Inca Government and Economy

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Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Sarah Hermsen , and Deborah J. Baker
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Culture overview
Length: 5,619 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1180L

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11 Inca Government and Economy

When the Incas (pronounced ING-kuhs) began their rise to power in the Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko) Valley in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they were one small ethnic group among many. Then, in 1438, Inca king Pachacutec defeated a powerful enemy, the Chancas, and forced the defeated state to provide thousands of soldiers to expand his armies. With a much larger army, the Incas were able to conquer additional territories. From the Incas' conquest of the Chancas until the Spanish conquest of the Incas in 1533, the Inca empire grew into a vast and heavily populated state. (An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory; a state is a body of people living under a single independent government.) The empire had a complex system of government and a unique economy that continue to fascinate scholars and politicians in the twenty-first century.

The word "Inca" can be confusing. It can mean "ruler," referring to the Inca king or leader. The term is also sometimes used to describe members of the original Inca tribe or ethnic Page 180  |  Top of Article group—ten Inca family clans that rose to prominence in the city of Cuzco. In this book, the supreme ruler of the Incas is referred to as Sapa Inca (an official title meaning "only" or "unique" ruler), and the nobility of Inca origin are referred to as the Incas. Some writers have used the word "Inca" to describe all the people of the Inca empire. However, this usage is not really accurate: The people in conquered regions had to live under Inca rule, but they did not consider themselves Incas and were certainly not accepted as Incas by the ruling nobility.

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Words to Know

The management and work (rather than the policy making or public relations) of running a public, religious, or business operation.
A group of extended families who live in the same area, share their land and work, and arrange for marriages and religious rituals as a group; the basic social unit of the Andean peoples.
A messenger who was trained to memorize and relay messages. Chasqui posts stood about a mile apart along the road system of the Inca empire. When a message was given to a chasqui, he would run to the next post and convey the message to the chasqui there, who would then run to the next post, and so on.
The Sapa Inca's sister/wife, also known as his principal wife, and queen of the Inca empire.
A local leader of a region conquered by the Incas; after conquest, curacas were trained to serve their regions as representatives of the Inca government.
A vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory.
The ranking of a group of people according to their social, economic, or political position.
The word Inca originally meant "ruler" and referred to the king or leader. It is also used to mean the original group of Inca family clans that arose to prominence in the city of Cuzco. As the empire arose, the supreme ruler was called the "Sapa Inca" and members of the noble class were called "Incas."
A tax imposed on the common people by the Inca government; the tax was a labor requirement rather than a monetary sum—the head of every household was obliged to work on public projects (building monuments, repairing roads or bridges, transporting goods) for a set period each year.
An Inca resettlement policy that required potential rebels in newly conquered regions to leave their villages and settle in distant regions where the majority of people were loyal to the Inca empire; this policy helped the Incas prevent many uprisings.
A body that has been preserved, either by human technique or unusual environmental conditions, such as extreme cold or dryness.
All of the gods that a particular group of people worship.
Also khipu. A set of multicolored cotton cords knotted at intervals, used for counting and record keeping.
Sapa Inca:
Supreme ruler of the Incas.
One of a series of large horizontal ridges, like stairs, made on a mountain or hillside to create a level space for farming.
Villac Umu:
Inca term for chief priest.
Welfare state:
A state or government that assumes responsibility for the welfare of its citizens.

Running an empire

Many of the regions the Incas conquered in the fifteenth century, such as the vast Chimor kingdom in the Page 181  |  Top of Article northern coastal Peru had highly developed cultures with efficient governments and economies and advanced systems of agriculture, trade, and manufacturing. The Inca empire has always been noted for its sophistication in these areas. This sophistication was mainly due to the advanced state of development of the cultures the Incas brought into their empire.

The Incas had a give-and-take philosophy about governing their empire: They generally allowed conquered territories to operate in the same way they had before conquest, as long as the people living there fulfilled certain requirements, particularly by providing extensive labor to the empire. Though the Incas imposed their religion on the conquered states, they also adopted the gods of the defeated Page 182  |  Top of Article people into the empire's pantheon (all of the gods that a particular group of people worship). They ensured that every farmer had enough land to farm, and they provided craftspeople with materials for their arts. But life for the peoples conquered by the Incas was far from free. In order to maintain control over such a vast area and over millions of people, the Incas created an incredibly complex administrative system. Officials representing the empire carefully managed the work of the conquered people, demanding the maximum amount of work out of every individual.

