The Rise of the Incas

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Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Sarah Hermsen , and Deborah J. Baker
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Culture overview
Length: 5,635 words

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10 The Rise of the Incas

While many people have never heard of the early cultures of the Andean region, like the Chavín (pronounced chah-VEEN), Moche (pronounced MO-chay), Tiwanaku (tee-wah-NAH-coo), Wari (wah-REE), and Chimú (chee-MOO), that existed before the Inca (ING-kuh) empire, most people know something about the Incas. That is at least partly because when the Spanish arrived in South America in the early 1530s, they found one wealthy and powerful empire, rather than many small states descending from the earlier cultures. (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.) In a mere ninety-five years between 1438 and 1533, the Incas spread their empire over almost 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) of western South America, unifying the highly diverse populations in the vast region under their control. In truth, the Incas were not the originators of many of the aspects of civilization for which they are often credited. Before the Inca empire was built, great innovations in farming, art, Page 156  |  Top of Article architecture, and social organization were already in place throughout the Andes. The Inca government excelled at organizing all the various cultures and economies it had brought together. The incorporation of many diverse peoples into a unified system was probably the crowning accomplishment of the Incas.

Dates of predominance


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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 person who manages or supervises the day-to-day operations of business, government, and religious organizations.
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.
An Inca word meaning "great hall"; a place where people gathered for ceremonies and other events.
A kind of beer that Andean peoples made from maize or other grains.
A person who writes down a record of historical events, arranged in the order of occurrence.
Storehouse for food and goods.
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.
The Quechua word for the upper half of a city or region.
A sacred place, usually used for a temple, pyramid, or shrine.
The Quechua word for the lower half of a city or region.
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 legend is a story handed down from earlier times, often believed to be historically true.
A person, usually working for a religious organization, who tries to convert people, usually in a foreign land, to his or her religion.
The Inca language, still spoken by Andean people today.
Sapa Inca:
Supreme ruler of the Incas.
The work of a skilled builder who expertly lays cut or otherwise fitted units of stone in construction.
A Quechua word for quarter, or portion.
A payment to a nation or its ruler, usually made by people from a conquered territory as a sign that they surrender to the imposed rule; in the Inca empire, tribute was most often paid in labor, including farmwork, construction, and military service.
A large platform in a central part of a city plaza, where the king or noblemen stood to address the public or view public festivities.

Name variations and pronunciation

Inca; Inka. Pronounced ING-kuh. Inca originally meant "ruler" and referred to the king or leader. It is also Page 157  |  Top of Article used to mean the original group of Inca family clans that arose to prominence in the city of Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko). As the empire arose, the supreme ruler was called the "Sapa Inca" and members of the noble class were called "Incas." The Incas called their empire Tawantinsuyu (also Tahuantinsuyu; pronounced tah-wahn-teen-SOO-yoo), which means "land of four quarters" in the Quechua (pronounced KECH-wah) language. Quechua is the Inca language, still spoken by Andean people today.


The Inca homeland was in the area of Cuzco, a city in the highlands of southeast Peru, about 350 miles (563 kilometers) Page 158  |  Top of Article southeast of Peru's present-day capital, Lima.

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.

By the time of the Spanish conquest in 1533, Tawantinsuyu (the Inca empire) included a vast part of the Andean region between the mountains and the Pacific coast as well as some areas farther inland. The Incas controlled all of present-day Peru, most of present-day Ecuador and Bolivia, and northern parts of what is now Chile and Argentina. The Incas separated their empire into four suyus, or quarters, that radiated from Cuzco, their capital city. East of Cuzco was Anti-suyu, which extended through the Andes to the tropical jungles in the Amazon basin (a depression in the earth, often with a body of water in it). West of Cuzco was Cuntisuyu, which included the coastal regions of Peru. South of Cuzco was Collasuyu, which included Lake Titicaca, other parts of Bolivia, and parts of Chile and Argentina. North of Cuzco was Chincasuyu, which included the northern highlands and Ecuador.

Important sites

The Inca nobility was firmly stationed in the capital city of Cuzco. It was the hub of the government and home to all Sapa Incas, alive or dead. There were other types of urban centers in the Inca empire, though. Surrounding Cuzco archaeologists have found significant smaller centers such as Machu Picchu and Sacsahuaman, probably built by the Sapa Incas as fortresses or retreats. Outside of the Cuzco region, the cities and towns that were conquered throughout the Andes region generally maintained their own governments, but the Incas built administrative centers to maintain control and keep records of their outlying territories. Though only a few Inca nobles and their staff of accountants, administrators, and servants, actually lived in these centers, they were Page 159  |  Top of Article built to accommodate huge festivals that were attended by the people from a large surrounding area.


