Daily Life in the Inca Empire

Citation metadata

Editors: Sonia G. Benson , Sarah Hermsen , and Deborah J. Baker
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Culture overview
Length: 6,017 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1160L

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 221

13 Daily Life in the Inca Empire

Of the estimated ten million people living in the Inca (pronounced ING-kuh) empire at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1533, the vast majority were working people whose lives were filled from dawn till dusk with hard work. In many ways, the Inca rulers were keen psychologists (people who study human thinking and behavior) who created a system to ensure that their people had neither the time nor the energy to rebel, commit crimes, or avoid their duties to the empire, their religion, their families, or their ayllus (pronounced EYE-yoos; extended families who lived in the same area, shared their land and work, and arranged for marriages and religious rituals as a group). Beyond obliging people to work very hard, the Inca government invited everyone to participate in lengthy festivals and other ceremonial activities directed by the empire. At these festivities—perhaps the only break from their toil that common workers ever received—the commoners often indulged in heavy drinking with nobles. Many experts believe the festivals provided the cement that held the empire together. (An empire is a vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries Page 222  |  Top of Article and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory.)

Sidebar: HideShow

Words to Know

A young woman chosen by the Incas to live in isolation from daily Inca life while learning how to weave and how to make chicha and foods for festivals; some acllas were eventually married to nobles, and others became 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.
The Sapa Inca's sister/wife, also known as his principal wife, and queen of the Inca empire.
A local leader of a region conquered by the Incas; after conquest, curacas were trained to serve their regions as representatives of the Inca government.
A vast, complex political unit extending across political boundaries and dominated by one central power, which generally takes control of the economy, government, and culture in communities throughout its territory.
The ranking of a group of people according to their social, economic, or political position.
A tax imposed on the common people by the Inca government; the tax was a labor requirement rather than a monetary sum—the head of every household was obliged to work on public projects (building monuments, repairing roads or bridges, transporting goods) for a set period each year.
Marriage to one partner only.
Preservation of a body through a complex procedure that involves taking out the organs, filling the body cavity with preservative substances, and then drying out the body to prevent decay; mummification can also occur naturally when environmental conditions, such as extreme cold or dryness, preserve the body.
Marriage in which spouses can have more than one partner; in Inca society, some men had multiple wives, but women could not take multiple husbands.
A high-protein grain grown in the Andes.
Also khipu. A set of multicolored cotton cords knotted at intervals, used for counting and record keeping.
A commoner who was selected and trained in childhood to serve the Inca nobility, priests, or the empire in general; the position was a form of slavery.
Page 223  |  Top of Article

The Inca class system

The Incas ruled their empire with an almost mathematical precision, and the hierarchy (the ranking of people according to their social, economic, or political position) in Inca society was no less structured. At the top of the society, of course, was the Sapa Inca (supreme leader). Number two in the empire was the Villac Umu, or chief priest, always a close relative of the Sapa Inca. Next in line were the other blood relatives of the Sapa Inca. They received the high-ranking positions in the empire. The coya, or queen, the apos, or directors of the four quarters of the empire, and the head of the army were all closely related to the Sapa Inca (sometimes the Sapa Inca led the army himself). Next in line after the blood relatives came all other Incas—people who descended from the original ten ayllus (extended family groups that share common ancestors) that founded the Inca settlement in Cuzco (pronounced KOO-sko). This group of Incas became the empire's priests, commanders, and governors. Next in the hierarchy were a group known as the Incas-by-privilege. As the empire grew, there were not enough Incas to manage all the territory and people within it, so the Incas created a new class of Incas—the Incas-by-privilege—people who had lived in the Cuzco area for a long time and spoke the Quechua (pronounced KECH-wah) language. The Incas-by-privilege were generally put in charge of outlying peoples and colonies. Even with this addition to the hierarchy, the Incas were a small group. In an empire with a population of roughly ten million people, there were only a few thousand Incas at the time of the Spanish conquest in 1533.

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.

Under the Inca class, there was a large class of public administrators (people who manage or supervise the day-to-day operations of business, government, and religious organizations) and local leaders. The former leaders of conquered Page 224  |  Top of Article states, the curacas, were usually the governors of their people, but they answered to the Incas in all important matters. Other administrators called quipu camayocs, or quipu keepers, kept detailed records of the empire's stored goods, the mit'a labor obligations of each province (instead of collecting taxes in the form of money, the government required conquered states to send workers for various public projects), the population counts, and much more. Most architects, city planners, and engineers also belonged to this class, although some people in these professions were probably Incas.