Map showing important sites in the Inca empire. Map by XNR Productions. The Gale Group. Map showing important sites in the Inca empire. Map by XNR Productions. The Gale Group.

The Sapa Inca

The head of all Inca rule was the Sapa Inca. During the golden years of the empire, 1438 to 1533, there were only three Great Sapa Incas: Pachacutec (also called Pachacuti), who ruled from 1438 to 1471; Tupac Inca Yupanqui, who ruled from 1471 to 1493; and Huayna Capac (pronounced WHY-nuh CA-poc), who ruled from 1493 to 1525. The warring half brothers Huáscar and Atahuallpa (pronounced AH-tah-WAHL-pah) were also Sapa Incas who ruled, though briefly, before the Spanish conquest in 1533.

The Sapa Inca was considered a descendant of Inti, the sun god, and therefore was regarded as a semidivine (godlike) being. He held authority over all things. Upon taking power, the Sapa Inca married one of his sisters to keep the royal bloodline purely Inca. The Sapa Inca's sister/wife, also known as his principal wife, was called the coya, or queen. Sapa Incas had many other wives as well, and sometimes Sapa Incas had hundreds of children. However, only the sons of the principal wife were eligible to inherit the Sapa Inca's position. The Sapa Inca considered the worthiness of each of these sons before choosing a successor; succession to the throne was not a matter of birth order.

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During the years of Inca dominance, the position of Sapa Inca was surrounded by symbols and rituals. The Sapa Inca wore a braided headband with red tassels wrapped several times around his brow and carried a special gold club. When he traveled, he was carried upon an immense litter (an enclosed platform, usually borne on the shoulders of servants), accompanied by a multitude of servants and attendants. Also in this large traveling group were the many wives of the Sapa Inca and some of their children. The wives walked closest to the Sapa Inca and provided a buffer between him and all the other people.

Everyone treated the Sapa Inca with extreme ceremonial reverence. When people needed to speak to the Sapa Inca, they would approach him barefoot and with a heavy load on their back as a sign of humility. They were required to look at their feet—never into his eyes—and often one of his wives would hold a cloth screen across his face so that it was impossible for anyone to look upon the Sapa Inca directly. No one except his wives was allowed to touch any clothing he had worn, and his wives periodically burned his used clothing to ensure this. The leftovers of the Sapa Inca's meals were also burned. If the Sapa Inca wished to spit, one of his wives would hold out her hand so he could spit into it. If a hair fell from his head, a wife would quickly eat it so that no one would ever be able to touch it. The Incas feared that if others had access to articles that had been close to, or part of, the Sapa Inca, such items could be used to put an evil spell on him.

The divine role of the Sapa Inca continued after his death, and so did his reverential treatment. His relatives had the body mummified (treated with preservative herbs so that it would not decay), and then all of them except for the successor to the throne continued to live in the Sapa Inca's palace, using his vast stores of wealth; the household of the dead Sapa Inca was called the panaca. Meanwhile, the Sapa Inca's successor had to go out and build a new palace and find new sources of food and goods to supply it. Even after the new Sapa Inca ascended the throne in his own palace, the deceased Sapa Inca was treated as if he were still alive and ruling the empire. During festivals and ceremonies the various panacas of all the deceased Sapa Incas brought out the sacred mummies and sat them together on a platform. They Page 184  |  Top of Article even fed the mummies and gave them chicha (beer made from maize [corn]) to drink.

Illustration of a royal palace and residence of the Sapa Inca. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti. Illustration of a royal palace and residence of the Sapa Inca. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti.

Incas and Incas-by-privilege

In the Inca homeland, the people next in line to the Sapa Inca were the other Incas, who had the top privileges of the kingdom. They were entitled to live in the center of Cuzco with their servants, and they sent their children to special schools. Incas were later called orejones, meaning "big ears" in Spanish, because only Incas were entitled to wear prestigious earplugs, large, ornamental tube-shaped studs that were fitted into a hole in their earlobes.

