Inca Religion, Arts, and Sciences

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Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Sarah Hermsen , and Deborah J. Baker
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Culture overview
Length: 6,344 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1190L

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12 Inca Religion, Arts, and Sciences

The Incas (pronounced ING-kuhs) had a culture of their own well before the empire began its expansion in 1438, but this culture changed and grew significantly in the ninety-five years that followed—the era of the Inca empire. (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.) The Incas adopted and incorporated the important gods as well as the arts and the sciences of the people they had conquered. The Inca government created a system that skillfully organized the various cultures it had brought together. It brought unity to the people it controlled by providing a set of traditions that were familiar and acceptable to the entire empire.


The different Andean cultures conquered by the Incas all had their own set of religious beliefs, practices, and major deities. However, rather than switching to the Inca state religion Page 200  |  Top of Article after they were conquered, most of the Andean peoples simply added the Inca gods to their own set of gods and spirits. The Incas in turn adopted the gods of the people they conquered, hoping to unify their empire through shared religious beliefs. As the Inca empire expanded, religious practices in the Andes grew and changed.

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Words to Know

A house where young women chosen by the Incas were isolated from daily Inca life; these women were trained in the arts of weaving fine cloth and making chicha and foods for festivals, and some went on to become religious workers.
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 Quechua word meaning "border"; ceques were imaginary lines that divided Cuzco into sections, creating distinct districts that determined a person's social, economic, and religious duties.
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 likeness or image of an object of worship.
A body that has been preserved, either by human technique or unusual environmental conditions, such as extreme cold or dryness.
A traditional, often imaginary story dealing with ancestors, heroes, or supernatural beings, and usually making an attempt to explain a belief, practice, or natural phenomenon.
The Inca language, still spoken by Andean people today.
Also khipu. A set of multicolored cotton cords knotted at intervals, used for counting and record keeping.
A formal act performed the same way each time, usually used as a means of religious worship by a particular group.
To make an offering to the gods, through personal possessions like cloth or jewels, or by killing an animal or human as the ultimate gift.
The work of a skilled builder who expertly lays cut or otherwise fitted units of stone in construction.
Villac Umu:
Inca term for chief priest.
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Religion dominated every aspect of the Inca world. The importance of religion to the Incas is demonstrated by the way they divided up the lands they conquered: one-third for the Inca government, one-third for the peasants who worked as farmers, and a full third for the support of Inca religious institutions.

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.

Origin myths

In the myth of Inca origins, the first Inca king, Manco Capac, and his seven siblings emerged from the caves of Pacariqtambo, or from Lake Titicaca, in another version. (A myth is a traditional, often imaginary story dealing with ancestors, heroes, or supernatural beings, and usually making an attempt to explain a belief, practice, or natural phenomenon. It should be noted whenever discussing the cultures of other peoples, that what is viewed as myth to an observer may be interpreted as an absolute truth to a believer.) These first Incas were created by the sun god Inti, and their mission was to bring civilization to the world. According to many scholars, Inti was the primary god of the Incas.

Another Inca myth describes the creation of the earth. According to this myth, the god Viracocha created the world first and then made people out of stone or clay at Tiwanaku (pronounced tee-wah-NAH-coo; see Chapter 7 for more information). (Andean peoples had worshiped Viracocha for thousands of years prior to the rise of the Incas; Viracocha is generally portrayed as neither man nor woman, but in this Inca myth, the god appears in human form.) Viracocha then led the people he had created from stone and clay to Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko). Eventually Viracocha left the world to reign invisibly from the heavens. After leaving the earth, Viracocha apparently gave other deities control over the daily lives of human beings. While many scholars Page 202  |  Top of Article consider Viracocha the supreme god of the Incas, others put Inti in the number one position. The majority of Inca temples are dedicated to Inti.

Illustration depicting a man and a woman created by the god Viracocha. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti. Illustration depicting a man and a woman created by the god Viracocha. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti.

Worshipping the Inca gods

Almost all religion in the ancient Andes was deeply connected to the forces of nature and to the success of farming. The Inca religion was no exception. Inti was the source of warmth, light, and healthy crops. Inti ruled over the earth with Illapa, the thunder god who brought the necessary rains, and Mama-Quilla, the moon goddess and wife of Inti. Inti was represented as a golden disk with a face, surrounded by radiating sunbeams. Other important Inca gods include Pacha-Mama, the earth goddess, and Mama-Cocha, the goddess of the sea.

