The Conquest of the Incas

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Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Sarah Hermsen , and Deborah J. Baker
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 5,843 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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14 The Conquest of the Incas

The reign of the mighty Inca (pronounced ING-kuh) empire was remarkable but short. In 1438 the Incas were merely a group of related families residing in Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko), without any aspirations of building an empire. Within the next ninety-five years, they had created the largest native empire that ever existed in the Americas; it stretched over almost 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) of western South America and had an estimated population of about ten million people. The empire was wealthy and powerful, and Inca leaders had massive military forces at their command. However, in the 1520s, illness, uprisings, and other social and political problems plagued the Incas. Then, in November 1532, a small army of Spanish conquistadores (Spanish word for "conquerors") marched into their territory. The Incas, weakened and disorganized by their previous problems, were in no condition to defend themselves. The empire was suddenly in jeopardy, and the Incas were about to take an abrupt fall.

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Huayna Capac and the takeover of Quito

The last great Sapa Inca was Huayna (pronounced WHY-nuh) Capac, the eleventh Inca king, who ruled from 1493 to 1525. During Huayna Capac's reign, the empire's continuous expansion into new territories slowed down significantly. There were few lands left to conquer. The tropical areas east of the Andes were within reach, but battle in the jungle proved to be a futile pursuit. The slowdown in expansion was an early sign of trouble for the empire.

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Words to Know

A person who writes down a record of historical events, arranged in order of occurrence.
The Spanish word for "conqueror"; in English, the word usually refers to the leaders of the Spanish conquests of Mesoamerica and Peru in the sixteenth century.
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 sudden spreading of a contagious disease among a population, a community, or a region.
A heavy portable gun invented during the fifteenth century.
A person having mixed ancestry, specifically European and Amerindian.
A body that has been preserved, either by human technique or unusual environmental conditions, such as extreme cold or dryness.
The household of a dead Sapa Inca.
Existing before Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492.
The Inca language, still spoken by Andean people today.

The constant growth of the empire was fueled by the panaca system, which allowed the relatives of a dead Sapa Inca to retain his palace and all his wealth. This forced the next Sapa Inca in line to find new sources of wealth, which usually meant conquering new territories and taking their wealth. Obtaining new territories was also important to the armies and the citizens of the empire, because it brought them rewards and more goods. With fewer new territories to conquer, the large Inca armies became restless. Because Inca armies were made up of soldiers from conquered lands, there was real danger of rebellion if the troops were not constantly winning battles. The new recruits had nothing to show for their efforts for the empire and, with time on their hands, found ways to make trouble. The common people in many areas were also restless for a variety of reasons, particularly because some areas received better treatment by the empire than others. Eventually, frustration with Inca rule led to multiple and sometimes violent uprisings.

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Sometime in the middle of Huayna Capac's reign, major uprisings broke out in the north. The Sapa Inca began to focus his full attention on fighting in the Quito kingdom, which occupied the area that is now called Ecuador. He is said to have brought with him to the north Atahuallpa (pronounced AH-tah-WAHL-pah), his thirteen-year-old son by a secondary wife. For several years the Sapa Inca and Atahuallpa led large Inca armies in heavy battles in the north. They succeeded in defeating the armies of the Quito kingdom, and once again the empire expanded. After the battles were won, Huayna Capac chose to live in Quito rather than returning to his home in Cuzco. He built a magnificent new city in Quito, beginning what was meant to become a second Inca capital. Atahuallpa and a large number of Inca troops remained with him in Quito. Back in Cuzco, the ten panacas (house-holds) of dead Sapa Incas retained their great power and continued to live in privilege and wealth. An individual panaca sometimes included nearly a thousand relatives and servants.

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.

Around the empire, Inca control varied greatly from place to place. Some people reaped benefits from being part of the empire, while others were stifled by the requirements of labor and the loss of self-rule. The large-scale program of mitima, the relocation of rebellious people to far-off places, reinforced feelings of resentment toward the Incas. Thus, when the Spanish conquistadores arrived, they found many native Andeans who were willing to help them fight against the Incas.

