The Incas were a South American people who built a civilization in the region near modern-day Peru. Their civilization lasted from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, and grew into a powerful empire in the last century of its existence. At its height, the Inca empire ruled an area that stretched for about 2,500 miles and had a population of more than ten million people. The Incas built great cities and a system of roads to connect the empire. They also developed a method of farming suited to the harsh mountain climate of their homeland. The empire was still in the process of expanding when Spanish explorers arrived in the early 1500s. By the end of the century, the Spanish had conquered the empire and many Incas had been killed by war or disease.
The Beginning of a Civilization
The exact origin of the Incan people is unknown. Their legends say they were created by the god Viracocha and given life by the sun god Inti near Lake Titicaca in modern-day Bolivia and Peru. Archaeologists believe they may have been descended from the Tiwanaku people who had lived in the region near the lake for centuries. The name Inca comes from Quechua, the language of the Incan empire. It means “king,” or “man of royal blood.”
The Incan civilization is believed to have begun around 1100 when their leader, Manco Capac, brought his people to the mountains of central Peru. It was there that he established the city of Cuzco, the capital of the Incan empire. Through military conquest and trade, the civilization expanded throughout the region. Under the rule of a leader known as Viracocha Inca, the civilization grew into a powerful empire by 1425. The Incas called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, or “Land of the Four Quarters.” It encompassed an area from parts of modern-day Colombia in the north to central Chile in the south.
The Incas at Their Peak
The Incas conquered many neighboring peoples and made them a part of the Incan empire. The more than ten million citizens of the empire were made up of about one hundred different cultures who spoke about thirty different languages. The Incas built a 15,000-mile network of roads that made it easier to travel to and from their many towns and villages. They raised llamas and alpacas and grew corn, potatoes, and squash for food. Because they lived in a mountainous area, the Incas invented a method of agriculture called terrace farming. Crops were planted on different levels like giant steps on a mountainside.
As the empire expanded, Cuzco became one of the richest cities in the world. The emperor was known as the Sapa Inca and was said to be a descendant of Inti. The emperors ordered great temples to be built in honor of the sun god. One of those, the Temple of the Sun in Cuzco, was more than 1,200 feet wide and was covered in sheets of gold. Perhaps the most well-known Incan settlement, a religious site called Machu Picchu, was built high in the mountains around 1450. The stone buildings of Machu Picchu were constructed so well that they were held together without mortar and survived centuries in the cold climate.
The Incas kept control of their empire through a system of taxes. The Incas did not use money but collected the taxes in food and goods. They also required people to work on public projects for the empire. Farmers were expected to give about one-third of their crops or animal herds to the emperor, one-third to the gods, and keep one-third for themselves. The Incas kept track of population figures and government statistics with a complicated counting system of strings and knots called a quipu.
The Empire Falls
By the early sixteenth century, Incan rulers had expanded the borders of the empire into Chile and Colombia. It was about that time that Spanish explorers began arriving in South America. The Spanish had heard of the wealth of the Incas and set out to conquer the empire. Even before the Spanish came into contact with the Incas, diseases they had unknowingly carried with them began to take a toll on the native people. In 1528, Emperor Huayna Capac died of smallpox and his sons began fighting for control of the empire.
With the Incan empire in chaos, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro invaded Incan territory. Despite being outnumbered, the Spanish used their superior weapons to easily defeat the Incas. In 1532, Pizarro captured and killed the new emperor. The next year, he attacked Cuzco and robbed and destroyed the city. A group of Incan rebels managed to escape and flee to the jungle city of Vilcabamba. From there, they tried to fight back against the Spanish, but their rebellion was eventually defeated in 1572. With this last defeat, the Incan civilization came to an end.