Cuzco, the sacred city of the Incas and the capital of their empire, is the oldest city in the Americas that has been continuously inhabited by people. Cuzco is in the Andes Mountains, at an altitude of about 11,700 feet (3,566 meters). It was already an existing village or town when the Incas arrived sometime around 1200. The great Inca emperor Pachacutec (ruled 1438–1471) is believed to have thoroughly rebuilt the city during his reign. Before the Spanish conquest of 1533, Cuzco's population reached an estimated peak of forty thousand to one hundred thousand people.

Huge stone temples and fortresses occupied the ceremonial core of Cuzco, some of them covered in sheets of gold. There were two vast plazas in the ceremonial core of the city, where ceremonies and festivities took place. One of them was entirely filled with sand brought in from the Pacific Ocean. The city's holiest temple, the Coricancha, or Temple of the Sun, was located in the ceremonial core, at the meeting point of two rivers. Nearby were the palaces of living and dead kings. Also in the city's core was the acllahuaci ("house of chosen women"), where selected girls and women lived in isolation while they learned skills that would serve the empire such as weaving and making chicha (maize [corn] beer). The core of the city was also the site of huacas (sacred monuments), callancas (great halls), and colcas (storehouses for food and goods). The public buildings were made from large, precisely cut stones. In the middle of the city's paved streets, stone-lined channels of flowing water carried away waste and sewage. According to Brian M. Fagan, author of Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade (1991), the sanitation system in Cuzco was far better than that of fifteenth-century Europe.

Like most Inca cities, Cuzco was divided into upper and lower halves—Hanan (Upper) Cuzco and Hurin (Lower) Cuzco. It was then divided again, so that there were four quarters, or suyos. Cuzco was divided into even smaller sections by a system of ceques, lines that radiated from the Coricancha (Temple of the Sun) to the horizon. Along these lines were 328 huacas, usually comprised of a natural object, such Page 160  |  Top of Article
Ruins of Sacsahuaman near Cuzco, Peru. The Library of Congress. Ruins of Sacsahuaman near Cuzco, Peru. The Library of Congress. as a cave, stream, or rock, or of something made by humans, such as a statue, monument, or fountain. Each huaca had its own special day of rituals.

Only the nobility and their servants and administrators (people who manage or supervise the day-to-day operations of business, government, and religious organizations) lived in the central part of Cuzco, which was surrounded by farmlands. Beyond these lands, according to Michael A. Malpass in Daily Life in the Inca Empire (1996), there were a variety of districts for the non-Inca people.


Just north of Cuzco, perched on a hill, was a complex called Sacsahuaman (pronounced sox-ah-wah-MAHN), one of the amazing architectural accomplishments of the Inca world. The complex was built in the fifteenth century, probably under the orders of Pachacutec, the Inca emperor at that time. Page 161  |  Top of Article Sacsahuaman was huge. Its walls stretched about a third of a mile in length. Three terraces, or giant stairs, led up the sides of the hill to the complex walls. The walls and buildings of Sacsahuaman were made of enormous stones. Some were the size of refrigerators, and others were much larger. In fact, archaeologists at the site found a stone block that measures 38 feet (11.6 meters) long, 18 feet (5.5 meters) high, and 6 feet (1.8 meters) thick. Some of the stones at the site weigh up to 100 tons (90.7 metric tons). How they were transported to the site from their source at a quarry remains a mystery; the wheel had not yet been discovered in the Americas. The stonemasonry (the cut and fit of the stones) at Sacsahuaman is remarkable. The blocks that form the walls were cut and sculpted so perfectly that they interlock at every point from front to back, fitting together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Not even a piece of paper or blade of grass will fit between them. It is estimated that some thirty thousand people worked on building this complex (at different times) for a period of about seventy years. Sacsahuaman was probably built as a fortress, but it may have also functioned as a religious center.