The death of the Sapa Inca; civil war erupts

By about 1524 Huayna Capac began hearing of strange, bearded, white-skinned visitors who had arrived in Page 244  |  Top of Article huge ships on the coast to the north of the empire. The Sapa Inca is said to have had a premonition (a feeling, without basis in fact or reason, that something is going to happen) that these strangers would bring trouble to the Inca empire, but he probably did not realize how soon this would prove to be true. The Europeans brought smallpox with them (see box "The Smallpox Epidemic"), and the disease was probably carried down the coast by infected native people before the Spanish ever arrived in the Inca region. Soon, the people in the northern empire were falling ill and dying in great numbers. According to chronicler (a person who writes down a record of historical events arranged in order of occurrence) Juan de Betanzos in Narrative of the Incas (1996, originally completed in 1557), the Sapa Inca was one of the people infected: Huayna Capac "fell ill and the illness took his reason and understanding and gave him a skin irritation like leprosy

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The Smallpox Epidemic

Smallpox is a severe contagious viral disease spread by particles emitted from the mouth when an infected person speaks, coughs, or sneezes. The disease begins with a high fever; then the skin erupts in pus-filled pimples over the face, back, chest, and limbs. Smallpox probably originated among humans more than ten thousand years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia; it was often fatal. It had been around for many years in Europe by the time the Spanish began their voyages to the Americas in the early sixteenth century. In fact, the disease was so common in Europe that many people there developed immunity (resistance) to it. That meant that Europeans were able to carry the disease without starting an epidemic among themselves. The natives of the Americas, however, had no immunity to the disease. Smallpox was extremely deadly to them, and it spread rapidly after the arrival of the Spanish.

The first American smallpox epidemic occurred in 1518 on Hispaniola (a Caribbean island that is now divided into two nations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic). This outbreak killed about half of the native population there. Two years later the virus reached Mexico and was responsible for millions of deaths there—perhaps about one-third of the population. The disease is believed to have hit the Inca empire around 1525, and thousands of people died from it. By some estimates, smallpox may have killed 75 percent of the Inca empire population by the time the epidemics were over.

The smallpox epidemic changed history wherever it went, and the Incas are a prime example. The epidemic killed their ruler and the son he had chosen to be heir to the throne. Two of his other sons then attempted to claim the throne, and their conflict set off a deadly civil war that left the empire disorganized and divided. Grief over the widespread death broke the spirit of the people in the Inca empire. Many of them believed that the Europeans were using supernatural forces against them, and thus they lost their will to fight.

Some historians are currently questioning the influence of smallpox in the Inca defeat. A few recent investigators do not believe the disease arrived in the empire early enough to have been responsible for Huayna Capac's death. Sixteenth-century chroniclers observed that a plague had come to the northern part of the empire at the time of Huayna Capac's death, reaching down as far as Cuzco. For years historians have assumed that the plague must have been smallpox, which killed millions of natives throughout the two American continents. Hoping to finally confirm or disprove this assumption, archaeologists (scientists who dig up and examine artifacts, remains, and monuments of past human life) are currently searching for the mummy of Huayna Capac, which—if it exists—would be the best source of clues about the cause of his death.

[another deadly and deforming disease] that greatly weakened him." Huayna Capac and his chosen successor, a son named Ninancuyoci, both died of the disease in 1525.