Next in the hierarchy was a large class of artisans, or craftspeople. The Incas had plenty of food reserves and other supplies to support their artisans, and they encouraged the development of skilled specialists in many fields. Artisans had a somewhat easier life than farmers, though they were expected to work very hard. They usually worked full time for the Incas, the temple, or a curaca (local leader). The raw materials they needed were supplied to them, and they were paid for their work with food and other necessities. Craftspeople were not subject to the mit'a obligation.

Artisans in the Inca empire may have felt a little bit like factory workers. The Incas favored mass production (using the same design and method of production over and over to create a large quantity of identical or nearly identical items), and historians believe that Inca administrators controlled exactly what the artisans made and which designs were used. Potters in the Inca empire, for example, usually repeated the same geometric patterns on their ceramics. They used molds to make their ceramics, so each new item had the same shape as the last one. By the later days of the empire, artisans had become so specialized that there were entire communities dedicated to producing one type of craft—a village of potters in one place, for example, and a community of gold workers in another. On the outskirts of the capital city of Cuzco, craftspeople from all the different regions of the empire worked in small neighborhoods dedicated to special crafts.

Farmers were by far the largest and most important group of people in the Inca empire, but they were very near the bottom of the social hierarchy. Most farmers were poor and uneducated. They did not live in the cities, though they Page 225  |  Top of Article sometimes went there for ceremonies. They lived in rural areas in windowless huts and worked most of their waking hours. But everything in the Inca empire depended on them. They provided the tremendous surplus of goods that kept the empire and the state religion operating. Most of the prayers and sacrifices offered by the Incas were entreaties to the gods to make these farmers successful. In Inca times, the farmers were extremely good at what they did, and they were well organized for maximum production.

Daily life among the farmers and common people

A common Inca proverb was "Don't steal; don't lie; don't be lazy." There was little opportunity for dishonesty in the Inca empire, and laziness was simply not allowed among the hardworking farmers. People in the harsh environment of the Andes had probably been hard workers long before the Incas began to build an empire. All able-bodied people, from children to grandparents, were expected to work hard—very hard—at something, and they did.

The ayllu

The ayllu was the basic social unit in the Andean region before and after the rise of the Inca empire. Ayllus were groups of extended families who lived near each other in small villages, towns, or farming settlements. They worked together and shared their land and animals as well as the goods they produced by farming. Everyone in the Inca empire, commoner and noble alike, was born into an ayllu, married within the ayllu, and died in the same ayllu.

When the Incas took ownership of a newly conquered state, they took all of its land, livestock, and mines. (See Chapter 11 for more information about land ownership.) One-third of the land was to be worked for the empire, and one-third was for the upkeep of the state religion. The last third was distributed to the ayllus, and members of the ayllus divided the land among themselves according to their needs. Both the empire and the ayllu reassessed the Page 226  |  Top of Article needs of the people on a regular basis and would reapportion the land accordingly. At the ayllu level, land was distributed according to a local measure, depending on how much the land was capable of producing. For example, in the foothills of the mountain two acres might produce enough food for a family, but in the highlands it might take four acres, and in the coastal areas it might take three acres to produce a crop to sustain a family. When a couple married, they received a topo, an allotment of land deemed just the right size to support two people. Their topo was increased by another full allotment for each son they had, and by a much smaller piece of land for each daughter. Land was not distributed to single men; this was one way of ensuring that everyone married.

The family was not free to work its own land until the state and temple lands had been worked. The obligation to the Inca empire was probably carried out at the ayllu level in many places, with the male members of the ayllu working a section of lands together to provide the requirements. The head of the household, usually the male, was responsible for working the state and temple lands. Men might also be called away to fulfill the mit'a obligation, labor required by the Inca government. When this happened, other members of the ayllu would care for the absent man's crops or herds until he returned. The ayllu also worked together to build houses for newly married couples.