Huánuco Pampa

Huánuco Pampa, which was built around 1460, was one of the largest of the Inca administrative centers, cities where Inca officials and their local representatives set up headquarters to oversee local and regional activities. Huánuco Pampa was situated in the Andean plains about 170 miles (273.5 kilometers) east of the present-day city of Lima in central Peru. It was perched in the mountains at an altitude of about 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) above sea level. It was built solely for the administration of that region, so it probably had only a very small permanent population of Incas and local administrators. In Huánuco Pampa, the Incas hosted large festivals, which often lasted for days. They gave the local people great quantities of food and chicha and then told them what labor would be expected from them in the months ahead. Local leaders brought their people's tribute (payment to a nation or its ruler; in this case probably harvested crops) to the five hundred storehouses just south of the city.

At the center of Huánuco Pampa lay a vast main plaza, where thousands of people from the region could assemble. Page 162  |  Top of Article
The impressive ruins of Machu Picchu, nestled among the peaks of the Andes Mountains. Photograph by John M. Barth. Reproduced by permission. The impressive ruins of Machu Picchu, nestled among the peaks of the Andes Mountains. Photograph by John M. Barth. Reproduced by permission. A large rectangular stone platform, called an ushnu, occupied the center of the plaza. Standing on this platform, the Inca emperor or Inca noblemen could address the people or view their festivities. In all, there were about four thousand buildings in Huánuco Pampa. Along with palaces and temples, there were many long rectangular buildings. Some of these probably served as temporary housing for the festival guests; others may have been used for preparing the festival food and chicha.

Machu Picchu

The magnificent Machu Picchu complex is perhaps the most famous of all Inca sites. It is nestled among soaring mountain peaks in the Urubamba River valley, which is just north of the Cuzco Valley. Machu Picchu was never a large center, but it has become one of South America's most popular tourist sites because of the beauty of its stone architecture. Page 163  |  Top of Article
Aerial view of the narrow, winding road leading to Machu Picchu.  Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis. Aerial view of the narrow, winding road leading to Machu Picchu. © Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Corbis. Machu Picchu was made up of about two hundred buildings, and archaeologists estimate that its population was around one thousand people.

Historians believe that Machu Picchu was the private estate of Pachacutec, the great Inca emperor; it belonged to him personally and was probably used only by his relatives, chosen nobles, and servants. It is likely that Machu Picchu served as a kind of vacation home or religious retreat for Pachacutec. A small community of workers must have lived on the estate, growing food, cooking, tending gardens, and making chicha for the palace. Based on the sacred nature of relics that have been found at Machu Picchu, most experts agree that Machu Picchu probably had a religious significance that is no longer apparent.

Machu Picchu is surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River gorge (a deep narrow passage with steep rocky sides, with a river running through it), and it is located Page 164  |  Top of Article in a remote part of the lower river valley. It could only be reached by a dangerous climb up a 2,000-foot (610-meter) terraced cliff. When the Spanish invaded the Inca empire in the early 1500s, the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu. The Spanish never found the site, and it lay unobserved until 1911, when archaeologist Hiram Bingham (1875–1956) discovered it. Bingham also found numerous Inca sites along a narrow, paved road (now known as the Inca Trail) in the hills around the river. Bingham thought he had found Vilcabamba, the last capital city the Incas established after the Spanish conquest. This proved not to be the case.


The Incas fled Cuzco in 1533 to escape the Spanish conquistadores. (Conquistador is 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.) They went to a region of Peru known as Vilcabamba, a remote, heavily forested, and mountainous area northwest of Cuzco. There, in exile, they reestablished their society and built a capital city. The Incas built new temples, palaces, and fortresses in this capital and probably built other settlements and ceremonial centers (city-like centers usually run by priests and rulers, in which people from surrounding areas gather to practice the ceremonies of their religion, often at large temples and plazas built specifically for this purpose) in the surrounding wilderness region. In Vilcabamba the Incas witnessed the succession (passing the position from one ruler, upon his death, to the next ruler) of three Inca emperors between 1533 and 1572. When the Spanish prepared to attack the Inca at Vilcabamba in 1571, the Inca people burned their capital city and fled, abandoning the ruins forever. For centuries, the location of the "lost city of Vilcabamba" remained unknown.

Archaeologists mistakenly thought they had found the Vilcabamba capital when the ruins at Machu Picchu were first discovered in 1911. By the end of the twentieth century, though, many archaeologists were convinced that the exiled Inca government had actually been centered at a site called Espiritu Pampa. The buildings and monuments that were found there fit the Spanish conquistadores' descriptions of the Inca capital in Vilcabamba.