After the death of the Sapa Inca and his heir, it was up to the Inca nobles in Cuzco to choose the next Sapa Inca from Huayna Capac's huge group of sons. Out of hundreds of sons, they chose Huáscar, who was the son of Huayna Capac's primary sister-wife, or coya. Like the Inca nobles who chose him, Huáscar lived in Cuzco. De Betanzos and some other chroniclers paint a vicious portrait of Huáscar, but others portray Huáscar as reform-oriented, wishing to change the way things were done to create better conditions in the empire. Whether out of contempt or the desire to reform, when Huáscar took the throne, he proclaimed the panaca system to be finished forever, saying that he would add the panaca lands of Inca ancestors to his own administration as Page 246  |  Top of Article Sapa Inca. This, of course, outraged the Cuzco nobility who lived on the wealth of the panacas. Huáscar is said to have ordered the massacre of a large group of Incas at that time, probably to stop them from rebelling.

Portrait of Atahuallpa, Sapa Inca.  Bettmann/Corbis. Portrait of Atahuallpa, Sapa Inca. © Bettmann/Corbis.

Meanwhile, Huáscar's half brother Atahuallpa, who according to some accounts had been his father's second choice for the throne, was still in command of a fifty-thousand-man army in Quito. Atahuallpa knew that he was likely to be killed if he returned to Cuzco, because he was considered a rival to the throne. To avoid this fate, he stayed in Quito with his father's armies for five years, despite Huáscar's constant requests that he return to Cuzco. Finally, Atahuallpa sent two army generals to speak to Huáscar on his behalf. Huáscar responded by torturing and killing the generals and sending his own army up to Quito in pursuit of Atahuallpa. Atahuallpa then gathered his own fearsome army, and the two Inca armies met in battle. It was the start of a violent civil war in the Inca empire.

For three years terrible warfare raged between the armies of the two half brothers. Tens of thousands of deaths occurred, and the people of the empire were divided in their loyalties. Finally, Atahuallpa's troops captured Huáscar. Atahuallpa showed his brother no mercy. Huáscar was tied up and forced to watch the brutal slaughter of his wives, children, friends, and relatives. Atahuallpa put his brother in prison and proclaimed himself Sapa Inca. But he never made it to Cuzco to take the throne. He was still resting with his soldiers after battle, camped out in the northern city of Cajamarca, when he learned that a group of about 160 Spaniards was marching toward Cajamarca.

It was a terrible time for the Inca empire to have an enemy approach. The civil war had killed thousands and divided the loyalties of the armies. The empire had also suffered from Page 247  |  Top of Article a smallpox epidemic that killed thousands and left the survivors grieving and dispirited. The new Sapa Inca had not had time to rally the empire under his rule, and many of the conquered peoples saw an opportunity to strike out at the empire. The Inca empire was at its weakest point ever and was about to face a frightening challenge.

Portrait of Francisco Pizarro, Spanish conquistador. Portrait of Francisco Pizarro, Spanish conquistador.

Francisco Pizarro and the conquest

Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541) was a Spanish soldier with no formal education. After taking part in military campaigns in Italy and Spain, he joined an expedition heading for the Americas in 1502. His first stop was Santo Domingo (a city in the present-day Dominican Republic). In 1509 he sailed on to Colombia, and from there he moved on to Panama. In 1513 he accompanied Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519) on his trip across the Isthmus of Darien to the Pacific Ocean. In the chronicle of the expedition, Pizarro is listed as the second European to see the Pacific Ocean.

As soon as they arrived in Panama, the Spanish heard rumors of a rich land to the south called Birú. (The word was later corrupted to Peru.) Pizarro set up a partnership with two other men in Panama, Diego de Almagro (1475–1538) and a priest named Hernando de Luque (dates unknown); the three agreed to search for this land together. They set out in November 1524 and got as far south as Buenaventura on the coast of Colombia. Suffering from hunger and facing hostility from the native people, they turned back, but not before they had collected some gold and heard more tantalizing tales of a rich kingdom to the south.