There was a distinct hierarchy (ranking of a group of people according to their social position) among the Incas. The most powerful people were those closely related to the Sapa Inca. Next in line were the Incas who were not closely related to the Sapa Inca. (Though it was believed that all Inca nobility stemmed from the same families, over the years some of the blood relations had become distant.) As the Incas acquired more territory, they found it necessary to give noble ranking to a third group of non-Inca people. Members of the third group were known as Incas-by-privilege. Though they were not Incas by birth, they were Quechua-speaking (pronounced KECH-wah) people who had lived in the Cuzco area for a long time. The Incas added this group to their elite because even though an Inca man could have many wives, the Incas could not produce enough offspring (Incas by blood) to manage the entire empire by themselves.

Terms of conquest

When the Incas conquered a territory, all the land and many of the resources in the area (such as mines or livestock) became the property of the empire. All the land in a Page 185  |  Top of Article conquered territory was divided into thirds: One-third belonged to the Inca state, one-third belonged to the Inca state religion, and one-third was left to the peasants. The peasants used this land to grow crops and raise animals for their own use; they were also responsible for farming the other two-thirds of the territory—for the benefit of the Inca government and state religion, with its thousands of higher and lower priests, attendants, monuments, and festivities.

The Incas did not wish to impose their rule through force, partly because it would be inefficient to place a large military force in each region. Instead, they often gave gifts and privileges to the local leaders of the regions they conquered. Frequently they brought these leaders, called curacas, to Cuzco with their families, providing them with feasts and entertainment and teaching them about the culture. They then sent the curacas back to rule their regions as representatives of the Inca empire. The curacas' sons, though, were kept in Cuzco, where they were educated in the ways of the empire. Acting as representatives of the Incas, curacas ruled in most of the conquered territories of the empire.

Management of government-owned land

After conquering a territory, the Incas sent in administrators to take a census to evaluate how many people lived in the region. Then they assessed the land to determine how much work could be done there. Once the administrators had figured how much land each household could cultivate, they distributed the land among family groups, or ayllus (pronounced EYE-yoos). Ayllus were the most common social unit of the Andes and had existed there long before the rise of the Incas. In The Incas and Their Ancestors (2001, revised) Michael E. Moseley describes ayllus as "kin collectives" or "a group of related individuals and couples who exchange labor and cooperate in the management of land and herds." The ayllu usually consisted of several extended families who lived near one another within a village or farming community. The ayllu organized the labor for farming projects among all its members and determined how much land each household would receive each year. The ayllu also arranged marriages among its members and staged religious rituals and ceremonies for the group.

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Members of conquered states performed various mita duties for the Inca government, including building roads and bridges, such as those shown here.  Enzo  Paolo Ragazzini/Corbis. Members of conquered states performed various mit'a duties for the Inca government, including building roads and bridges, such as those shown here. © Enzo & Paolo Ragazzini/Corbis.

The administration (management and work [rather than the policy making or public relations] of running a public, religious, or business operation) of the empire would have been impossible without some form of record keeping. The Incas did not have a writing system, but they used quipus (or khipus; pronounced KEE-poos) for counting and calculations. The quipu was a set of multicolored cotton cords that were knotted at intervals. The knots and colors signified different items being counted (people, gold and silver, or units of time, for example) or different positions in the decimal system, such as tens, hundreds, and thousands. Quipus could record an amazing amount of detail, and some scholars believe that the Incas used quipus to record stories as well as numerical accounts. Quipu camayocs, quipu keepers, were important empire officials who functioned like modern accountants recording the number of people in a region, the tributes they owed, and the amount of goods stored in the area. (See Chapter 12 for more information on the quipu.)

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The Administrative Hierarchy

Directly under the Sapa Inca, there were four apos, or officials, who each directed one-quarter of the empire. (The Incas divided their empire into four suyus, or quarters, that radiated from Cuzco, the capital city.) The apos were Inca men, usually directly related to the Sapa Inca. The four quarters they ruled were divided into provinces. In all, there were eighty provinces, and each province had about twenty thousand households. A governor oversaw each province and reported to the apo of his quarter.