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In 1999 British explorer Peter Frost encountered ruins in the southern part of Vilcabamba, 22 miles (35.4 kilometers) southwest of Machu Picchu, on a mountain peak called Cerro Victoria. The site contains ruins of religious buildings and burial grounds and was clearly the scene of religious rituals (formal acts performed the same way each time, usually used as a means of religious worship). In 2001 American archaeologist Gary Ziegler and British writer and explorer Hugh Thomson assembled a crew and explored even deeper into Vilcabamba. They found another Inca site, Cota Coca, which is larger than the site at Cerro Victoria. Cota Coca was probably another place of refuge for the Incas after the Spanish invasion of Cuzco, their capital. The ongoing work at these sites and at other sites in the difficult Vilcabamba terrain seems likely to reveal much more than is currently known about the final period of the Inca empire. (See Chapter 14 for more information on Vilcabamba and the years of Inca exile.)


Like other Andean societies before them, the Incas had no system of writing; there are no written documents recording Inca history before the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1532. There are, however, many documents that were written in the first half-century after the Spanish conquest. A few of the Spanish conquistadores and missionaries (people, usually working for a religious organization, who try to convert others in a foreign land to their religion) recorded their own observations as well as the memories and oral traditions (history and stories passed from generation to generation through spoken accounts) of the Andean people they met. These people, for a variety of reasons, took on the role of chroniclers: They observed their new surroundings, interviewed people, and did other research to find out about Inca history—and then they wrote down what they learned. Because of the work of the Spanish chroniclers, modern people know a lot more about the Incas than they do about earlier Andean cultures. While the Inca empire flourished in prehistory (the period of time in any given region, beginning with the appearance of the first human beings there and ending with the occurrence of the first written records), there was still a substantial Inca population who remembered the days of the Page 166  |  Top of Article empire in the historical era (the period of human existence described by written records). These written records help bring the Inca empire to life.

How accurate are the chronicles?

The Spanish chroniclers provide rich details in the Inca story, details that archaeology generally cannot supply. For factual accuracy, however, the chronicles are not always reliable, and most historians try to verify these accounts through archaeological research and other sources of evidence. Historians have always noted problems in the Spanish chronicles. Even when the writers were genuinely interested in the culture and found good eyewitnesses, they tended to view the Inca story through biased European and Christian viewpoints. Some of their accounts attempt to justify Spain's conquest of Inca lands. Furthermore, most of the Spanish chroniclers arrived in the Americas long after other Andean civilizations were absorbed by the Inca empire; therefore, the Andean people they talked to had only vague memories of the Incas' rise to power.

The accuracy of Inca chroniclers has also come into question at times. After the Spanish conquest, Inca chroniclers wrote down what they knew of their people's history and oral traditions. Some of them tend to idealize the Inca past. All of them base their accounts on an oral history of the Andeans that was almost certainly revised by each Inca emperor for his own interests.

Public relations campaigns and political "spin" are not unique to the modern world. Looking back at the Inca world, it is clear that the emperor Pachacutec, who began his rule in 1438, was a master of persuasion and propaganda (ideas, information, or rumors spread for the purpose of helping or hurting a cause or person). Historians believe that Pachacutec had all the storytellers of the empire brought to him early in his reign. He provided them with an official "history" of the Inca empire that he wished them to tell from that day forward, instructing them to forget the older histories. Pachacutec's version of history depicted the pre-empire days as a time of sheer chaos, when there was no civilizing force in the world. According to Pachacutec's history, the Incas were created by one of the gods to bring people out of Page 167  |  Top of Article
Manco Capac, first king of the Incas, holding the sun god, Intihis creator according to Inca legend. The Art Archive/Museo Pedro de Osma Lima/Mireille Vautier. Manco Capac, first king of the Incas, holding the sun god, Inti—his creator according to Inca legend. The Art Archive/Museo Pedro de Osma Lima/Mireille Vautier. this darkness and chaos. This "history" neglects to mention the great accomplishments of the Chavín, the Nazca (pronounced NAHZ-cah), the Moche, the Wari, and other Andean peoples, who introduced most of the advances that Inca civilization is known for. Pachacutec's revision of history was intended to unite the empire; he hoped to persuade the people that the gods had given the Incas the mission to rule over the vast Andean region.