After the Incas conquered new territories and redistributed the land, they set out heavy work requirements. Farmers suddenly had to work first for the state, next for the state religion, and then finally for themselves and their families, so they had little time for rest. But, according to the Inca principle of ayni, or give-and-take, the farmers did receive something in exchange for all their efforts. For one thing, the Incas ensured that everyone had some land to farm. In addition, the Incas kept storehouses full of food in every region. The old and the sick were entitled to food, and in case of a natural disaster or crop failure, the storehouses were open to the public. The Incas also greatly expanded the amount of available farmland by improving irrigation systems Page 227  |  Top of Article (bringing water to the crops) and creating terraces (large steps cut into the mountain slopes to create a level space for farming). The Inca management ensured that more foods were available to the farmers, too. An amazing network of roads that traversed the Inca empire enhanced the existing exchange system by providing easy travel between different regions.

The farmers of the Inca empire planted such a wide variety of crops that there were different crops coming in all year round. In The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas (1957), Inca expert V. W. Von Hagen describes the agricultural achievements of these farmers:

Under the guidance of the Inca's "professionals," the whole of the realm—which included Andes, desert, and Upper Amazon—became a great center of plant domestication. More than half of the foods that the world eats today were developed by these Andean farmers; it has been estimated that more kinds of food and medicinal plants were systematically cultivated here than in any other sizable area of the world! One has only to mention the obvious: corn—that is, maize—(20 varieties); potatoes (40 varieties); sweet potatoes, squash, beans of infinite variety; manioc (from which come our farina and tapioca); peanuts, cashews, pineapples, chocolate, avocados, tomatoes, peppers, papaya, strawberries, mulberries; so many and so varied the plants, and so long domesticated in the Old World, one forgets that all of these originated in the Americas.

The members of an ayllu often worked together. At a spring planting, the men and women chanted out a working song as they went about their tasks. The men broke up the soil with foot plows, which were long poles with a footrest near the bottom and a wooden or bronze point. The women worked behind them, breaking apart the clods of dirt with bronze-bladed hoes.

Mit'a work.

Instead of imposing a monetary tax on conquered territories, the Inca government required all households in the empire to provide labor for public projects for a certain amount of time every year (see Chapter 11 for more information on mit'a). A man from each household fulfilled this labor obligation by accepting whatever assignment the local leader gave him. Some workers were sent off to transport goods to other regions; others built roads or hauled stone blocks for construction projects; some men were assigned to military service. Empire officials coordinated mit'a assignments Page 228  |  Top of Article so that farmwork was disrupted as little as possible. The local curacas made sure that not too many people from one ayllu were drawn away at the same time; that way, the other members of the ayllu could easily cover for the temporary shortage of workers.

Mines located throughout the Inca empire contained an abundance of precious metals for production of figures such as this one.  Werner Forman/Corbis. Mines located throughout the Inca empire contained an abundance of precious metals for production of figures such as this one. © Werner Forman/Corbis.

Mit'a workers played a role in the extensive mining that went on in the Inca empire. Mines located throughout the empire produced abundant gold, silver, and copper. Gold was found in its pure form in streams, and it was also dug out of hillsides. Silver was found in the form of silver ore (silver mixed with rock), both in the ground and in hillsides. After removing the ore, mine workers heated it to a very high temperature to separate the metal and rock. The mit'a laborers were called upon to do this work in the summertime. However, because mining was so physically difficult, miners worked for only a few hours a day. Only Incas were allowed to own silver and gold, so government representatives kept a careful watch over mining projects. The places where the metals were found were considered sacred and often became the sites of rituals (formal acts performed the same way each time as a means of religious worship).

Women did not leave their ayllus to do mit'a labor, but they were required to do a set amount of weaving and perhaps spinning for the empire. They had to accomplish this work whenever they could, in between their regular farmwork and household chores. This was a central task in their lives and central to the Inca economy.

Yanaconas and acllas.

Few common people escaped the farming life. The yanaconas were one group that did change their way of life, for better or for worse. Yanaconas were men who served the Inca nobility as personal attendants or who served the empire in general by working as street sweepers, gardeners, Page 229  |  Top of Article sun temple attendants, and so on. Yanaconas were chosen at a young age, usually from a community of newly conquered people. Those chosen were often special young boys noted for their intelligence. After a period of training, they entered into the service of the empire. Though yanaconas were basically slaves who had no choice in their fate, some of them had a more comfortable life than the farm life they had left behind. For example, a yanacona who was lucky enough to work for the Sapa Inca's household would remain with the Sapa Inca after the ruler's death, tending to the mummy and living a fairly elegant life in the palace. On the other hand, an unlucky yanacona could become the personal slave of ill-natured people and be subjected to abuse and hard labor.