Pizarro, Almagro, and Luque put together another expedition in 1526. Sailing from Panama with 160 men, they once again reached the bay at Buenaventura. They sent the Page 248  |  Top of Article ship's pilot ahead to see what he could find. He was the first European to see Peru, and he returned to the ship with stories about a heavily populated land, rich with gold and silver. The entire expedition then sailed southward to the city of Tumbes, which stands on the southern shore of the Gulf of Guayaquil (on the border between present-day Ecuador and Peru). At this large and beautiful seaport, the inhabitants came out to greet them in boats made from balsa wood. (A balsa is a tropical tree with wood that is lightweight and often used for rafts and floats.) The natives brought them a wide variety of exotic foods and presented them with llamas (South American mammals with soft, fleecy wool), which the Europeans had never seen before. Pizarro then sent two of his men 200 miles (322 kilometers) south, where they heard about a great city further inland, the capital of a rich and powerful kingdom. The city was Cuzco. Lacking the resources to continue, they returned to Panama.

Francisco Pizarro leading his troops through the Andes on his way to Cajamarca.  Bettmann/Corbis. Francisco Pizarro leading his troops through the Andes on his way to Cajamarca. © Bettmann/Corbis.

Pizarro returned to Spain in 1529 to get funding and permission to conquer the rich kingdom in Peru. The Spanish crown appointed him governor of the as yet unknown province. He then returned to Panama accompanied by his four half brothers, his partner Almagro, 180 other men, and 27 horses.

Pizarro and his men left Panama in early January 1531 to conquer Peru. The group traveled once again to Tumbes, which they found destroyed. Pizarro learned of the civil war among the Incas and heard that Atahuallpa was camped at the city of Cajamarca, which was much closer to Tumbes than the distant Inca capital of Cuzco. Before leaving Tumbes, Pizarro received some reinforcements (more men). In September 1532 his expedition set off, traveling across cold and mountainous terrain. They reached Cajamarca in November.

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The meeting of Incas and Spaniards

Atahuallpa had learned that the Spanish were coming, but his messenger had told him that they were not warriors and that there were less than two hundred men. The Inca troops stationed at Cajamarca numbered about forty thousand, so Atahuallpa probably felt secure. As Pizarro and his men marched into the city, they were surrounded by warriors on all sides, and the chroniclers write of the Spaniards' terrible fear as they gazed about them. But the Inca soldiers had reason to fear as well. The Spaniards rode in on horses, and none of the Inca soldiers had ever seen a horse before. The Spaniards also had cannons and other advanced weapons, and they did not show their fear as they marched into the city's main square.

Pizarro sent two of his men—his brother Hernando (c. 1475–1578) and Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto (1500–1542)—with an interpreter to ask for a meeting with Atahuallpa. (On one of their earlier expeditions, the Spaniards had kidnapped two Incas and taught them Spanish so they could act as interpreters.) When the two messengers were brought to Atahuallpa, one of the emperor's wives held a screen before his face so the visitors could not look upon him, as was customary. De Soto, unhappy at being treated as an inferior, aggressively rushed his horse at Atahuallpa in an effort to scare him, but the Sapa Inca did not flinch. After discussion, he agreed to meet with Pizarro in the Cajamarca plaza the next day. Most historians believe that Atahuallpa never suspected the outnumbered strangers would try to attack; he let his guard down, and he would soon pay for that mistake.

The next day, November 16, 1532, the Spaniards stationed themselves in groups within the buildings surrounding the Cajamarca plaza, in preparation for an attack. Atahuallpa, on the other hand, put together an elaborate ceremonial procession for the meeting. Arriving in the plaza on a litter (an enclosed platform, usually borne on the shoulders of servants) carried by eighty Inca lords dressed in blue tunics, Atahuallpa was adorned in gold, emeralds, silver, and parrot feathers. The Incas accompanying him numbered in the thousands, but they were unarmed. Upon reaching the plaza, the Sapa Inca found only an interpreter and a Spanish missionary to greet him. Before launching an attack, the Page 250  |  Top of Article Spanish customarily gave native peoples a chance to convert to Catholicism. The Spanish missionary handed Atahuallpa a Bible and spoke to him briefly about the Christian religion. The Sapa Inca was curious and looked at the Bible. Finding it altogether unsatisfactory as a sacred object, he threw it contemptuously to the ground. The Spaniards then attacked. Though they were instructed not to kill Atahuallpa, Pizarro's troops slaughtered an estimated six thousand unarmed Incas on the plaza that day. Atahuallpa was taken prisoner. The Inca troops posted outside Cajamarca fled when they heard what had happened.