Inca origins: Legends and traditions

The legends recorded by the chroniclers give credit to Manco Capac, the legendary first king of the Incas, for founding the city of Cuzco (the Inca capital) and establishing the Inca royal lineage. (A legend is a story handed down from earlier times, often believed to be historically true.) According to one of these legends, the sun god Inti created eight siblings, who emerged from a cave called Pacariqtambo, about 20

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The Chroniclers of the Inca Empire

Spanish chroniclers:

After Spanish soldiers defeated the Incas in 1533, the Spanish missionaries started trying to convert the Andean peoples to Christianity. They also tried to train the Incas to be more like Europeans. As part of the conversion process, the Spanish conquistadores tore down the temples, or huacas, and other cultural buildings and monuments throughout the empire. Some of the missionaries decided to learn as much as they could about the native religion and history, hoping that the more they knew about the Inca ways, the easier it would be to eliminate them.

These are some of the main Spanish chroniclers who recorded Inca history:

  • Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (c. 1532–1592), a Spanish historian, mathematician, navigator, and astronomer, was hired by the Spanish government several decades after the Spanish conquest to write a history of the Incas. De Gamboa located people who had been alive at the time of the conquest and interviewed them. Spanish leaders had a definite purpose for assigning this project: They wanted to prove their right to Inca lands, and they hired de Gamboa to write a history that would support their claims. Because of this motive (and the amount of time that had elapsed since the conquest), de Gamboa's 1572 report, History of the Incas, is considered biased (prejudiced or unfair).
  • Father Bernabé Cobo (1580–1657) was a Jesuit missionary from Spain who arrived in Peru in 1599, more than sixty years after the Spanish conquest. Cobo did research and interviews near Cuzco and Lake Titicaca, seeking out people who remembered the pre-Spanish empire. His massive Historia del Nuevo Mundo (History of the New World) (c. 1653) provides many details of Inca life interpreted from a Christian viewpoint.
  • Juan de Betanzos (birth and death dates unknown) was a Spanish subject who became the top Quechua language interpreter for the viceroyalty (Spanish state) of Peru. Betanzos married Inca noblewoman Doña Angelina Yupanque, who had been one of the Sapa Inca Atahuallpa's (pronounced AH-tah-WAHL-pahs) wives until his death at the hands of the Spanish in 1533. She was later mistress to the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541). Doña Angelina and her family probably provided much of the information that went into Narrative of the Incas (completed by Betanzos in 1557) a long and well-researched account of the Inca empire written by Betanzos. Unfortunately, much of the manuscript of the book was lost for centuries. In the 1980s scholars discovered the entire text in Spain. Most of the standard histories of the Incas were written before this valuable source was available. The complete manuscript has reshaped the modern world's view of some parts of Inca history, and it will probably inspire new publications about the Inca past.
  • Pedro Cieza de León (c. 1518–1560) was a Spanish soldier and explorer who arrived in Peru about 1548. Cieza was very interested in other cultures and provided a detailed and respected account of the Incas in Chronicle of Peru (1554).

Inca chroniclers:

Two Inca writers, born after the Spanish conquest and educated by Spanish teachers, provided histories of the Inca empire:

  • Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616), also known as "El Inca," was the son of a Spanish army captain and an Inca noblewoman. Reared by his mother, de la Vega learned the language, customs, and stories of the Incas, but later his father sent him to Spain to be educated as a nobleman. De la Vega wrote Royal Commentaries of the Incas (1609), which details the personalities, events, customs, and ceremonies of the Inca empire from its beginnings to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. The book idealizes the Incas, presenting their world as a perfect civilization. It is considered one of the first great literary works of the Americas, and it also has value as a historical record, though it is probably inaccurate on many factual matters.
  • Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala (1535–c. 1615) was the son of a royal Inca mother and an Andean father who was probably the ruler of one of the outlying provinces. Poma wrote La primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno (The First New Chronicle and Good Government, 1615), a 1,200-page account of the Incas that included nearly four hundred drawings of Inca history and life before and after the Spanish conquest. He wrote the chronicle in the form of a letter and sent it to King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598), hoping to get help for the Andean people in colonial Peru. The king never saw the manuscript and it was lost for centuries. In 1908 it was found in the Royal Library of Copenhagen, and in the 1970s, Inca scholars gave it their attention. Most modern histories of the Incas feature the illustrations of Huamán Poma de Ayala as one of the most useful links to the Inca past.
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Genealogy of Inca rulers (from left): Manco Capac, Sinchi Roca, Lloque Yupanqui, Mayta Capac, Capac Yupanqui, Inca Roca, Yahuar Huaca, Viracocha, Pachacutec, Tupac Yupanqui. The Art Archive/Museo Pedro de Osma Lima/Mireille Vautier. Genealogy of Inca rulers (from left): Manco Capac, Sinchi Roca, Lloque Yupanqui, Mayta Capac, Capac Yupanqui, Inca Roca, Yahuar Huaca, Viracocha, Pachacutec, Tupac Yupanqui. The Art Archive/Museo Pedro de Osma Lima/Mireille Vautier.

miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Cuzco. There were four brothers—Ayar (Lord) Uchu, Ayar Cachi, Ayar Anca, and Ayar Manco (who would soon be called Manco Capac)—and four sisters, who were also the wives of the brothers: Mama Ocllo, Mama Huaco, Mama Ipacura (or Mama Cura), and Mama Raua. The cave at Pacariqtambo had three windows, and according to the legend, Manco Capac and his brothers and sisters came through the middle window. Other groups of people Page 171  |  Top of Article emerged from the two side windows, and these people would become the ten Inca ayllus (pronounced EYE-yoos), or family groupings, that helped found and rule Cuzco.

Manco Capac, his brothers and sisters, and the ten ayllus immediately set out to locate a place where they could start a new civilization. As they traveled, the great strength of one brother, Ayar Cachi, filled the others with fear, so they lured him into a cave and then barred its door. Stuck in the cave, Ayar Cachi turned to stone, and his stone image became a huaca of the Inca people. Later during the journey, two more brothers turned to stone; like Ayar Cachi before them, the transformed brothers became sacred stone huacas that would be revered for many years to come. At this point, out of the original eight siblings, only Manco Capac and the four sisters remained. However, a new family member soon joined the trip: Mama Ocllo, Manco Capac's sister/wife, gave birth to a son, Sinchi Roca.

When Manco Capac and his band of travelers arrived in the area of Cuzco, they received a sign that they were to settle there. There were already people living in Cuzco, and the Inca travelers were few and weak. Conflicts ensued, but the Incas managed to remain in the location and soon began to build their center and temple there. Manco Capac ruled for many years, and all the Inca kings who succeeded him were his direct descendants.

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The Inca Rulers

The Eight Legendary Kings

  • Manco Capac, founder of the Incas
  • Sinchi Roca, son of Manco Capac
  • Lloque Yupanqui, son of Sinchi Roca
  • Mayta Capac, son of Lloque Yupanqui
  • Capac Yupanqui, son of Mayta Capac
  • Inca Roca, son of Capac Yupanqui
  • Yahuar Huaca, son of Inca Roca
  • Viracocha, son of Yahuar Huaca

The Emperors

  • Pachacutec or Pachacuti (ruled 1438–1471), son of Viracocha and first emperor of the Inca empire
  • Tupac Inca Yupanqui (ruled 1471–1493), son of Pachacutec
  • Huayna Capac (pronounced WHY-nuh CA-poc; ruled 1493–1525), son of Tupac Inca Yupanqui
  • Huáscar (ruled 1525–1532), son of Huayna Capac
  • Atahuallpa (ruled 1532–1533), son of Huayna Capac

Inca Kings after the Conquest

  • Manco Inca (ruled 1533–1545), son of Huayna Capac
  • Sayri Tupa Inca (ruled 1545–1558), son of Manco Inca
  • Titu Cusi (ruled 1558–1571), son of Manco Inca
  • Tupac Amarú (ruled 1571–1572), son of Manco Inca

In another version of this story of Inca origins, only Manco Page 172  |  Top of Article Capac and his sister/wife emerge from a cave, and the cave is near Lake Titicaca, in the highlands of present-day Bolivia, where the Tiwanaku people had once lived. They travel to find a place to begin their civilization, and they have divine instructions about how to locate the right spot: They are to plant a gold staff in the ground; if the staff sinks deeply into the soil, they will know that they have arrived at their destination. According to the legend, the staff sank deeply into the ground at Cuzco.

Inca origins: Modern history's view

With few proven sources of accurate information, modern historians can present only a sketchy picture of the origins of the Incas. No one knows exactly where the Incas came from or when they arrived in the village of Cuzco. Between 1000 and 1470 C.E. the northern Andean highlands were united under Chimú rule (see Chapter 9 for more information). However, in the southern Andean region, where the Incas emerged, the population remained divided, existing in small independent groups that were often at war with their neighbors. By the thirteenth century, the diverse populations in the Cuzco Valley were slowly uniting and becoming more powerful. The Incas were a small group of farmers, apparently smaller and less powerful than some of the other groups in the area. Nevertheless, around 1200 they had begun to rise to prominence in Cuzco.

No one knows whether the first Inca king, Manco Capac, is a historical or mythical (imaginary) figure. The Spanish chroniclers' accounts of the first seven Inca kings are vague. Whoever actually ruled the Incas in the pre-empire years managed to gain and keep power over the immediate homeland area by making alliances with neighboring groups. The Incas probably did this through marriages and by making small military conquests near home. By the time Viracocha took power as the eighth Inca king (probably in the late 1300s), the Incas ruled over an area that extended about 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) around Cuzco.

In 1438, near the end of Viracocha's reign, the history of the Incas hit a turning point. At that time the Chancas, a group of powerful and warlike people, prepared to attack Cuzco. The aging Viracocha and Urco, his son and intended Page 173  |  Top of Article successor, fled from the city, believing there was no hope of prevailing against this strong enemy. In desperation, the nobles of the city sought out another of Viracocha's sons, Inca Yupanqui, and begged him to lead the upcoming battle. Before agreeing to fight, Inca Yupanqui obtained a promise from the nobles; they promised that, for the good of the kingdom, they would not allow the cowardly Urco to take the throne after Viracocha. Then Inca Yupanqui sent out a plea in the Cuzco region for warriors to come and help in the fight against the Chancas. However, legend has it that Inca Yupanqui still had far too few soldiers. He is said to have called upon the stones around Cuzco to come to his aid, and they miraculously arose and began fighting as soldiers. With the help of the stones and his allies, he was able to defeat the Chancas. According to the Inca legends, these stones were later collected and became Inca shrines.

Pachacutec and the great empire

After the defeat of the Chancas in 1438, Viracocha gave up his throne to his son, Inca Yupanqui, who then took the name Pachacutec (or Pachacuti; the name means "he who changed the world" or "earthquake"). Pachacutec became the ninth Inca king and the first Inca emperor. Pachacutec's reign marked the beginning of the Incas' greatest period, which lasted almost a hundred years. Pachacutec began expanding Inca territory and at the same time devised a rigorous government, economy, and way of life that would sustain the diverse peoples that eventually fell under Inca rule. Although some of the accomplishments attributed to Pachacutec actually may have been carried out by his son, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, or his grandson, Huayna Capac, many historians consider Pachacutec one of the most remarkable leaders of all time.

Soon after he took power, Pachacutec led an army into the Colloa area near Lake Titicaca. In battle after battle, he forced the surrender of regional armies and added great expanses to his empire. In other cases, the Incas used gifts and promises to persuade people to join the empire, and some regions surrendered to them without a fight. Generally, Inca rulers demanded that the conquered people work harder and produce more than they ever had before conquest in order to Page 174  |  Top of Article meet the central government's heavy demands of crops and other goods and labor. However, they usually allowed the local people to govern themselves and retain their customs as long as they could produce goods or food required by the empire. The Incas did not force people to immediately adapt to a new culture, and that was one of the keys to their success.

Illustration of Pachacutec, whose reign marked the beginning of the greatest period of the Inca empire. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti. Illustration of Pachacutec, whose reign marked the beginning of the greatest period of the Inca empire. The Art Archive/Archaeological Museum Lima/Dagli Orti.

After large military campaigns in the north, Pachacutec turned military affairs over to his son, Tupac (also Tupa or Topa) Inca Yupanqui in 1463. He then focused his attention on the capital city. During his military campaigns, Pachacutec had encountered the ruins of Tiwanaku (see Chapter 7 for more information). The ancient city impressed him so much that he decided to go home and rebuild Cuzco. On his return, Pachacutec evacuated (forced everyone to leave) Cuzco and then ordered workers to demolish parts of the town so that he could rebuild and reorganize it from top to bottom. He transformed the small town of Cuzco into the great capital city of Tawantinsuyu. In the city, he introduced new customs, a new religious program, and a new legal system.