When they conquered new lands, the Incas required the conquered people to worship Inti. Temples dedicated to Inti were built in every region. Each temple had its own priests, and local people had to support the temples and the priests with their labor. Although the Incas demanded that conquered people accept the Inca gods, they also accepted the conquered people's gods into the Inca pantheon (the officially recognized set of Inca gods). They invited the defeated states to bring the idols (representations or likenesses) of their gods to Cuzco and promised to place the idols in the Temple of the Sun, or Coricancha, the highest place of honor for an Inca god. Though it was a seemingly benevolent gesture, the Incas had a sinister motive. In Inca Religion and Customs, first published in 1653, Spanish chronicler Father Bernabé Cobo describes what the Incas did with these visiting idols:

When some province rebelled against them, the Incas ordered the protective native gods [the idols] of the rebellious province to be brought out and put in public, where they were whipped ignominiously [in a humiliating way] every day until such province was Page 203  |  Top of Article
The curved Inca wall, a remnant of an Inca sun temple, stands adjoined to this Spanish-style church in Cuzco.  Michael Freeman/Corbis. The curved Inca wall, a remnant of an Inca sun temple, stands adjoined to this Spanish-style church in Cuzco. © Michael Freeman/Corbis. made to serve the Incas again. After the rebels were subdued, their gods were restored to their places and honored with sacrifices [offerings to the gods, through personal possessions like cloth or jewels, or by killing an animal or human as the ultimate gift]. The rebelling province, presumably horrified by the base treatment of their gods, were forced into submission.

Huaca worship

Quite separate from the official Inca religion was the everyday worship practiced by the peasants in conquered Andean villages. Almost every Andean community worshiped the forces of nature, such as thunder and lightning, rain, or the rising of the sun each day. They also revered the earth's natural features, such as mountains, rivers, jaguars, and snakes. This type of worship had been practiced among the ayllus for thousands of years. Ayllus (pronounced EYE-yoos) were groups of extended families that formed a self-sufficient community, farming cooperatively, arranging marriages Page 204  |  Top of Article within their group, and practicing religious rites together. The members of each ayllu believed that their ancestors sprang from a specific point or an object, such as a tree or a stream or even an herb. The ayllus worshiped these points or objects of their origin as huacas, or sacred places.

Huacas were the basis of the sacred landscape of the Incas in Cuzco. A series of forty-one imaginary lines, or ceques, radiated from Coricancha, the main religious center of the Incas (ceque is a Quechua word that means border). The ceques divided the city into distinct districts that required certain social, economic, and religious duties from the people who lived within them. Along the ceques there were 328 huacas, both natural and human-made places (such as springs, piles of rocks, or fountains) that were considered sacred. These places were believed to have supernatural powers, or to be the homes of supernatural spirits. Some scholars think that the huacas may have marked the days of the year and that there may have been a huaca for every calendar day. The huacas also may have marked water sources.

Ancestor worship was extremely important to everyone within the Inca empire, and it had been important for centuries before the Incas came into power. The bodies of the dead were considered huacas and treated with the utmost dignity and reverence. When the Sapa Inca (supreme ruler of the Incas) died, his body was mummified (preserved) by a complex procedure that involved taking out the organs, filling the body cavity with preservative substances, and then drying out the body to prevent decay. The mummy was sometimes brought out of the burial chamber to attend ceremonies. At festivals, servants and relatives of the dead ruler even fed the mummy and gave it chicha (beer made from maize [corn]) to drink.

Appeasing the gods

The Incas and indeed most or all early Andean cultures believed that the gods of nature controlled their world and their lives. The only way they felt they could gain control of natural forces such as rain or earthquakes was by appeasing the gods—that is, making the gods happy. Hoping to please the gods, they carefully fulfilled every detail of their traditional rituals (formal acts performed the same way Page 205  |  Top of Article each time as a means of religious worship) and ceremonies. The Incas and their subjects practiced sacrifices as one way to make the gods happy. In most Inca sacrifices, the offerings were llamas (South American mammals with soft, fleecy wool), fine textiles, and even chicha. Human sacrifice was also an Inca tradition, but not on a large scale.

