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"Manco Capac, First Inca, 1 of 14 Portraits of Inca Kings" by BrooklynMuseumBot is in the public domain.

When Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro landed in Peru in 1532, he found unimaginable riches. The Inca Empire was in full bloom. The streets may not have been paved with gold - but their temples were.

The Coricancha, or Temple of Gold, in the capitol city of Cuzco boasted an ornamental garden where the crops of the earth, maize plants complete with leaves and corn cobs, were fashioned from silver and gold. Nearby grazed a flock of 20 golden llamas and their lambs, watched over by solid gold shepherds. Inca nobles strolled around on sandals with silver soles protecting their feet from the hard streets of Cuzco.

The Inca called their empire Tahuantinsuyu, or "the four regions together." It stretched 2,500 miles from Quito, Ecuador, to beyond Santiago, Chile. Within its domain were rich coastal settlements, high mountain valleys, rain-drenched tropical forests and the driest of deserts. The Inca controlled perhaps 10 million people, speaking a hundred different tongues. It was the largest empire on earth at the time. Yet when Pizarro executed its last emperor, Atahualpa, the Inca Empire was less than 100 years old.

The true history of the Inca is still being written. According to one story, four brothers emerged from Lake Titicaca. During a long journey, all but one disappeared. Manco Capac survived to plunge a golden staff into the ground where the Rios Tullamayo and Huantanay meet. There, he founded the sacred city of Cuzco.


Cuzco is nestled in a mountain valley 10,000 feet above sea level. It formed the center of the Inca world. The first emperor, Pachacuti (who reigned from 1438-1471 A.D.) transformed it from a modest village to a great city laid out in the shape of a puma. He also installed Inti, the Sun God, as the Incas' official patron, building him a wondrous temple. The Inca became the Children of the Sun.

And he did something else - which may explain the Inca's sudden rise to power. He expanded the cult of ancestor worship. When a ruler died, his son received all his earthly powers - but none of his earthly possessions. All his land, buildings, and servants went to his panaqa, or other male relatives. The relatives used it to preserve his mummy and sustain his political influence. Dead emperors thus maintained a living presence.

Perhaps more importantly though, a new ruler had to create his own income. The only way to do that was to grab new lands, subdue more people, and expand the Empire of the Sun. And that's exactly what the two next great Inca Emperors did. Tupac Inka Yupanqui more than doubled the empire from 1471 to 1493, and Huayna Capac added lands to the north from 1493 to 1527. These two rulers, along with Pachacuti, were the great builders of the Inca Empire.

How did they expand the empire so quickly and effectively?

Life in traditional Andean villages was fragile. To increase success, one married couple would help another planting or harvesting crops. They would receive help in their own fields in return. Members of a community supported one another. The Inca tailored this practice of reciprocity - give-and-take - to their own needs.

Their cities centered on great plazas where they threw vast parties for neighboring chiefs. Festivities continued for days on end, sometimes lasting a month. Dignitaries were fed, and given gifts of gold, jewels, and textiles. Only then would the Inca make their requests for labor, to increase food production, to build irrigation schemes, to terrace hillsides, or to extend the limits of the empire. While warfare was occasionally used to expand the empire, diplomacy and marriages were more common unifiers. The empire provided these new territories with security and goods in exchange for their labor.


The Inca were great builders. They loved stone - almost as much as they revered gold. At magical Machu Picchu, a frontier fortress and a sacred site, a mystic column called the hitching post of the Sun is carved from the rock as it comes out of the ground. Another slab or rock is shaped as a miniature model of the mountain looming over the city.

Temples and fortifications at Machu Picchu were constructed from magnificent boulders, some weighing 100 tons or more. Constructed without mortar, the joins between them are so tight as to deny a knife-blade entry. A vast labor force was required. There are records of 20 men working on a single stone, chipping away, hoisting and lowering it, polishing it with sand, hour-by-hour, for an entire year.


The most marvelous feat was uniting this empire of four regions from the central city of Cuzco. Here, stonework helped as well. The Inca built a network of paved and outlined highways that allowed emperors to control their sprawling empire. One road ran down the spine of the Andes, another along the coast. Inca builders could cope with anything the treacherous terrain required - steep paths cut along mountainsides, rope suspension bridges thrown across steep ravines, or treacherous causeways traversing floodplains. Every mile and a half they built way stations as resting points. Bands of official runners raced between them covering 150 miles a day. A message could be sent 1200 miles from Cuzco to Quito in under a week.

The Quapaq Ñan, as this network was called, integrated the four regions of the empire using over 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) of roads. Those roads were built based on the concept, again, of reciprocity.

Everyone was expected to contribute to the empire. Land was divided by threes. One third was worked for the emperor, one third was reserved for the gods, and one third the people kept for themselves. All were required to pay taxes as tribute. The Mit'a was a labor tax, which required the head of every household to work for the state for a part of the year. This labor might be in agriculture, the military, or constructing the empire's many roads.

The Quapaq Ñan was a road by and for the state and its business. Messengers would run across them relaying important information. Since the Inca could not write, messengers carried quipu (khipu), a complex system of knotted strings. Tax collectors and bureaucrats kept track of things with the quipu, and varying lengths, colors, knot-types, and positions enabled them to store enormous quantities of information.

Despite its glory, the Incas was a brittle empire, held together by promises and threats. In November of 1532, Spanish leader Francisco Pizarro captured and ransomed the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, for 24 tons of gold worth $267 million today. After receiving the ransom from the Inca people, the conquistadors strangled Atahualpa anyway. Once Pizarro had executed the last emperor, the empire rapidly collapsed. Catholic priests demanding allegiance to a new Christian god soon replaced the Children of the Sun. As they had for thousands of years, the hardy peoples of the Andes adapted. They took what they must from their new masters, and held onto as many of their old ways as they could

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