Like the yanaconas, the acllas, or chosen women, were taken from their homes in childhood to be trained for service to the empire or its religious institutions. Many spent long days weaving fine cloth for the Incas, but there was a wide range of fates in store for the acllas in training. Some were given to nobles as rewards, and the nobles took them as secondary wives. Their treatment depended on the nature of the noble. As secondary wives, they took a position within the household, usually working as a kind of nanny to the noble's sons. Other acllas were sacrificed to the sun god. Some acllas became mamaconas, or "Virgins of the Sun." These women did not take husbands (although they were symbolically married to the sun god or one of the other Inca gods), and they did not serve in any household. Instead, they took part in religious ceremonies and helped maintain the huacas and temples of the empire. Mamaconas commanded great respect.

Marriage, family, and child rearing

Marriage and family were central to the Inca culture, and the Incas required everyone to marry. Although Inca noblemen were allowed to practice polygamy (the men could have more than one wife), monogamy (marriage to one partner only) was the rule among the common people of the empire. When young couples decided to marry, they often entered into a trial marriage, to see if it would work. If it failed, both partners could go on to enter a new marriage without shame. Unlike the Christian Europeans of that time, the Andean Page 230  |  Top of Article peoples in the Inca empire placed no extra value on the virginity of a bride. However, Inca law stated that once a couple was formally married, they had to remain together for life. Even if divorces had been allowed, it would have been almost impossible to support oneself outside of marriage, because the Inca government distributed land only to married couples.

Before the Incas came to power, the division of labor between husbands and wives in Andean regions was more or less equal. In Daily Life in the Inca Empire (1996) Michael A. Malpass notes that the mit'a system of labor changed this. When men were called away to become warriors and to do the work of the empire, they gained status and became figures of authority; in comparison, the work that women did around the house and in the fields seemed ordinary and tedious. However, since everyone worked most of the time, the division of labor was fairly balanced. Both husband and wife worked the fields. Though men provided the mit'a service, women were responsible for a large amount of weaving for the empire. Women generally prepared food and kept the home clean. Men made sandals and helped with the weaving.

The birth of a child was a very welcome event in the Inca empire. There were rituals for both parents to perform to ensure the safe delivery of an infant. But pregnant mothers were expected to keep working right up to the day they gave birth, and they often gave birth without help. After giving birth, the mother either carried the baby around with her while she worked, tied in a pack across her chest, or she placed the baby in a cradle. The parents did not immediately name the baby; the naming occurred later, during a ceremony called rutichikoy, which accompanied the baby's weaning from breast-feeding. At the rutichikoy ceremony, the child received a haircut, a fingernail trim, and a name. A ceremony called huarachicoy marked a boy's puberty and passage into adulthood. In this ceremony the boy received a loincloth woven by his mother. For girls, small, family ceremonies called quichicoy marked the beginning of menstruation. At these puberty ceremonies, the boys and girls received new, adult names.

The children of nobles and curacas went to schools, but the children of common people received no formal education. Instead they watched their parents to learn their Page 231  |  Top of Article
An Inca house with a thatched roof near Cuzco, Peru.  Jeremy Horner/Corbis. An Inca house with a thatched roof near Cuzco, Peru. © Jeremy Horner/Corbis. trade. The children of workers were expected to begin working at a very early age. From age five to nine, boys and girls were expected to help watch younger siblings (brothers and sisters). They were also supposed to scare birds and other animals away from the crops, collect firewood, spin threads from wool, gather wild plants, and help out with cooking and cleaning. From age nine to twelve, they took on additional responsibilities: Boys herded animals and hunted birds; girls collected materials for dyeing cloth.