The death of Atahuallpa

As a prisoner of war, Atahuallpa impressed his captors greatly. He quickly learned Spanish and even learned to play chess and to read. Realizing that the Spaniards were obsessed with gold, he offered to pay them for his freedom. Atahuallpa promised to fill the room where he was being held prisoner up to the ceiling with gold and to give the Spaniards twice as much silver. His aides then began collecting gold and silver, mainly from Cuzco, and made good on his promise. Load after load of gold and silver began to stream into Cajamarca from Cuzco. While this was going on, Atahuallpa ordered the murder of his brother, who was still being held prisoner by Atahuallpa's army. Atahuallpa probably feared that Huáscar might bribe the Spaniards with gold and silver and enlist their help in a war against Atahuallpa.

None of Atahuallpa's actions did him any good. The Spaniards took the gold but did not fulfill their end of the bargain. Instead they put Atahuallpa on trial for plots against the Spanish crown and for killing his brother. They sentenced him to death. Atahuallpa quickly accepted that his captors were going to kill him. However, when he realized that they planned to burn him alive, he became visibly upset for the first time. For an Inca, eternal life could only be achieved if the body was left intact. Burning was far worse than other kinds of death. He agreed to convert to Christianity if the Spaniards would agree to kill him in another way and give his body to his people to be mummified (preserved through a complex procedure that involves taking out the organs, filling the body cavity with preservative substances, and then drying out the Page 251  |  Top of Article body to prevent decay). The Spanish agreed, and on August 29, 1533, they killed him by strangulation. But cruelly, they burned part of his body after his death and then buried him.

Illustration of Francisco Pizarro imprisoning the Inca ruler Atahuallpa.  Bettmann/Corbis. Illustration of Francisco Pizarro imprisoning the Inca ruler Atahuallpa. © Bettmann/Corbis.

The conquistadores in Cuzco

Pizarro received reinforcements and proceeded to Cuzco. He brought with him Manco Inca, a half brother of Atahuallpa and Huáscar, who had agreed to serve as a ruler under Spanish command. The Spaniards wanted to have a royal Inca in office—one they could fully control—to gain authority over the Inca populations. At first this plan worked. The Incas in Cuzco welcomed the Spanish and accepted Manco Inca as the Sapa Inca. They hoped that this would be the end of a turbulent time and that life could return to normal. But it was soon clear that this was not to be. The Spanish under Pizarro ruled Cuzco with cruelty, violence, and disrespect. They raped, tortured, and enslaved its people.

When he saw how the Spanish treated his people, Manco Inca was no longer easy to control. After a time, the Spanish imprisoned him. Recognizing that the Spanish would destroy the Inca culture, Manco Inca managed to make an escape from Cuzco in 1536. He hid in the wilderness and sent word throughout the empire that he would lead a rebellion against the Spanish. He asked for Andean peoples in surrounding areas to join him in the fight. Rejoicing in this plan for revolt, Andean people rushed to the Cuzco area by the thousands to fight the hated Spanish.