There was mathematical order to the administration of the provinces under the curacas. There were two top-level curacas in each province; each of them oversaw 10,000 households and reported to the provincial governor who was responsible for all 20,000. These two curacas were each in charge of ten curacas, each of whom oversaw 1,000 households. Under each of these ten curacas were two more, each in charge of 500 households. Under each of them there were five curacas who were each in charge of 100 households. At the lowest level, an official oversaw the work of ten people. The conquered workers were the lowest people in the Inca hierarchy. It is estimated that for every 10,000 workers in the Inca empire there were about 1,300 officials overseeing them.

In Daily Life in the Inca Empire (1996) Michael A. Malpass provides an excellent model of the way this administrative system worked. In his example, the Sapa Inca wanted a bridge built in a particular province, and 600 laborers were needed for the job. The king made it known that he wanted 600 laborers, and his administrators did the rest:

The governor of the province summoned the two curacas of 10,000 households and told them they needed to call up 300 men each. Each curaca then ordered his two curacas of 5,000 households to provide 150 men. In turn, each of these called his five curacas of 1,000 households and ordered 30 men from each. These officials each called two curacas of 500 to present 15 men each. The five curacas below them were ordered to call up 3 men from their 100 households! These 600 men worked for a period of time, fulfilling the mit'a rotation, and then returned home. Next the process was repeated to find another 600 men to work. This continued for 18 months until the bridge was complete.

Mit'a: Working for the empire

Rather than forcing the members of conquered states to pay monetary taxes to the Inca government, the Incas required every household to provide one person who could perform a set amount of labor for the government each year; this labor obligation was called mit'a, which means "rotation." Mit'a obligations were over and above the farming requirements Page 188  |  Top of Article for the state. A mit'a project might involve serving in the military, working in gold mines, or building monuments, public buildings, bridges, or roads. When the designated person left to work on a government project, other members of his ayllu would take over his work. The curacas determined who would provide labor for any given project, taking special care not to strain the workforce of any particular community by taking too many people away or by interrupting seasonal farmwork.

Ayni: The reciprocity principle

One of the reasons the Incas conquered territories was to obtain labor from the people who lived in the conquered lands. By imposing the mit'a labor obligation on new members of the empire, the Incas could afford to maintain a huge army, feed the elderly and sick, build cities, put more land to agricultural use, and employ artists and scientists. Inca rulers made very heavy labor demands on the people they conquered, and hard work was the rule for everyone.

Like the leaders of many Andean states before them, the Inca rulers believed in ayni, or reciprocity—a give-and-take system between themselves and the conquered states. In return for the labor it demanded, the Inca government promised to provide the people with protection from their enemies and freedom from want. The Incas also provided conquered territories with religious monuments, roads, irrigation systems, arts, and an abundance of raw materials from all regions. For example, they distributed llama wool (for weaving) throughout the empire. They also gave llama herds to villages that had not had them before. The ayni principle was the motivation behind lavish festivals and ceremonies put on by the Inca state on a regular basis. At these events, which went on throughout the empire, the workers were given great quantities of food and chicha and allowed to celebrate for many days. This was an ancient Andean custom that was used to cement the bonds between the ruler and the people. (See the box on page 131 for information on the chicha reciprocity ceremony.)

Preventing rebellion

Even though the Incas offered gifts and protection to their conquests, many people who lived in the conquered Page 189  |  Top of Article territories were unhappy to be forced to work for the empire. Some surely despised their rulers; after all, before the gift giving, the Incas had defeated them in war and taken away their independence. These hard feelings led to many uprisings against Inca rule during the short span of the empire. The Inca rulers used several strategies to stifle rebellion. They hoped to keep the local leaders of the states happy with special privileges and gifts. But they had a backup plan too: They required the sons of local leaders to attend special schools in Cuzco. There the sons received an education, but they were also in effect being held hostage; local leaders would think twice before rebelling, for fear that harm might come to their sons in the Inca capital. Among the common people, the Incas used religion as a unifying and controlling force: They promoted their own religion throughout newly conquered territories, but they honored the gods of the conquered peoples too. The Incas cleverly invited people from conquered states to bring the images or holy statues of their gods to Cuzco. There, the Incas could hold the sacred images hostage and threaten to harm them if the people rebelled.