Peasants' houses varied from region to region, but overall they were not places where families spent much time, except to sleep or to escape wet weather. Most houses consisted of one dark, rectangular room with no windows. On the coast, houses were made of adobe or cane and reed. In the colder climates in the mountains, houses were generally Page 232  |  Top of Article
Maize, or corn, was a main staple of the Inca diet, and it was also used to make chicha.  Kevin Schafer/Corbis. Maize, or corn, was a main staple of the Inca diet, and it was also used to make chicha. © Kevin Schafer/Corbis. made of stone and often had a stove made of stones cemented to the floor with mud in the middle of the room. Since there was no vent, the smoke from the stove simply passed through the thatching of the roof. There was no furniture in the houses in any region. Families slept together on the floor; those in the highlands used a llama fur as a mattress and blanket, and people on the coast used a lighter, woven blanket and floor covering. There was no need for chairs. When Inca people sat down, they got into a squatting position, with their feet together on the ground and their knees up close to their chins. Then they would pull their tunics (long blouses) over their knees and down over their legs. The tunic actually supported them in the squatting position.

Keeping the house clean was a matter of tradition, but in the time of the Inca empire it was also a matter of law. Twice a year, officials of the empire inspected households in conquered communities to make sure that people were properly caring for their homes. There was little privacy in homes in the Page 233  |  Top of Article Inca empire. Doors had to be left open at mealtimes so that Inca officials could see whether all Inca rules were being followed.


The common people of the Inca empire usually ate two meals each day—one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. They usually ate outside. Their diet included far more vegetables than meat. The only meat they were likely to eat was guinea pig, dog, or duck meat. Occasionally the peasants ate llama (a South American mammal with soft, fleecy wool) meat, but the few llamas that they owned were far too precious as pack animals to be slaughtered for food. People living on the coast or near Lake Titicaca ate fish. Most often, the common people cooked stews and other main dishes in ceramic pots over crude stoves made of stone and mud and roasted meats and vegetables on an open flame. Maize (corn), quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah; a high-protein grain), and potatoes were the main staples of their diet, and chili peppers were a popular way to spice up the food. (A common Inca stew was made from corn kernels boiled with chilies and herbs until the corn popped open.) Bread was made by adding water to cornmeal or potato flour and placing the loaf in the hot ashes of a fire to bake. Guinea pig meat was often cooked in a soup thickened with flour made from potatoes.

By far the most common drink in the empire was chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from maize, quinoa, or other grains. People usually drank chicha after a meal. Making chicha was usually a job for the elderly or for people who were disabled or sick. If they used old maize or grains, they had to chew the kernels or seeds first, so that their saliva could break them down. Then they spit the pulp into jars of warm water, sealed the jars, buried them in the ground, and allowed them to sit for a few days. At that point, the chicha had fermented (process in which yeasts convert sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide) and was ready to drink.

The farmers of the Inca empire produced many surplus crops, and fortunately, they knew how to preserve this extra food. They preserved maize and quinoa by pounding them out into flour. Women generally did this work, using a long, crescent-shaped stone to roll and grind Page 234  |  Top of Article the grain on a stone slab. The flour could then be stored in large pots or jars. Other foods were stored in bins made from cornstalks and mud or in pits dug into the floor of the house.

Sidebar: HideShow

The History of the Potato

The world's first potatoes were grown in the Andes. Long before the Incas existed, in the earliest days of human life in the Andes, the hunters and gatherers in the highland plains of the Andes Mountains found root plants called tubers—the forerunners of the modern potato—and added them to their diet. It was too cold in the Andean highlands for grains to grow, so the tubers became a staple food source. They were nutritious, easy to store, and lasted a long time. By about 4500 B.C.E. Andean people had begun to plant and grow the earliest forms of papas, a Quechua (pronounced KECH-wah) word for potatoes. The Moche (pronounced MO-chay), the Chimú (pronounced chee-MOO), and various other societies developed strong potato plants that resisted the mountain frosts. The Incas learned that if they rotated their potato fields regularly, they had healthier crops. Throughout the high-altitude areas of their empire where maize and quinoa would not grow, potatoes were the main crop.

The Incas revered the gifts of nature, including the potato. The Quechua language has hundreds of words for the potato. Inca art often depicts potatoes, and the people of the empire worshiped potato gods and performed potato rituals.
Incas harvesting potatoes.  Bettmann/Corbis. Incas harvesting potatoes. © Bettmann/Corbis. They also used potatoes for medicine. When the Spanish conquistadores (the Spanish word for "conquerors") arrived in the Andean region in the early 1500s, they began to use potatoes for their own purposes. Because they lasted well, potatoes were particularly useful as food on ocean voyages, and Spanish sailors grew accustomed to eating them. Back in Spain the potato was initially viewed with fear or disgust, and it was used only for the poor or for prisons and hospitals. It was not until the eighteenth century that the potato became a widespread European crop.

