Peru – The brief history of the Incas

The Inca civilization in a nutshel

In the 12th century, the Incas were only a small warrior tribe from Cuzco, a city I will tell you about in detail in my article on Machu Picchu.

For three hundred years, they developed by conquering their neighbors along the Andes.
By the end of the 15th Century, their territory would extend over 4,500 km from Ecuador to Chile, numbering some ten million people.

This vast empire called Tahuantinsuyu was divided into four regions, the four directions from Cuzco: Chinchasuyu in the north, Collasuyu in the south, Contisuyu in the west, and Antisuyu in the east.

Their reign lasted until the invasion of Peru by the Spanish in 1532, who, armed with rifles, horses and steel artillery, managed to defeat them easily. Thirty-nine years later, it was the end of the Incas.

What does Inca mean?

In Quechua, the official language of the Incas, Inca means “Son of the Sun.” 

Even today, Quechua is the official language of Peru. This language and its variants are also still spoken in other regions of the Andes such as southern Colombia, northwestern Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile

The writing system

Since the Incas did not have the “writing,” there is no written record of their passage. Most about them has been deduced from legends they have partly created.  

On the other hand, quipu, a system of ropes tied together, allowed them to record all kinds of information. The different knots, simple or composed, their number and their position in relation to the main rope, the way they were made, to the left or to the right, had their meaning. The color of each thread was also important, each representing a well-defined entity. 

It is all this complexity that makes it possible for the Incas to archive data of all kinds: administrative, genealogical, calendar, historical, religious, etc. 

For updates, the quipus were simply undone and redone. 

These quipus were for the Incas the memories of the empire.

The story of the conquest by the Incas

This one was not based only on wars.

The empire grew under the orders of the Inca king Pachacutec, 9th in the dynasty, who carried out his campaigns in a surprising way. As a diplomat, he proposed annexation to his neighbors. With convincing arguments and an army ready to intervene if the agreement was not conclusive, he took control of the villages on his way. 

All that remained for him to do was to collect taxes on an economic system already in place. Easy!

However, these taxes were not paid in goods, but in hours of work. Everyone had to work for a time in the imperial factories or in the king’s fields. People produced for the community, the state redistributing the production according to the needs of each region. The government also granted itself the right to move workers away for months for specific projects (dam, bridge’s construction…), providing them with lodging, food and clothing. 

Thus was built the then capital, Cuzco, whose shape represents a puma, but also important monuments such as the temple of Qoricancha or the famous citadel of Machu Picchu.

The king had to master all these enemy tribes.

To establish its power by imposing the Inca culture — a unique language and the worship of the god Inti — populations were separated, relocated, and replaced by settlers.

All under the control of a constant armed presence. 

Kilometers and kilometers of road…

The most remarkable was the development of a huge network of roads, the Qhapac Nan or the Inca Trail — more than 20,000 km of trails through the mountains. 

This allowed the troops to set out to conquer new territories or to monitor the empire, to travel, to transport goods on the backs of llamas and alpacas, or to deliver information quickly. And since they had no horses, the mail was delivered by foot messengers, the Chasquis. But not walkers, runners. Because they had to go fast!

Thanks to a relay system, Those royal couriers carrying quipus could travel the country in record time. A chasqui that arrived warned the following by blowing in a shell that served as a trumpet (pututu).

Shelters and warehouses called tambos built along the road every 20-30 km allowed them to eat and rest.

Their endurance, forged from childhood, was apparently strengthened by chewing coca leaves.


In order to develop agriculture, the Incas made terraced crops. They also ordered agronomic studies to optimize agricultural production even in the most heavily settled valleys.

Each terrace was connected to drains and an irrigation system. But there is more! The stone walls played a role of “heating”. The stones absorbed the heat of the sun during the day to restore it at night when temperatures dropped. 

The width of the terraces was also important. The narrower the terrace, the warmer the earth. A way to reproduce microclimates which allowed the plants of the coast to adapt to the harsh environment of the mountains.

The Incas, their gods, and the stars

The gods

The Incas fervently believed in Mother Earth, in Pachamama, as well as in many other deities attached to every activity, every season and harvest.
The main ones were Viracocha, the creator; Inti, the Sun; and Chuqui Illa, the god of thunder.They also liked huacas, spirits housed in nature, such as a waterfall, a rock or a tree.

The stars

According to the Incas, the god Viracocha had created for each animal a star or a constellation protecting it. However, these stars were not considered divinities, but rather huacas. The Inca shamans made regular sacrifices to them.

By contrast, the sun and moon were gods. Moreover, the temples were arranged with pillars or small niches specifically arranged so that these celestial bodies illuminate them or cross them at certain times of the day or the year. 

Some Peruvians still visit these temples to venerate the sun’s alignment with the elements during the summer solstice.

The creation of the world: Lake Titicaca, the gods Viracocha and Cuzco

The story begins with the god Viracocha emerging from the ocean in search of the perfect place to conceive the world. He settled on Lake Titicaca, which thus became the cradle of the Inca civilization
Viracocha started by creating the sky and the earth, then the sun and the day, and eventually the moon and the stars. 

Then he carved human beings in stone. The first Inca couple then threw a golden javelin to build a capital where it would fall. This led to the location of Cuzco, the “navel of the world” in Quechua.

The decline of the empire

When the Spanish arrived in 1527, the king Huayna Capac was in power. His death that same year left the country in the grip of a civil war. His sons Huascar and Atahualpa, both pretenders to the throne, having found no common ground to succeed him, shared the territory before engaging in a conflict against each other in order to regain its totality.

When the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro landed in 1532 with his regiment of 180 men, Huascar had been taken prisoner by his brother. As for Atahualpa, with his army of tens of thousands of experienced soldiers, he saw no threat in the arrival of the Spaniards. He even took the navigator for the god Viracocha, who predicted his return to earth. 

So he invited Francisco Pizarro and Father Vicente Valverde.

That’s where everything started going south.

The anecdote has it that the priest handed the Bible to Atahualpa saying: “Here, I will make you hear the word of God” and that the latter, carrying it in his ear, answered him “I hear nothing” and threw the holy book to the ground.

A dreadful affront!

It didn’t take much for the Spaniards to decimate the Incan army and imprison their king. Despite paying a massive golden ransom for his release, he was executed and the empire devastated.

Note that for Inca, gold did not have any real value. They only used it as an ornament.

The Spanish met little resistance during this invasion. Instead, much of the country rallied to their cause while the civil war divided the Peruvians.
Cuzco was toppled, and a new capital, Lima, was constructed on the coast.

To restore peace, the Spaniards brought into power an Inca who served them, Manco Capac II. However, angered by the Spanish abuses, he fled and started a revolt. He nearly made it, but exhausted, he was forced to retire to the jungle. His offspring attempted one last resistance, in vain. Tupac Amaru, the last Inca leader of a great rebellion was captured and executed in 1572, ending the Inca dynasty.

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