The revolt of Manco Inca

Manco Inca spearheaded a brilliant attack on the Spanish-occupied city of Cuzco. The native forces began by Page 252  |  Top of Article
Atahuallpa in manacles awaiting his death by strangulation.  Bettmann/Corbis. Atahuallpa in manacles awaiting his death by strangulation. © Bettmann/Corbis. Page 253  |  Top of Article
Engraving showing the Spanish and Andean battle for Cuzco. The Art Archive/Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Venice/Dagli Orti. Engraving showing the Spanish and Andean battle for Cuzco. The Art Archive/Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Venice/Dagli Orti. shooting red-hot stones from their slings, setting the capital on fire. The two hundred Spanish soldiers occupying Cuzco retreated to Sacsahuaman (pronounced sox-ah-wah-MAHN), the stone fortress perched on a hill just north of the city. Using cannons and harquebuses (heavy matchlock guns invented during the fifteenth century), the small force was able to hold out against an army of about forty thousand Andean warriors led by Manco Inca. The Spanish were held in the fortress for nearly a year, cut off from supplies, and would have perished if they had not received help from some Incas within the city who had joined forces with the conquerors. Finally, Manco Inca's soldiers grew weary and began to leave; they needed to go home to tend their crops. Spain sent reinforcements, and the siege (takeover) of Cuzco failed. By that time, an estimated six million Incas had perished from smallpox and war.

The Spanish conquistadors and the priests and missionaries who accompanied them settled into their new home in Peru. Some of their initial acts included the complete destruction Page 254  |  Top of Article of the remains of the great Inca civilization. All the gold and silver they could find—the gold covering the sacred buildings, the intricate metalwork found in burial chambers and graves, and the beautiful gold jewelry and figurines found in the palaces of the Incas—was stolen, melted down, and sent back to Spain. The Spaniards destroyed Inca temples and burned the mummies of the Sapa Incas. Spanish priests went to work converting the Andean people to Christianity.

The rebel kingdom

After the failure of the siege of Cuzco, Manco Inca retreated to a remote, heavily forested, and mountainous area known as Vilcabamba, northwest of Cuzco. There, with a small force of about twenty thousand rebels, the Sapa Inca continued to launch occasional raids against the Spanish. In Vilcabamba, the Incas built new temples and fortresses, creating an Inca capital in isolation. Archaeologists are still trying to penetrate the harsh lands of Vilcabamba to learn more about the last days of the Inca empire in exile. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, they discovered new Inca-era sites in Vilcabamba, and more information about this mysterious last kingdom should become available in the decades to come.

Though the Incas were in hiding, the Spanish were still struggling in Cuzco. Greed and power struggles undermined the Spaniards' attempts to set up their own empire. A longtime conflict between Pizarro and Almagro eventually resulted in the assassination of Almagro. Factions faithful to Almagro then killed Pizarro in 1541. The killers of Pizarro were forced to flee from Cuzco and ended up in Vilcabamba, where they asked Manco Inca for refuge. This was readily granted; Manco Inca and all his subjects hated Pizarro and welcomed his killers. These Spaniards lived in Vilcabamba for three years with the Incas, but in 1545 they decided to return to Cuzco. They stabbed the Sapa Inca to death before they left.

After the Spaniards killed Manco Inca, the rule of the rebel kingdom in Vilcabamba fell to his three sons: Sayri Tupa Inca; Titu Cusi; and Tupac Amarú. Sayri Tupa Inca was only five years old when his reign as Sapa Inca began. In 1552 the king of Spain made attempts to communicate with Page 255  |  Top of Article Sayri Tupa Inca, hoping to end the rebellion and bring the Inca kings back to Cuzco. The Sapa Inca's brothers sent him off to meet with the Spanish officials in Cuzco, remaining in Vilcabamba to see what would become of him. Sayri Tupa Inca remained in Cuzco, where the Spanish converted him to Christianity. Then, in 1558, Sayri Tupa Inca was poisoned by an unknown assassin.