Depiction of Incas performing a sacrifice, hoping to please the gods.  Bettmann/Corbis. Depiction of Incas performing a sacrifice, hoping to please the gods. © Bettmann/Corbis.

Certain important occasions and ceremonies called for the sacrifice of humans—the installation of a new Sapa Inca, earthquakes, or victory in battle, to name a few. Usually the victims were children between ten and fifteen years old. Only children of particular beauty were chosen, and it was considered an honor to be selected. When children were selected from conquered territories, they were often brought to Cuzco to participate in ceremonies before they were sacrificed. Then they were taken home, where they were often given a feast and chicha to drink. During the sacrifice, some were buried alive. Others had their hearts cut out, and the hearts, still beating, were immediately presented to the gods.

The Incas had a concept of afterlife similar to Christian notions of heaven and hell. They believed that people who led good lives would be rewarded after death by eternal life in a place beyond the sun. People who were bad during their lives went to a dark place in the center of the earth after they died. But only common people had to worry about their destiny in the afterlife. Inca nobles went to the place beyond the sun and did not have to fear the dark underworld no matter how they lived their lives.

Priests and chosen women

The most powerful person in the Inca religion and the second most powerful person in the empire was the Villac Page 206  |  Top of Article Umu, or chief priest. He was generally a brother or close relative of the Sapa Inca and was in charge of every priest in the Inca empire. The chief priest chose ten bishops (high-ranking officials who oversaw regional priests)—one for each of the religious districts in the empire; all the bishops were Incas. Within the districts, the priests were generally family members of the local leaders, or curacas. In Cuzco the Villac Umu had a staff of about four thousand religious officials to help him run the state religion.

Every region had its own temple of the sun, and each temple had its own priest or group of priests. Within each of these temples, every major god the Incas worshiped was represented by a huaca. All huacas needed maintenance—that is, prescribed rituals and ceremonies to properly honor the gods they represented—and the priests were responsible for performing this work. Priests and their attendants had many other job responsibilities too, including changing the weather, curing illnesses, and seeing into the future. Priests also led the many ceremonial festivals held throughout the year. They heard people's confessions and helped them atone for the wrongs they had done. In addition, they were the chief educators of the Inca boys. To fulfill all these duties, the Inca state religion required many priests.

Women also took part in the religion of the empire, as acllas, or "chosen women." Girls between the ages of eight and nine were selected by judges who traveled the empire for this purpose. The young girls were brought to local houses, where they were secluded from the public and trained by mamaconas, or older chosen women. They learned how to spin and weave fine cloth and how to make chicha and prepare food for religious ceremonies. At the age of fourteen, some of the chosen girls were sent to a festival in Cuzco; at this festival the Sapa Inca would select wives for himself and for noblemen he wished to reward. Those who were not selected to marry the nobles became mamaconas and were married symbolically to the Inca sun god, Inti, or to other gods. These women, called "Virgins of the Sun" by the Spanish, became priestesses and worked at ceremonies and in temples throughout the empire. (They are often compared to the nuns of the Roman Catholic Church, but some of the similarities may well have been exaggerated by Spanish chroniclers who were Catholics themselves.) Page 207  |  Top of Article Some acllas were chosen to be sacrificed to the sun god. According to estimates, the empire had about fifteen thousand women serving as acllas at any one time during the years of Inca dominance.

An Inca aclla, or chosen woman. The Spanish called acllas Virgins of the Sun. The Art Archive/Bibliothque des Arts Dcoratifs Paris/Dagli Orti (A). An Inca aclla, or "chosen woman." The Spanish called acllas "Virgins of the Sun." The Art Archive/Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs Paris/Dagli Orti (A).

The acllahuaci ("house of the chosen women"), situated right next to the Coricancha in the main section of Cuzco, was the residence of about fifteen hundred chosen women. There they were completely isolated from the public. The only nonreligious people who visited them were the coya (the sister/wife of the Sapa Inca) and her daughters. The chosen women were sworn to chastity (abstaining from sexual relations), and the punishment for having sexual relations with them was death. However, the Sapa Inca was apparently above this law and was known to occasionally have sexual relations with the chosen women.

