to further their progress.
They were also masterly at building and engineering as shown by the structures which have remained standing for 500 years, in spite of earthquakes, wind and weather. Excelling at stonemasonry in graphite and limestone in which the stones fitted together perfectly without mortar and without a razor blade play, they built various buildings, temples and fortifications such as the fort of Ollantaytambo and the sacred site of Machu Picchu. This citadel of about 200 structures was situated between the Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains: it was only discovered in 1911.
When it came to craftsmanship, they also excelled in creating objects made of gold and silver as well as eye-catching textile designs, since they had great regard for cloth and its artistry. To this end, they grew cotton, sheared wool from the alpaca and the vicuna, which belonged to the llama family and used looms to create complex textile designs for cloth, mostly worn by royalty.
After Pachacutec’s death in 1471, the Inca’s power was further expanded and consolidated. By 1493 under the King Huayna Capac, the empire appeared to reach its zenith. He established a new royal estate in Ecuador, namely the country palace of Quispiguanca, which was both the king’s palace and his country home and represented one of the many royal estates built over the years by various Inca kings.
The estate was sumptuous and impressive as an example of a highly developed culture and civilization. Workers were instructed to divert the Urubamba River to the south of the valley, to drain marshes and level hills in order to plant crops, including corn, cotton and peanuts. It was essentially the king’s place of relaxation containing banqueting halls for feasting, entertainment and gambling, a game lodge and a forest for hunting deer and other game. The palace was surrounded by fertile fields, parks and gardens.
When the king died, his body was mummified as was the tradition and taken to Cusco where, over the years, members of his family came to consult him. His advice was conveyed through an oracle next to him. Inca tradition included a month of “carrying the dead,” when people fed the mummies of their ancestors. At this time, they took them from their storehouses, dressed them in rich clothing and gave them food and drink, after which they would sing and dance and walk with them from house to house.
The Incas paid tribute to the gods through human sacrifice by offering up children and teenagers who were well fed for a year and drugged with alcohol and cocoa leaves before being slaughtered and mummified.
Before Huayna Capac died in about 1527, the Spanish had already invaded and conquered the Inca empire, which was subsequently almost wiped out by smallpox, brought by the Spanish to their shores. When Capac’s son, Atahualpa eventually came to the throne, he was killed by the Spanish who replaced him with a token ruler. By 1572, the Inca empire, which had reached about 10 million people, was no more.
Since, unlike the Maya, they had no system of hieroglyphic writing, their achievements and culture vanished from history and historical records. It was only in the 1990’s that archaeologists visited the territory once more to make extraordinary discoveries and piece together the rise and fall of the Inca people. Among other findings was the major sacred shrine of Maukallacta, south of Cusco, where pilgrims worshipped in the belief that this was the birthplace of their empire.
Although the history of the Inca was only explored in depth in the 20th century, their influence and legacy has existed in South America for hundreds of years. Enduring Inca traditions include textile making, ethnic food, the use of the ancient Inca language, Quechua, a lingua franca spoken by between six and ten million people living near the Andes, from southern Columbia to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, New Argentina and northern Chile.
A further unexpected legacy is the sacred valley of Peru where the sacred River Urubamba flows. This is a hummingbird paradise with more than two hundred species of birds, of which there are thirty different types of hummingbirds, strikingly diverse and richly coloured. It is an idyllic environment for the birds, marked by good weather and an abundance of flowers as a result of the plentiful water supply.
Although they have always been regarded as indigenous people, anthropologists propose that the Inca ancestors came from Asia as hunters who crossed the Bering Strait, which in ancient times connected Siberia and Alaska. Over thousands of years, they moved west, more than half-way across the earth, eventually settling in the Americas and reaching the Andes somewhere between 13000BC and 10000BC. The unique features of their civilization nevertheless remain a mystery, intriguing and often baffling.