Relocating rebellious people—or mitimas was the Incas' key method for preventing rebellion in the empire. The mitima relocation policy forced large groups of potential or actual rebels in a recently conquered village to move to a distant land where people loyal to the Incas were already living. People who had been living in the empire longer and were known to be loyal were then moved into the village to replace the mitimas. The mitimas were not allowed to visit their old homes. Living among people they did not know, they had no strength to rebel. They were thrown into a new culture and often forced to learn the Quechua language and participate in the religious rituals of a new community. By moving people around the empire in this way, the Incas did more than simply prevent rebellion; they gradually minimized the cultural differences among the diverse Andean ethnic groups. The mitima system also had a second advantage. If a village was located in a climate that was not conducive to the growth of maize, for example, the Incas could send off some members of the population to establish a colony in a good maize-growing region. Then the colonists could transport maize to their old home territory in exchange for the goods they needed in the colony. This kind of Page 190  |  Top of Article
Depiction of Inca warriors armed with clubs and spears.  Bettmann/Corbis. Depiction of Inca warriors armed with clubs and spears. © Bettmann/Corbis. government-arranged exchange was essential to life in the extreme environment of the Andes, and it also prevented rebellion. The leaders of the home territory were receiving what they needed in order to thrive economically because of the exchange system with the new mitima colony, and therefore they were much less likely to revolt.


The Incas acquired their vast empire through an extraordinary series of military successes. Some experts believe that the Incas began their empire-building era right after they conquered the Chancas, who attacked them in 1438. Upon defeating their enemy, the Incas immediately demanded that the Chanca soldiers join their forces. With this powerful new army, they were able to defeat neighboring states, each time building a greater force of soldiers from the armies of the conquered territories. But there were several obvious Page 191  |  Top of Article problems with this system: How could the Inca government create a loyal force out of enemy soldiers? How could it feed such a huge army? With such a vast expanse of territory, how could the central government keep track of its forces?

The Incas sought the loyalty of defeated soldiers through persuasion. After battles, the Incas usually killed only the leaders of a defeated army, returning other prisoners of war to their homes. The defeated soldiers were asked to serve in the Inca military and were promised land, goods, and special privileges in return. In addition, knowing that deep-seated hostilities often existed between neighboring tribes, the Incas would try to pit newly recruited forces against a nearby enemy tribe whenever possible.

There were few trained soldiers in the Inca army. The Incas relied on their great numbers rather than military skills. The soldiers fought in hand-to-hand combat with clubs, swords, and spear-throwers, most made of either copper or stone. It was not expensive to maintain such a large army. The soldiers were, for the most part, peasants who only served for a short time under the mit'a system and then returned home to work their crops. The ayllus back home took care of the soldiers' work while they were gone. To feed its troops, the Inca government developed huge stores of food from their share of the crops grown in newly conquered lands. In order to get the food to the soldiers, the Incas improved their already extensive road system, which also served to facilitate communications between the capital city and remote areas of warfare.

Inca roads

Although the Incas did not use the wheel for transportation, they had one of the largest road systems of all ancient world empires, with over 14,000 miles (22,526 kilometers) of road crossing through the most remote parts of the mountains and down to the sea. Bridges spanned water and heights on the roads. Alongside the roads there were temporary lodges and storehouses approximately one day's walk apart. The local people were in charge of keeping these storehouses stocked with food (and sometimes with weapons and clothing and other necessities for soldiers). Travel on the roads was mostly restricted to government-ordered projects and military operations. The roads were also used to transport goods from lowlands to highlands. Page 192  |  Top of Article
Remains of a temporary lodge on an Inca road.  Dave G. Houser/Corbis. Remains of a temporary lodge on an Inca road. © Dave G. Houser/Corbis. It was not legal for the common worker in the Inca empire to travel without government authorization.