Ceremonies and rituals

For thousands of years, Andean peoples carefully carried out rituals and ceremonies to honor the gods, believing that this was the way to ensure abundant crops, maintain good health, and prevent disasters. By the time the Incas came to power, ceremonies had become dramatic events. There were still some simple daily sacrifices, with bits of wood or thread burned as offerings to the gods. But other ceremonies were magnificent week-long festivals attended by thousands. Some major ceremonies took place only when a particular event occurred, such as a natural disaster, a military battle, or the illness of a Sapa Inca. However, there were many ceremonies that occurred regularly. In fact, the Incas held at least one official state ceremony every month of the year (see the box on page 209).

The three main Inca ceremonies were Capac Raymi (Great Festival), Aymoray (which means both "corn harvest" and "May"), and Inti Raymi (festival of the sun). Capac Raymi Page 208  |  Top of Article
Remains of an acllahuaci, where the Inca chosen women lived in seclusion. The Art Archive/Dagli Orti. Remains of an acllahuaci, where the Inca "chosen women" lived in seclusion. The Art Archive/Dagli Orti. was celebrated in December at the beginning of the rainy season. This festival celebrated the puberty or initiation into manhood of fourteen-year-old Inca boys. In Cuzco, the festival lasted about three weeks. First the boys climbed a tall mountain peak, where they sacrificed llamas and sought the approval of the spirit of the mountain. When they returned to Cuzco, the boys participated in a dance during which their relatives whipped the boys' legs. Then the boys went back up the mountain and began an extremely dangerous race down a steep mountainside. After twenty-one days of repeating these and other ordeals and rituals, the boys attended a ceremony and received large earplugs, which were then inserted into their split earlobes. At this ceremony the Inca boys formally became warriors and orejones (Spanish for "big ears"), or men of the royal Inca line. Boys who were not Incas went through similar puberty rituals.

The biggest Inca festival was Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun, which is still held annually in Cuzco. It was celebrated throughout the Inca empire, but the biggest and most elaborate Page 209  |  Top of Article ceremony was in Cuzco. The festivities went on for nine days on a hill near the city. They began at sunrise on the day of the winter solstice, which takes place in June in the Southern Hemisphere. This is the time of year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the equator, marking the beginning of the sun's new year. The festival connected the new year to the Inca myth of creation. It provided recognition to the sun god Inti as the source of all life and the father of the first Incas.

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Inca State Ceremonies

Inca State Ceremonies
Month Andean month Festival
December Capac Raymi Great Festival
January Hutu Pacify Small ripening
February Human Poky Great ripening
March Paccar Ware Garment of flowers
April Airway Dance of the young maize
May Aymoray Corn harvest
June Inti Raymi Festival of the sun
July Anta Situate Earthly purification
August Capac Situate General purification sacrifice
September Cay Raymi Festival of the coya
October Yuma Raymi Festival of the water
November Ayamarca Procession of the dead

In Cuzco, the royal Incas all participated in Inti Raymi. Even the mummies of the deceased former kings were brought out daily to "participate" in the festivities. The event began as the sun rose. The orejones (Inca nobles) chanted together in prayer. The Sapa Inca himself also chanted. Hundreds of llamas as well as other offerings were sacrificed to please Inti (the sun god) and other gods such as Viracocha and Illapa. Dancing, feasting, and drinking accompanied the sacrifice rituals. Each day as the sun went down, everyone grew very quiet and raised their hands in prayer. Then the festivities ceased for the day, Page 210  |  Top of Article and everyone went home silently, to start up anew with the rising of the sun the next day. After nine days of this, the Sapa Inca performed a special ceremony, taking a hand plow and breaking the earth; the other Incas then did the same. They believed that the lands of the empire would not grow crops unless the Sapa Inca led the way.

Incas participate in Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun.  Bettmann/Corbis. Incas participate in Inti Raymi, the festival of the sun. © Bettmann/Corbis.