The peasants of the Inca empire also preserved food by a method of freeze-drying. Freeze-dried potatoes were called chuños. They were made at high altitudes in the Andes, usually during the month of June, when it is warm in the sun during the day and freezes during the night. Women laid out the potatoes before evening, and the potatoes froze during the night. Then they were allowed to thaw in the morning sun. By about noon the potatoes were ready to be processed. The women walked on them repeatedly with bare feet, mashing them up thoroughly and getting all the juices out. Then they rinsed the mashed-up potato pulp and spread it out to dry in the sun. When the pulp was completely dry, they stored it in jars or bins in the home. Chuños were used to make bread and stews.

Page 235  |  Top of Article


According to Inca law, members of each ethnic group or conquered state in the empire were required to wear their own distinctive native clothing. This made it possible for Inca officials to determine an individual's origins upon sight and to make sure that no one wandered into forbidden new territory. (Travel was not legal for common people in the empire.) Headbands and headdresses, belts, and woven bags were often the distinguishing differences in native attire.

The standard apparel for common men in the Inca empire was a knee-length sleeveless tunic made of cotton or wool, which was worn over a loincloth. Men also wore large capes over their shoulders. Women wore floor-length tunics with a sash at the waist. They wore shawls over their shoulders, pinning the ends together with a copper pin. In the cool climate of the highlands, clothing was usually made from llama wool, while in the warmer lowlands it was made from Page 236  |  Top of Article cotton. On their feet, both men and women wore sandals with leather soles; woven straps tied around the foot and ankle.


Oddly, for such a busy and hardworking society, farming families had a great deal of time off each year—but only so that they could attend state-sponsored festivals. The Sapa Inca and his administrators put on many festivals for the workers throughout the year. These were held in the provincial or city plazas and included religious spectacles, dancing, music, and massive quantities of food and chicha. The celebrations often lasted for several days. Historians estimate that people in the Inca empire spent about 120 days each year at these festivals. The cost to the empire must have been enormous: The government paid for all the chicha and food, and it also had to absorb the cost of reduced productivity (for every day they were celebrating, the workers were not producing crops or other goods for the empire). These festivals were not invented by the Incas. The Wari (pronounced wah-REE) and the Tiwanaku (pronounced tee-wah-NAH-coo) used similar festivities to create a bond between themselves and their workers (see Chapters 7 and 8 for more information). Without newspapers or other written communications, the Incas had to convey their messages to the people by staging public events. There, the Inca nobility could tell the farmers about all the benefits they were receiving by being part of the great empire. They could relate the latest Inca military conquests and the heroic feats of the Sapa Inca. The rules of the kingdom and the work requirements for the year were also conveyed during these festivals. Announcements about the upcoming workload reached the people at the height of the celebration. As they danced and drank their free chicha, these labor obligations seemed like a fair tradeoff for the fun they were having at the moment. After the festival the people generally returned to their work feeling grateful to the Incas and ready to fulfill the tremendous labor obligations imposed by the Inca government.

Daily life among the nobility

When sixteenth-century Spanish explorers decided to invade the area that makes up present-day Peru, it was because Page 237  |  Top of Article they had heard that gold, silver, and other riches lined the streets of Cuzco. The stories they had heard were true. Cuzco was home to the Inca nobility, who had accumulated great fortunes as they created their empire. The central part of the city was home only to the wealthy elite. It was full of palaces, panacas (palaces of the deceased Sapa Incas), and temples, and some of these buildings were actually covered in gold.

Marriage, family, and child rearing among the nobility

Inca noblemen were allowed to have more than one wife. However, a nobleman had only one primary wife, to whom he remained married for life. His other, secondary wives lived in the house and took care of his sons. Noblewomen were expected to weave for the empire. But according to Andean elders who were interviewed about the life of the Incas, the Inca nobility did very little work. Stuart Stirling quotes one of these elders in The Last Conquistador (1999):

The Incas of the eleven ayllu never laboured for any one, for they were served by the Indians of all Peru.… For none of their caste [social class] and tribe, poor or rich, nor any other who was a descendant of the Incas of the eleven ayllu were servitors [servants] in any manner, for they were served in all the four provinces of this realm … their sole office being to assist in the court of the Inca [Sapa Inca] where he resided, to eat and walk and to accompany him, and to discharge his commissions in war and peace, and to inspect the lands as great lords with their many servants.