Tupac Inca Yupanqui and the expansion of the empire

Experts believe that Pachacutec's son, Tupac Inca Yupanqui (ruled 1471–1493), was responsible for the tremendous expansion of the Inca empire, which stretched more than 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) down the western side of South America, from the northern part of Ecuador to central Chile. After his father's death, Tupac Inca Yupanqui became the new Inca ruler. He is said to have amassed an army of forty thousand men in the northern city of Cajamarca. Proceeding north, he conquered the city of Tumebamba in present-day Ecuador and made it an administrative center of the Page 175  |  Top of Article Inca empire. Moving south, Tupac Inca Yupanqui conquered the Chimor kingdom, which had a population of about one million people and a highly advanced culture (see Chapter 9 for more information). From there he took control of the southern cities of Ica and Chincha. Continuing south, he fought battles with the peoples living near Lake Titicaca in present-day Bolivia. Then he headed into what is now Chile, where he took control of the Maule River area. After trying unsuccessfully to take lands in the tropical areas east of the Andes, Tupac Inca Yupanqui fell sick and returned to Cuzco. He continued some of the rebuilding work his father had begun in the city, and he oversaw the completion of Sacsahuaman, a giant complex north of Cuzco. As he grew old, Tupac Inca Yupanqui turned over the command of the army to his son, Huayna Capac. Worn out from years of military campaigns, Tupac Inca Yupanqui died in 1493, and Huayna Capac ascended the throne.

Portrait of Huayna Capac, Inca emperor. The Art Archive/Museo Pedro de Osma Lima/Mireille Vautier. Portrait of Huayna Capac, Inca emperor. The Art Archive/Museo Pedro de Osma Lima/Mireille Vautier.

Huayna Capac continued the work of his father and grandfather, pushing deeper into present-day Chile and Bolivia. Later he turned his attention north, where he spent about ten years conquering the Quito kingdom (present-day Ecuador). In addition, throughout his reign he put down many small rebellions that broke out among the peoples who had been conquered. But Huayna Capac was different than the earlier emperors. He remained aloof from the Inca nobility in Cuzco and spent most of his time in the city of Tumebamba (in present-day Ecuador), where he built a second capital. This may have caused an early split within the empire, which would become much larger after Huayna Capac's death. During the later part of his reign, Inca expansion slowed down greatly, probably because there were no more nearby lands left to be conquered. As the battles of conquest slowed down, more uprisings began to occur. According to Page 176  |  Top of Article several accounts, Huayna Capac handled many of the uprisings with intelligence and grace.

Around 1524, Huayna Capac learned that there were strangers—European explorers—who had crossed the ocean and landed on the shores of the Americas. The Europeans brought smallpox (a severe contagious viral disease spread by particles emitted from the mouth when an infected person speaks, coughs, or sneezes) with them on their journey, and before they ever arrived in Peru, the disease began to spread, infecting the people of the Inca empire and starting a deadly epidemic (sudden spreading of an infectious disease, in which large proportions of the population become infected). Huayna Capac was one of many who were infected. The disease killed him in 1525; it also killed the son he had chosen to be heir to the throne.

The Inca empire was at its peak when Huayna Capac died. Its territory was vast, larger than at any other time in Inca history. Its population was somewhere between 9 million and 16 million people. The empire controlled great wealth, and it had abundant natural resources and a hardworking labor force. It also had a huge army. But Huayna Capac's death was the beginning of the end of the great Inca empire. Because the deceased emperor's chosen heir was dead, the Inca nobility had to choose someone else to be the next ruler. They chose Huayna Capac's son Huáscar. Huáscar was the legitimate heir to the throne, because his mother had been Huayna Capac's principal wife. Although Sapa Incas usually had many—even hundreds—of wives, they only had one principle wife, usually a sister. Only the offspring of the principle wife were usually considered legitimate heirs to the throne. However, another son of Huayna Capac, whose name was Atahuallpa, felt that he should have been named the new emperor. Atahuallpa's mother was a concubine from the kingdom of Quito, so he had the support of the vast Inca armies in that region. (A concubine is a woman who lives with and has a sexual relationship with a man but is not married to him.) Before long, the two sons began to fight each other for power, and their struggle initiated a three-year civil war. Atahuallpa's forces finally captured his brother. However, just as Atahuallpa prepared to take the throne in 1532, Spanish conquistadores arrived in Peru. The Spanish had Page 177  |  Top of Article heard that Cuzco contained great riches. They wanted gold and silver, but also the workers and the lands of the Inca empire. Devastated by the civil war and the smallpox epidemic, the powerful Inca empire was at its weakest as it faced its most dangerous enemy.

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.

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

Von Hagen, Adriana, and Craig Morris. The Cities of the Ancient Andes. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

Web Site

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

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424400019