The Incas are generally considered less skilled in most arts than many of the Andean peoples who preceded them. Most of the best art forms of the Inca empire were developed and perfected by other cultures before the Incas conquered them. For example, in the Chimor kingdom of northern coastal Peru, metalwork was a key industry. Most of the metalworking skills of the Chimú (pronounced chee-MOO) culture originated in even earlier civilizations in the Lambayeque Valley. When the Incas conquered the Chimor kingdom, they took control of its crafts industry, bringing the best Chimú metalworkers to Cuzco to begin large-scale production of their crafts. However, experts believe that large-scale production probably compromised the artisans' ability to achieve the intricate beauty that earlier Chimú pieces were known for. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence to prove or disprove this theory, because few Inca metalwork artifacts are still in existence. Gold, silver, and bronze artifacts were stolen and destroyed by the Spanish conquerors and later by local looters who sold the artifacts to illegal dealers in ancient Peruvian arts.

Some historians theorize that the rigid government structure and work ethic of the Incas stifled artistic expression in the empire. However, the artisans of the Inca empire usually achieved technical perfection in whatever they produced. They especially excelled at stonemasonry and textile arts.

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Along with metalwork, the Incas are known for their stonemasonry (work of a skilled builder who expertly lays cut or otherwise fitted units of stone in construction). The most elegant Inca architecture is simple and, for the most part, undecorated on the outside. Temples and palaces were constructed of precisely cut limestone or granite blocks, some of which were immense. They were pieced together like an intricate and three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. They needed no mortar to cement them together because the fit was so perfect. These buildings are still standing five centuries later, while earthquakes and the ravages of time have crumbled more-modern structures. The Incas are renowned for creating buildings that blended in beautifully with the surrounding landscape.

Inca buildings demanded precise planning. Projects generally began with a small clay model of the proposed building. Then, blocks of stone had to be broken out of the earth and transported to the building site. The Incas probably placed wedges of wood into the cracks of rocks at a quarry (a large dug-out area of earth used as a source of stones) and then soaked the wood with water. Expanded by the water, the wood would split the rocks, and a team of men could then cut and dig out a large and very heavy block. The Incas did not have wheels to help them transport the massive rocks. The blocks were probably put on a large board or frame that was pulled by hundreds of laborers. In fact, leading up to one of the major Inca construction sites that remained unfinished after the Spanish conquest of 1533, there are many huge boulders that never made it all the way to the building site. The Spanish called these boulders piedras cansadas (tired stones).

The Incas had no iron tools for cutting the stones. Once a block of stone arrived at the work site, a group of workers would begin the long process of cutting the stone to fit into the wall, probably using hard stone instruments to chip, rub, and sculpt the blocks. Copper and bronze—the metals the Incas normally used—are too soft to have helped much in this process. Because there are no written records documenting the construction process, no one knows exactly how the Inca builders created such perfectly fitting stones (though there are many theories on how it could have been Page 212  |  Top of Article done). Whatever their technique, the result was a simple and unadorned architecture. The stone buildings of the Incas have a stark beauty that remains unparalleled in history.

This Inca stone wall, still standing in Cuzco, shows the precision with which the Incas cut and fit each stone.  Nevada Wier/Corbis. This Inca stone wall, still standing in Cuzco, shows the precision with which the Incas cut and fit each stone. © Nevada Wier/Corbis.


The creation of beautiful cloth with vivid designs and intricate weaves has a history dating back to about 3000 B.C.E. in the Andes. For the Incas, weaving was the ultimate visual artistic expression; it was universally appreciated, in the way that painting is appreciated by many modern civilizations. Making colorful textiles was extremely time-consuming for the Incas, and it required a wide variety of skilled laborers. The two most common types of cloth were woven from cotton or from alpaca or llama wool. There were different natural colors of cotton, ranging from brown to white; llama wool was either brown or white. To begin making cloth, spinners used a spindle (a stick with tapered ends that twists the thread in hand spinning) and whorl (a ball or drum-shaped section that attaches to the spindle to keep it rotating evenly) to spin the raw cotton or wool into fine threads of various colors. Inca women throughout the empire would spin thread with a spindle and whorl even while they did other tasks. These threads were given to dyers, who were experts in preparing mineral and vegetable pigments, natural substances that gave vibrant color to the threads. After dyeing, the spun threads were sent on to the weavers. Most often, young girls and women did the weaving as part of their household tasks. Some of the finest cloth, called cumbi cloth, was produced by well-trained women in the acllahuaci, or house of the chosen women. Even women in the upper ranks of society were expected to spin and weave. Thanks to the labor of all these women, the Inca empire was filled with exquisite textiles in a bright array of colors, decorated with geometric shapes and vivid depictions of animals and humans.

