The Rise of the Inca: From Rags to Riches

From a lecture Series Presented by Professor Brian M. Fagan, Ph.D.

The historical accounts of the rise of the Inca from total obscurity to imperial fame is the definition of a rags-to-riches story. Their achievements in economy, government and architecture continue to resonate to this day.

Image of Cuzco, Peru for the article on the Rise of the Inca
Cuzco, Peru — ancient Inca civilization radiated from the center of the world at Cuzco, high in the Andes.

We do know that in the 11th century the Inca were one of many small farming societies in the highland valleys of the Andes. Their leaders were petty war chiefs who fought constantly with each other. Who these rulers were and how they became conquerors, we don’t really know, because at some point the Inca began to create their own glorious past. This history tells us that at around the beginning of the 15th century, an Inca leader called ViracochaInca turned himself from a mere tribal raider into a conqueror.

Learn more: The Inca Origins—Mythology v. Archaeology

Image of Viracocha
Viracocha

Viracocha Inca soon presided over a small kingdom and promptly proclaimed that he was a living god. He created a new religious cult of Inti, a celestial, divine ancestor associated with the sun. In other words, he made himself a divine ruler. “I have an imperial vision. I have a divinely sanctioned job—conquest.”

Pachakuti

Then, about 1438, a brilliant warrior, Cusi Inca Yupanqui, became the Inca ruler. With great arrogance and assurance, he assumed the name Pachakuti, which means “he who remakes the world” and set about reforming and transforming the Inca domain into a state. Pachakuti did a number of things that were to have lasting impact and were to create fatal weaknesses in Inca civilization.

He began by fostering a new cult of the royal mummies. That seems bizarre to us, but actually, the logic behind it was to reinforce continuity. At his death, a ruler was mummified, but he continued to “live” in his palace. His devoted followers would talk with him and eat with him, and the mummy attended all the great ceremonies of state.

This symbolism was of vital importance. Why? It ensured the continuity of Inca life and, even more important, it reinforced the relationship between the royal ancestors, the living leader, and Inti, the sun god.

Learn more: The Inca—From Raiders to Empire

New Ruler—New Land

Depiction of Pachacuti worshipping Inti at Coricancha
Depiction of Pachacuti worshipping Inti at Coricancha

Perhaps even more pervasive was another custom introduced by Pachakuti but probably also used at Chimor. That was the institution of split inheritance. Under this custom, the dead Inca ruler retained all his possessions and all his land. All that the new ruler who succeeded him acquired was prestige, the title of Inca or Supreme Inca, and little else. That meant he had to acquire his own wealth and his own land to live in royal splendor and, ultimately, to support his mummy.

Because all the land around Cuzco was owned by the early rulers, each new Supreme Inca had to acquire royal estates by the only way available, aggressive conquest, so that ruler after ruler expanded the Inca domain.

Fortunately for the Inca, they had a series of extremely able rulers. For example, by 1493, the Inca Topa Yupanqui had extended the empire into Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. His armies also conquered Chimor, whose water supplies were already under Inca control.

By the time of the Spanish Entrada, Inca domains extended far into Ecuador in the north and were beginning to expand into the rain forests on the eastern side of the Andes. There, however, the armies were hampered because they were not used to fighting in heavily vegetated terrain.

Learn more: The Inca—Gifts of the Empire

Tawantinsuyu—Land of the Four Quarters

Fortunately for the Inca, their rulers were far more than conquerors. They were, for a start, brilliant propagandists who constantly reminded everyone that they were gods and that everyone’s welfare depended on them. Like the pharaohs and others, they were careful to reward bravery in battle and to bring economic advantage to those they conquered.

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This is a very stark and elementary thing, but people have to see an advantage in being ruled by someone else. For all their ruthlessness, the Inca succeeded in doing just that because they cleverly combined economic benefits and incentives with rewards and justifications, as well as with a powerful ideology. They were careful to honor local lords and provided these lords were loyal, they gave them considerable authority.

Above all, the Inca rulers were consummate administrators. They were propagandists who happened to be administrators—rather a rare combination. They presided over an empire of extraordinary cultural and environmental diversity, and they did that without written records, with just a system of knotted strings. Their rule required, of course, extraordinary numbers of people whose memories acted as inventories.

Panorama of Cuzco, Peru
Panorama of Cuzco, Peru

Tawantinsuyu radiated from the center of the world at Cuzco, high in the Andes. Laid out in a cruciform plan, Cuzco was built on a central plaza and was bisected by two rivers. Just south lay the Coriancha, the Temple of the Sun. It had six one-room buildings with gold-covered walls that surrounded a courtyard. In front was a garden of golden plants before a shrine with a golden image of the sun.

A closely fitted masonry wall surrounded the entire complex. Masonry by the Inca was famous for its tight fit. They dragged granite boulders to the capital and trimmed them with river cobbles so they fit perfectly with each other. You can’t even put a credit card through some of the cracks, and with this fit, the Inca created earthquake-proof walls.

Such efficiency was typical of an empire divided into four provinces and using carefully modified institutions like the mit’ a labor tax, adopted from earlier states. They also carefully inventoried what lay in storehouses found in every community.

Coricancha with Convent of Santo Domingo above
Coricancha with Convent of Santo Domingo above

The essence of efficient Inca government of distant lands was efficient communications. The Inca created an elaborate road system that linked ancient roadways, like those of the Chimu, with other systems. The road system had narrow zigzag paths that went high in the Andes, with regular rest houses and where llama caravans passed constantly. It is said the Inca could pass a message from Lima to Cuzco by runner quicker than the Spanish could do it with a horse. They could move armies, dispatch messengers, and send llama caravans of trade goods the length and breadth of Tawantinsuyu.

Their passion for organization impinged on everyone’s life. The Inca divided society into 12 age divisions for census and tax purposes, with adulthood lasting as long as you could do a day’s work. They used the quipu, the knotted string, to keep accurate inventories of everything. The combinations of knots indicated supplies of grain, the contents and resources of conquered land, and the contents of village storehouses. It was a powerful instrument for ensuring social conformity.

Learn more: Spanish Contact—Pizarro Conquers the Inca

By the early 16th century, though, the institution of split inheritance had caused such expansion that the Inca were running out of places to conquer, and there were horrendous logistical problems. In 1532, civil war raged over succession, and the Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro landed in Tawantinsuyu. He captured the Supreme Inca, murdered him, and a year later became a master of the greatest of all Native American empires.

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From the Lecture Series: Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations
Taught by Professor Brian M. Fagan, Ph.D.
Images courtesy of:
Cuzco Décembre 2007 – Panorama, By Martin St-Amant (S23678) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Cuzco—Pano edit, By Cacophony, edited by Fir0002 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Machu Picchu, By Martin St-Amant (S23678) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons