When people think of the Incas, they normally think of Machu Picchu. But the Inca Empire was a huge and powerful force in South America, far more so than even the magnificent Machu Picchu may imply. The influence of the Incas can still be seen quite clearly in modern Peru, despite the empire’s untimely fall. So before you travel to Peru, it’s worth knowing more about the Inca Empire, the largest empire ever seen in the Americas and the largest in the world at that time.
1. Rise and Fall
The rise of the Incas as a civilization is hard to define precisely. The Inca tribe likely moved into the Cusco region between 1150 and 1200. It wasn’t until 1438, however, that the Inca Empire began in earnest. In that year, the ninth Sapa Inca (Inca ruler), Pachacuti, took the throne. His reign lasted for more than 30 years and brought about rapid expansion and conquest, turning the tribe into a mighty empire. But the Inca Empire lasted for less than 100 years. The Spaniards executed Atahualpa in 1533, killing the last genuine Sapa Inca.
The Incas called their empire the Tawantinsuyu, which roughly translates to Land of the Four Quarters. The empire was divided into four regions or suyos: Chinchaysuyu, Antisuyu, Cuntisuyu, and Collasuyu. Cusco, the so-called Navel of the World, lay at the center of the four suyos.
At its height, the Inca Empire covered an area of approximately 770,000 square miles, or about two million square kilometers, making it the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. In terms of today’s territories, it covered much of Peru and Ecuador, southern and western Bolivia, central and northern Chile, the northwest of Argentina and southern Colombia.
Inca population estimates have varied greatly in the last 100 years, often depending on the methodology used. Generally speaking, most modern scholars estimate the population of the Inca Empire as between 6 million and 14 million just before the arrival of the Spanish in the New World. Shockingly, just 50 or so years after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, the Inca population — decimated by warfare and disease — had shrunk to less than 1.5 million people.
Three principal realms existed in Inca mythology. Hanan Pacha was the upper world, home to important gods such as the sun god Inti and his sister the moon goddess Mama Quilla. The middle world, Kay Pacha, was the realm of living things, including humans and animals. Uku Pacha was the Inca underworld and shared some similarities with the notion of the underworld in other religions. The ruler of this underworld was Supay, the Inca god of death and leader of a race of demons. But the Inca underworld wasn’t all bad: the Earth Mother Pachamama was part of this realm, and she was a great life-bringer and protector of the Incas.
Quechua was the official language of the Inca Empire, although many regional and local languages were spoken by smaller tribes throughout the realm. About 10 million people speak Quechua today, with the majority in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. (As a side note for science fiction fans, the Huttese language in Star Wars — spoken by characters like Jabba the Hutt and Greedo — was based on the sound of Quechua.)
7. Record Keeping
The Incas had no form of writing. Instead, they used the quipu — a record-keeping device that used knotted and colored strings. Despite extensive research, the meaning of the existing quipus remains a mystery. It’s likely that they recorded a wealth of information — perhaps, for example, census data — but it’s also possible that each quipu could only be fully understood by its maker, the quipucamayoc.
8. Road Network
The Incas created an extensive road system measuring about 25,000 miles in its entirety. At the heart of this system ran the Capac Ñan, a north-to-south road that spanned the Andes and stretched for 3,700 miles. Waypoints and storehouses were constructed along these roads to provide for marching armies.
The Incas never invented the wheel — or at least never utilized it in any major way. Transportation was primarily done on foot. When necessary, llamas and alpacas were used as pack animals. Messages could be sent along the Inca road network with impressive speed thanks to the chasqui runners, who relayed important communications across the empire.
The Incas had no sheep or cattle, and their main domesticated animals were llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs. These proteins, however, were typically destined for the nobility, leaving the common man to rely heavily on vegetables, tubers and grains. These included numerous varieties of potato, maize, manioc and chili peppers. Across the empire, the Incas supplemented their diet with many “exotic” items: caterpillars, beetles, ants, frogs and even sharks were all viable sources of protein when available.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.