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Cloth was used for clothing of all sorts, but it had other uses as well. In the Inca empire, cloth was valued more highly than gold. The Incas held labor in very high esteem, and cloth took many hours of labor to make. Because it was so highly valued, it was often used as a reward for people's efforts, almost like money. For example, soldiers were given cloth as a reward for their military service, and conquered rulers were given cumbi cloth when they agreed to accept the rule of the Inca empire. Cloth made by Inca noblewomen was given to local temples or to the Inca empire. The finest cumbi cloth, which sometimes took thousands of hours to produce, was burned daily as a sacrificial offering to the gods.

Incas were highly skilled in weaving textiles, such as this cacao bag with a llama pattern. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti. Incas were highly skilled in weaving textiles, such as this cacao bag with a llama pattern. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti.

Music and literature

Music and dance were important to the Incas and were prominently featured at Inca festivals. At these celebrations groups of men chanted out songs in perfect unison. For musical instruments, they used drums, whistles, flutes, and panpipes (wind instruments with several pipes attached to a mouthpiece) made from wood, bone, and ceramics. During the large ceremonies, such as Inti Raymi, a band of musicians would march, almost like a modern marching band, playing music all day. Others would begin a ritual form of religious dancing with repetitive rhythms and almost trance-like movements. Although many other aspects of Inca culture have been lost, the music from pre-Spanish times lives on in the Andes and has been incorporated into the region's modern music.

Although the Incas had no writing system, their empire had a great deal of oral literature in the form of religious poems, drama, story songs, and tales of royal heroism and history. These were passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation. Most of the Inca myths and legends were Page 214  |  Top of Article carefully memorized by storytellers and recited to the public during ceremonies and other gatherings. The Inca method of retaining important songs and stories is described by Father Bernabé Cobo in Inca Religion and Customs (c. 1653). Father Cobo witnessed the art of memorization within the temples:

The most notable aspect of this religion is how they had nothing written down to learn and keep. They made up for this shortcoming by memorizing everything so exactly that it seems as if these things were carved into the Incas' bones. For this purpose alone the Incas had more than a thousand men in the city of Cuzco who did nothing but remember these things. Along with these men others were raised from youth by them, and these youngsters were trained so that these things would not be forgotten. I certainly do not believe myself that such care in preserving their religion and remembering their opinions and shrines was taken by the ancient pagans nor any other people.

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Runasimi: The Quechua Language

When the Incas built their empire, it included many diverse populations that spoke about twenty different languages. The Incas demanded that the conquered peoples learn to speak the Inca language—Runasimi, or Quechua (pronounced KESCH-wah). They were very successful in spreading their language; it was the primary language of the Andean region by the time the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s. The Spanish decided that it might be easier to convert the local people to Christianity if they were taught in their own language. Therefore, the Spanish adapted the Roman alphabet to the Quechua language and developed a written version. Quechua was then used as a trade and missionary language, and it spread to parts of Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina that were not part of the Inca empire.

The Quechua language is an agglutinative language, meaning that new words can be formed by adding special syllables onto a root. The following example of how the words are built from their root is provided in the Viva el perú! Web site "Quechua: Language of the Incas." The sentence "Runasimita rimankichu?" means "Do you speak Quechua?" There are two root words in the sentence: Runasimi (Quechua) and rimay (to speak). Runasimi is a compound word in Quechua, coming from the words runa (people) and simi (mouth). The suffix ta is added to the root Runasimi to indicate that it is the object of the sentence. In the second word of this sentence, two suffixes are added to the root word rima from the verb rimay. The suffix -nki indicates that the word is in the present tense and the subject is second person singular. The suffix -chu indicates that this sentence is a question. Because of this system, some Quechua words are quite long; however, the numerous syllables can express many subtle shades of meaning.

Between eight million and ten million people in the Andes area still speak Quechua. Many Quechua words have been incorporated into the English language, including condor, jerky, llama, pampa, puma, and quinine. Many more Quechua words have made their way into the Spanish language. The following table presents a few Quechua words and phrases. Spellings and pronunciations differ by region.

Inca Religion, Arts, and Sciences

Quechua Word/Phrase Meaning
Tata Father
Mama Mother
Allillanchu? (ahl-yee-LYANCH-oo) How are you?

Inca Religion, Arts, and Sciences

Allillanmi. (ahl-yee-LYAN-mee) I am fine.
Ima sutiyki? (ee-mah soo-TEE-kee) What is your name?
Sutiyqa Joe. (soo-TEE-kah Joe) My name is Joe.
Yusulpayki. (yoo-sool-PIE-kee) Thank you.
Imamanta. (ee-mah-MAHN-tah) You're welcome.
Juq ratukama. (shook rah-too-KAH-mah) See you later.
Ama suwa, ama llulla, ama q'ella. (ah-mah soo-wah, ah-mah lyoo-yah, am-mah ay-yah) Do not steal; do not lie; do not be lazy.
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After the Spanish conquered the Inca empire in 1533, missionaries from Spain arrived to convert the Andean peoples to Christianity. They strove to eliminate all memory of Inca literature so that the people would be more receptive to the teachings of the Christian Bible. Within a generation, there was no one left who had carefully memorized the Inca legends and history, so these stories were lost after hundreds of years in existence. However, some poetry and songs of prayer that were recited within people's homes continued to be transmitted through the generations and were eventually written down for future generations to ponder.

One form of literature was the jailli (pronounced whay-lyi), a hymn or poem that was usually set to music. As Page 216  |  Top of Article the sun rose in the morning, Inca priests sang sacred jaillis, asking the gods to bring happiness, health, and prosperity to the people of the empire. Some jaillis celebrated the deeds of warriors. There were also jaillis for the harvest, which were sung by the members of the ayllus as they worked in their fields; usually the men would sing out a line and the women would respond by singing the next line. Most of the poetry from Inca times was not very fancy, but stated its message briefly and directly. The Inca poets did not use poetic structures, such as rhyme, specific rhythm sequences, or meter.

Two Quechua dramas are still performed in Peru in the twenty-first century, and they are said to have their origins in Inca times. The plays, Ollantay and The Tragedy of the End of Atahuallpa, are performed in and around Cuzco, generally in the Spanish language. These dramas were written down after the Spanish conquest, and historians suspect that Spanish priests wrote at least some parts because they reflect strong Christian and European themes. No one knows whether the priests added sections to existing Inca plays or wrote entire plays on their own.


In sciences, as in the arts, the Incas tended to adapt the special skills of the states they had conquered and improve upon them. Most of the Incas' accomplishments were highly practical. They were outstanding engineers. Through irrigation systems and terracing (making large horizontal ridges, like stairs, on mountain slopes to create level spaces for farming), the Incas put almost all the arable land (suitable for farming) in their empire to use. The Incas inherited a road system from previous Andean societies, particularly the Wari, and built it up to traverse (run across) the entire empire—about 14,000 miles (22,526 kilometers) of roadway in all (see Chapter 11 for more information). They built excellent bridges, mainly of rope and fiber, providing access to remote areas. They also had advanced skills in medicine. Although they did not have a writing system, they did have an instrument for recording information: the quipu. Without this device, none of their other accomplishments would have been possible.

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The quipu

A quipu (or khipu) is a long cord with a set of about one hundred strings hanging from it. Each string is knotted at intervals along its length. The placement of the knots indicates units of ten and multiples of ten—1, 10, 100, 1,000, 10,000, and so on. There is also a knot for zero. The knot closest to the top represented the highest number on the string. Detailed information was recorded on the threads, probably by using different colors or different knots. The color of the strings defined what kind of item was being counted. For example, purple strings might represent pieces of cloth, while yellow strings might represent gold bars. The Incas used quipus (pronounced KEE-poos) to record inventory, such as how much grain was in a storehouse. They also used the device to count the number of people in a given area and to keep track of labor obligations owed by the provinces.