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The Last Words of the Last Conquistador

Mansio Serra de Leguizamón (1512–1590) was a young Spanish conquistador who arrived in the Inca empire with Francisco Pizarro's expedition at the age of twenty and took part in the bloody conquest of the Incas. He remained in Peru for the rest of his life, and by the time of his death at the age of seventy-eight, he was believed to be the last living Spanish conquistador. The following is an excerpt from his last will and testament, addressed to the Spanish king and written in 1589 in Cuzco:

It should be known to His Most Catholic Majesty that we found these [the Inca] realms in such order that there was not a thief, nor a vicious man, nor an adulteress, nor were there fallen women admitted among them, nor were they an immoral people, being content and honest in their labour. And that their lands, forests, mines, pastures, dwellings and all kinds of produce were regulated and distributed among them in such a manner that each person possessed his own property without any other seizing or occupying it.… All things, from the greatest to the smallest, had their place and order. And that the Incas were feared, obeyed and respected by their subjects as being very capable and skilled in their rule, as were their governors.…

But now they have come to such a pass in offence of God, owing to the bad example we have set them in all things, that these natives from doing no evil have changed into people who now do no good, or very little.… For now those who were once obeyed as kings and lords of these realms, as Incas with power and riches, have fallen to such poverty and necessity that they are the poorest of this kingdom and forced to perform the lowest and most menial of tasks, as porters of our goods and servants of our houses and as sweepers of our streets.

When Titu Cusi became king after his brother's murder, the Incas and the Spanish began another round of fighting. During the eight years of warfare that ensued, the Spaniards raped and killed many members of Titu Cusi's family. Finally, Titu Cusi decided to end the war in the hopes of ending the violence. He declared his allegiance to the king of Spain and allowed Spanish priests to bring the Christian religion into the capital at Vilcabamba. Then Titu Cusi died suddenly. Page 256  |  Top of Article His remaining brother, Tupac Amarú, believed that Titu Cusi had been poisoned. The exile community erupted in anger and destroyed all traces of Christianity at Vilcabamba.

Tupac Amar, the last Sapa Inca. He was beheaded by the Spaniards in 1572. The Art Archive/Museo Historico Nacional Buenos Aires/Dagli Orti. Tupac Amarú, the last Sapa Inca. He was beheaded by the Spaniards in 1572. The Art Archive/Museo Historico Nacional Buenos Aires/Dagli Orti.

Tupac Amarú became Sapa Inca in 1571. Around the same time Spanish noble Francisco de Toledo (1515–1582) became the viceroy (the governor of a country or province who rules as the representative of a king or sovereign) of Peru. Not long after he took office, Toledo sent messengers to the Inca capital at Vilcabamba with a communication for the Sapa Inca. Tupac Amarú despised the Spaniards and their religion, and he did not want to deal with them at all. Tupac Amarú had the messengers killed. Toledo immediately began a plan to go to war with the exiled kingdom. In 1572 an army of about 250 Spanish soldiers with a large supporting unit of native Andeans entered Vilcabamba. They met with fierce resistance from the Incas but finally penetrated to the Inca capital. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Incas had burned their city and fled. The Spanish pursued them into the jungle. After days of tracking him, they captured Tupac Amarú, the last Inca king. They brought him back to Cuzco, gave him a brief and unfair trial and tried to convert him to Christianity. Though many Spanish priests and officials pleaded for the last Sapa Inca's life, he was sentenced to death. At a huge gathering of more than ten thousand people, including the mourning Incas, Tupac Amarú was beheaded. The Spanish rounded up other Inca royalty and banished them to faraway places. The Inca empire had ended forever.

After Tupac Amarú was captured and beheaded, the Spanish stuck his head on a pike and placed it in the plaza of Cuzco as a warning to rebels. Then they noticed that the Inca people were visiting the head nightly as if in worship. The Spanish had hoped that the head would instill fear, not inspire Page 257  |  Top of Article reverence. Since it was not having the intended effect, they took the head down and buried it. When the head was buried, the Incas found reason to hope. According to one Andean myth, Tupac Amarú's vanished head is slowly growing its body back. When the body is complete, the Incas will return to rule their land.