Chasqui posts stood at regular intervals along the roads. Chasquis were runners who had been trained to memorize and relay messages to troops and to central headquarters. When a message was given to a chasqui, he would run to the next chasqui post (about a mile away) and convey the message. The chasqui at that post would run on to the next post and do the same. If the message was being delivered to someone 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) away, there might be one hundred chasquis, and the time it took to deliver the message was surprisingly short.

Law and order

The Incas had laws to regulate almost every aspect of the daily life of the common people; nobles had a different Page 193  |  Top of Article set of laws to live by but were by no means exempt. There were laws about what kinds of crops people could grow and what kind of clothes to wear. Everyone had to learn the Quechua language that was spoken at Cuzco. Women were held responsible for the cleanliness of their homes, and there were inspections to ensure that they met a certain standard. If a household had not been kept up properly, the woman who lived there was forced to eat dirt from her house with the whole village watching. The man of the household was often included in the punishment as well, probably for not having managed his wife better.

Chasquis, or Inca messengers, were trained to memorize and deliver messages throughout the Inca empire. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti. Chasquis, or Inca messengers, were trained to memorize and deliver messages throughout the Inca empire. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti.

There were apparently no prisons in the Inca empire. Few people committed crimes, partly because the punishments were extremely stiff and also because the rigid Inca government allowed few opportunities for its overworked people to get into trouble. For the most part, the local curacas were in charge of enforcing the laws that had been established by the Incas. The government imposed a physical punishment for some crimes. For example, if the crime was damaging government property or rape, law enforcement officials would drop a large rock on the guilty party's back from a height of 3 feet (.91 meters). Stealing was punishable by whipping for a first offense, but repeat offenders were sometimes hung by their feet until they died. Murderers were often thrown over a cliff or stoned to death. Adultery (sexual relations between a married person and someone who is not the person's spouse) between common people was punishable by torture; if nobles committed adultery, they were hung naked over a cliff to be eaten by birds. A person who had committed treason (betrayal of one's people or country, especially by giving aid to an enemy or waging war against it) was thrown into a pit full of snakes and ferocious wild animals. Fortunately, these grisly punishments were not carried out very often. The Inca labor system allowed little time for committing Page 194  |  Top of Article crimes and the consequences may have seemed too terrible. There was apparently little crime in the Inca empire.

Only a provincial governor or the Sapa Inca himself could condemn someone to death. People accused of crimes had a right to defend themselves. Curacas delivered punishments other than the death penalty. They also resolved quarrels and grievances among their people. If the common people had a complaint about a curaca, they could go to the provincial governor and were entitled to a hearing and an investigation of their charges.

Marriage was required by the Inca government. Common men had to marry by about the age of twenty-five and women by the age of sixteen. Marriages were handled by local ayllus, but about once a year, Inca officials would arrive in a town to marry the remaining single people. On these days, single males would line up, and then single females would form a line facing them. Sometimes a happy couple would choose each other and be married. In other cases, though, when there was no willing partner for an individual, the Inca officials would force two people into marriage. For common people, monogamy (marriage to only one spouse) was the rule. There was no divorce. Nobles were married for life to one woman, their principal wife, but they could take "secondary wives" as well.


The main industry of the Inca empire was farming—a very difficult endeavor on the cold, steep slopes of the Andes Mountains and on the desertlike coastal plains of Peru. Many of the peoples conquered by the Incas already had terraces (a series of large horizontal ridges, like stairs, made on a mountain or hillside to create a level space for farming) and systems for irrigation, and the Incas made extensive additions to these agricultural advances. Using mit'a labor to construct irrigation canals and carve terraces from steep mountainsides, they ensured that all arable land (land fit for farming) was put to use. The Incas also delivered llamas to regions that had not had them before; these animals were raised for their wool and meat and served as pack animals too. Many scholars agree that the Incas put more land to use for farming and animal-raising than any society since.

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The Incas farmed the steep slopes of the Andes by creating a series of level steps, called terraces, depicted here.  Chris Rainier/Corbis. The Incas farmed the steep slopes of the Andes by creating a series of level steps, called terraces, depicted here. © Chris Rainier/Corbis.