The Incas trained their boys in formal schools, where amautas, usually priests, taught them language, history, religion, and the use of the quipu. Upon reaching puberty, Inca boys in Cuzco underwent a three-week ritual during the Capac Raymi festival (festival of the sun). During this ritual, the boys climbed up a high mountain peak—twice. There, llamas were sacrificed, and sacred dances were performed. The boys were given beatings to test their bravery and endurance. At separate ceremonies they were given weapons and loincloths. At the end of this complex ritual, the boys' earlobes were split, and special earplugs were inserted in the lobes. The earplugs were the mark of Inca nobility.

Page 238  |  Top of Article

Costume of an Inca man and his wife.  Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis. Costume of an Inca man and his wife. © Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis.

Clothing of nobles

The dress of the nobles was similar to that of the common people. Men wore knee-length tunics, loincloths, and capes. Women wore floor-length tunics with shawls. The material was much finer than the material used for farmers' clothes, and the designs that were woven or dyed into the nobles' clothing were more ornate. Inca women did not wear a lot of jewelry; a pin (to hold a shawl in Page 239  |  Top of Article place) and a necklace were common. Inca men, on the other hand, adorned themselves greatly, particularly for special occasions. The huge earplugs they wore in their earlobes were nearly two inches in diameter. Top-ranking Incas wore gold earplugs, while Incas-by-privilege wore silver or copper. Men also wore large metal bracelets made from medals they had won for bravery in battle. Former warriors also wore necklaces made from the teeth of their fallen enemies. When high-ranking Inca nobility appeared at festivals, they were usually decked out in vividly colored parrot feathers, woven gold tunics, and massive headdresses.

An Inca mummy.  Bettmann/Corbis. An Inca mummy. © Bettmann/Corbis.

Burial practices of the Inca people

Burial practices in the Inca empire varied from region to region. Often, the deceased person, whether commoner or noble, was placed in a fetal position (lying on one side with knees curled up to the chest) with some of his or her belongings and wrapped in a special cloth or mat. The nobility, however, were often buried with many more belongings and dressed in elaborate clothing.

Archaeologists have found human remains throughout the area encompassed by the Inca empire, and in many cases, they discovered Inca bodies that were mummified—preserved by other human beings or by unusual environmental conditions, such as extreme cold or dryness. The Incas always mummified the Sapa Inca and revered his body as a huaca, or shrine. In Narrative of the Incas (1996; originally completed in 1557) Spanish chronicler Juan de Betanzos briefly describes the mummification process used for Sapa Inca Huayna Capac (pronounced WHY-nuh CA-poc), who ruled the empire from 1493 to 1525:

Page 240  |  Top of Article

When he died, the nobles who were with him had him opened and took out all his entrails [internal organs], preparing him so that no damage would be done to him and without breaking any bone. They prepared and dried him in the Sun and the air. After he was dried and cured [prepared, preserved, or finished by a chemical or physical process] they dressed him in costly clothes and placed him on an ornate litter well adorned with feathers and gold.

The very dry climate of the Andes region, along with the high salt content in the soil, aided in the preservation of the Inca mummies. In the high elevations of the Andes frigid temperatures preserved bodies buried in the ground. These were mainly the bodies of children who were sacrificed on the mountaintops and then buried there.

The Spanish explorers thoroughly raided Inca graves in their pursuit of gold and silver, so until recently, archaeologists had few Inca burials to study. Then, in 2002, archaeologists found two thousand Inca mummies and tens of thousands of artifacts buried with them in the earth beneath a poor, temporary neighborhood in Lima, Peru. The bodies were extremely well preserved; many still had hair and skin. Archaeologists expect this finding to improve their knowledge and understanding of the daily life of the Inca people.

For More Information


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

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

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

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

Von Hagen, V. W. The Ancient Sun Kingdoms of the Americas. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing Company, 1957.

Web Site

Harris, Eric R. "The Costume of the Inca." World History Archives. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/41/414.html (accessed on October 12, 2004).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424400022