The Andean peoples after the Incas

The populations of the native Andean peoples may have been reduced by as much as 75 percent by the civil war and smallpox. Native populations were then decimated by war with the Spanish. Later the Spanish reduced Andean populations even further by forcing native people to work in dangerous silver mines, where many lost their lives. They also denied the Andeans land and the means to survive, condemning them to a slow but certain demise. According to some estimates, by 1780 the population of native people in the Andean region may have been about one-tenth of what it was during the era of Inca dominance. In 1780, the frustration of the native people boiled over. Tupac Amarú II (c. 1742–1781), an Andean leader who claimed to be a grandson of the last Inca king, demanded that the Spanish return the rule of the Andean highlands to the native people. His call rallied tens of thousands of native people and mestizos (people of mixed native and Spanish descent) to join him in an uprising. The Spanish were too strong for them, and thousands of the rebels were killed. Tupac Amarú II was captured and tortured to death. When more rebellions followed, the Spanish tracked down the descendants of the Inca kings, executing some of them and sending others to jail.

Peru declared its independence from the Spanish in 1821, but the policies of the new government only deepened the poverty of the native Andean people. It was not until 1969—almost four hundred years after the fall of the last Inca king—that land reform in Peru offered some hope of justice for the descendants of the Incas. Modern Peru has struggled to create a more fair and multicultural society, but it has been plagued by economic problems, poor governments, and terrorism.

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View of present-day Cuzco, with its Spanish-style buildings and rooftops built on top of Inca streets and structures.  Brian Vikander/Corbis. View of present-day Cuzco, with its Spanish-style buildings and rooftops built on top of Inca streets and structures. © Brian Vikander/Corbis.

Descendants of the Inca empire today

About half the population of Peru is made up of Quechua-speaking (pronounced KECH-wah) Andean peoples—descendants of the Inca empire. Traditions of the pre-Columbian (existing before Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492) past are obvious in modern Andean culture, particularly in rural areas. Poor highland farmers still operate within the ayllu (pronounced EYE-yoo) system, sharing their farmland and working communally in groups of extended families. These groups still follow the principle of ayni, or give-and-take, willingly helping others and expecting to be paid back in kind at a later date. In small highland villages, some of the older people have not learned the Spanish language and speak only Quechua. In these remote places, the Inca culture thrives—the food, religion, and music of the ancient Andes remain central to the lives of the people.

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In the cities of Peru, however, some of the traditions are disappearing. The sacred buildings of Cuzco symbolize the imposition of Spanish culture on Inca tradition. Though the strong stone walls of the ancient buildings are still clearly visible, newer Spanish-style buildings have been built right on top of them.

Quechua was the language of the Inca state. It is now spoken by nearly eight million people in Peru alone. Between one million and two million people in Ecuador use Quechua, and one million residents of Bolivia also speak the language. Unlike most other native South American languages, Quechua is an official language, recognized by the government of Peru and given the same status as Spanish. Although it does not happen often, it is acceptable for Peruvian senators and congresspeople to give congressional speeches in Quechua.

The most significant crafts produced by modern native Andeans are textiles. Women throughout the Andes can be seen spinning wool almost all day, even while they are sitting at the market or waiting for a bus. Both llama and sheep wool are used. The Andeans are skilled weavers, and their products are increasingly in demand for the tourist and export markets.

A recent surge of interest in the ruins of the ancient Andean civilizations has brought many tourists to the former Inca empire. The tourists bring in badly needed money and create jobs in many impoverished areas. But they also damage the fragile environment and the ancient ruins. The Andean people now face a new challenge: to reap the benefits of the world's interest in their past while protecting the artifacts (items made or used by humans of earlier times) and remains (bones) of their ancient ancestors.

For More Information


Betanzos, Juan de. Narrative of the Incas. Originally completed in 1557. Translated by Roland Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

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

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Stirling, Stuart. The Last Conquistador: Mansio Serra de Leguizamón and the Conquest of the Incas. Phoenix Mill, Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton Publishing, 1999.

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

Web Site

Jacobs, James Q. "Tupac Amarú: The Life, Times, and Execution of the Last Inca." (accessed on October 12, 2004).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424400023