The Inca empire encompassed a variety of extreme climates, and farmers had to specialize in whatever crops they could grow in a particular area. Some crops, such as potatoes, would grow in high-altitude cool climates, while others, such as maize, grew in the hot, irrigated lowland areas. For thousands of years, Andean peoples had survived by trading their products with one another, exchanging crops from one climate zone for items from a different zone. Rather than allow a free trade system (trade based on the unrestricted exchange of goods) that would have competed with their own power and control, the Incas encouraged each region to set up colonies in a variety of climate zones—highland, lowland, coastal—so that each region could be mostly self-sufficient.

An economy without money

The Inca economy was not based on a money system, and it did not have commerce (the buying and selling of goods, especially on a large scale) or free trade. The government Page 196  |  Top of Article made sure that everyone had enough land or goods to survive, and it managed the exchange of goods between faraway regions. There were no merchants acting on their own behalf. The government promised to take care of the old and the sick, using the large supply of surplus goods produced by mit'a labor. In times of famine, the government storehouses were opened to the public so that no one would starve. Instead of money, the Incas invested mit'a labor: They directed terracing and irrigation projects that enabled peasants to grow more food. Once surplus food was stored away, some of the people were able to quit farming and pursue other activities. The Incas' investment paid off in cultural advances: A large group of full-time artisans began to produce pottery, metalwork, and other crafts. Cloth, one of the most treasured products among the Andean peoples, was produced in huge quantities in the homes of almost all people of the empire. When rewards beyond land and food were needed, the Incas usually bestowed fine cloth upon their people.

Illustration of Incas planting maize seedlings. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti. Illustration of Incas planting maize seedlings. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti.

The workings of the Inca economy have prompted some scholars to call the empire a welfare state (a state or government that assumes responsibility for the welfare of its citizens). Others consider the Inca economy a socialist system (a system characterized by government ownership of the means of production and government-controlled distribution of goods). The Inca economy was unique among the world's ancient civilizations in that the government maintained control of almost all exchanges and took over all aspects of trade. Because the government had such a vast labor supply, it was able to put away huge amounts of stored goods, reserving the surplus and then providing goods when and where they were most needed. Most people living in the empire prospered more under Inca rule than they had under their former governments.

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Some writers in the nineteenth century considered the Inca empire a Utopia (an ideal or perfect society), but the empire was far from perfect by most twenty-first-century standards. The economic system was not effective in all parts of the empire, and some of the conquered states lost more than they gained by joining the empire. Equality among people was never a goal of the Inca empire: The nobility and privileged ranks were exempt from the labor requirements and owned their land outright. In a few cases, common people were able to rise above the peasant lifestyle (particularly through military accomplishments), but most never had any opportunity to advance. Further, common people were not able to exercise free will over the most important aspects of their lives. Still, the concern of the Inca government for its people is noteworthy. They were basically free from the fear of hunger. The government supported the elderly and sick. There was little crime. Unlike many other ancient civilizations, in the Inca empire if common people performed their obligation to the government, they were usually assured of a certain standard of life. In The Ancient American Civilizations (1972) Friedrich Katz remarks that "there is no other state in pre-Spanish America, in the ancient East or in European antiquity in which trade was so uniquely controlled by the state that not a single general article of barter served as currency.… Hardly any state of comparable size in antiquity … allowed the peasantry such far-reaching social rights as did the Inca state."

For More Information


Adams, Richard E.W. Ancient Civilizations of the New World. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Davies, Nigel. The Ancient Kingdoms of Peru. London and New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Fagan, Brian M. Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade: The Americas before Columbus. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

Katz, Friedrich. The Ancient American Civilizations. London: Phoenix Press, 1972.

Malpass, Michael A. Daily Life in the Inca Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Moseley, Michael E. The Incas and Their Ancestors: The Archaeology of Peru, revised ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

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Time-Life Books. Incas: Lords of Gold and Glory. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Web Site

Rostworowski, Maria. The Incas. (accessed on September 30, 2004).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424400020