A quipu, or Inca accounting device.  Werner Forman/Corbis. A quipu, or Inca accounting device. © Werner Forman/Corbis.

People who kept records with the quipu, quipu camayocs, were professionals with extensive training in memorization. Each quipu camayoc had his own system of recording data and kept that system secret from everyone else. Quipu camayocs had access to information that was vital to the empire and unknown to anyone else. The penalties for errors among quipu camayocs were harsh, but in general these officials had very high status within the empire. Storytellers also used quipus. Historians believe that storytellers who used quipus thoroughly memorized the tale, but kept certain key facts recorded on the knotted strings to jog their memory. Quipus were used only to count and record numbers; they could not be used to calculate arithmetic functions—adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing; the Incas had special counting boards for these functions.

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Quipus were essential to the running of the empire and most historians believe they were a substitute for writing in the ancient Inca civilization. They provided records of all the goods and stock of the empire, of the population, of the amounts of labor owed to the government from every individual and province, of the justice system, and much more. Without quipus, it is unlikely that the Incas could have organized such a vast empire.

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Inca Medicine

When people got sick in the Inca empire, priests usually performed healing ceremonies over them. The Incas also had a fairly sophisticated understanding of the medicinal properties of herbs and plants. The bark of one tree, for example, produced quinine, which the Incas used to cure cramps, chills, and many other ailments. The Incas used the leaves of the coca plant to numb people who were in pain. (Cocaine, which is derived from the same plant, was later prescribed by modern doctors for the same purpose.) Inca hunters dipped their arrows in a drug called curare that they extracted from a tropical vine; the substance instantly paralyzed the muscles of their prey. With the animal paralyzed, hunters could easily get their arrows back. (Modern doctors use curare as an anesthetic (a drug that causes a patient to temporarily lose feeling in a particular part of the body or to temporarily lose consciousness). Inca surgeons apparently performed amputations for medical purposes, and their patients survived in good health.

Archaeologists have made the surprising discovery that the Incas practiced brain surgery on living patients who apparently survived the ordeal. The Inca surgeons used bronze or copper knives, hammers, tweezers, and chisels to drill into the skull. They cut out a rectangular or circular hole, lifted out the hole,
Incas cultivating medicinal herbs.  Bettmann/Corbis. Incas cultivating medicinal herbs. © Bettmann/Corbis. and went to work on the brain. Archaeologists have found hundreds of skulls with incisions that show the remarkable precision of Inca brain surgeons. Some of the skulls were operated on more than once, and one skull appears to have undergone five different surgeries. Experts believe that the Incas performed brain surgery to repair injuries to the head and to cure ailments such as chronic headaches and even epilepsy (a disorder of the nervous system that usually includes convulsions). How successful they were in curing the ailments is not known, but it is certain that the Incas were far ahead of all other ancient civilizations in the field of brain surgery.

The Spanish destroyed all the Inca quipus they could find, superstitiously believing them to contain "evil" information because they did not understand them. A number of modern scholars believe that they understand the method quipu keepers might have used to record things, but their theories are controversial. Exactly how quipus recorded numbers remains a mystery, and because each quipu camayoc had a unique system of recording, it is difficult to make generalizations about quipu use.

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Calendar and astronomy

Scholars have many theories about Inca calendars, but because the Incas did not keep written records, no one really knows how they recorded time. It is apparent that some form of calendar based on the movements of the stars and planets was used. The Incas' monthly ceremonies and rituals attest to their careful observance of the sun and the seasons.

Like other Inca arts and sciences, Inca astronomy (the study of the stars, planets, and other objects outside Earth's atmosphere) was highly practical; astronomical information was mainly used to time planting and harvesting. The Incas built observatories to watch the heavens. They also tracked the movement of the sun by erecting carefully oriented pillars on hilltops. By keeping track of the sun's position between the pillars when it rose and set the Incas could determine the right times to plant crops at different altitudes. To Page 220  |  Top of Article date, there are no records that suggest the Incas had any further astronomical knowledge.

For More Information


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

Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Originally written c. 1653. Translated by Roland Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

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

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

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

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

Web Site

"Quechua: Language of the Incas." Viva el Perú! (accessed on October 7, 2004).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424400021