Peru, 2008
Inca History & Stuff


This page or so is intended to place the deluge of information we received about Inca culture into the broader context of Peruvian history. Any great wisdom that follows has been lifted from a variety of websites and—except for its errors—should not be mistaken for my own.

My understanding of Central and South America history was vague. The Incas were muddled in with the Aztecs and Mayans; yet where in time and place did all these peoples exist? Were there other tribes in Central and South America? I assumed if they were any they were mere primitives, and it was only by magic (or alien influence) that the famed cultures sprang from the jungles.

A guided visit to Peru did little to correct such impressions. The guides lionize Inca accomplishments and speak of little else. By degrees I came to believe that the Incas paralleled the Greeks, the Egyptians and the Romans and excelled in everything.

Yet while we were in Peru we attended museums that provided a more rounded history, and on return did more research. This improved our knowledge and appreciation of the Incas yet also put their achievements into perspective.

It seems that circumstance has distorted history. The Incas achieved magnificent things in a short space of time. However, they had the good fortune to do it relatively recently and they fought with our forebears which increases their profile. Further, in much the same way as we equate a film star's beauty to political wisdom, we easily fall into believing the Incas' superb military exploits must be accompanied by excellence in thought, art and so on. Yet most of what we see as Inca thought, art and even architecture pre-dates the Incas. Other tribes achieved these splendid things...but failed PR101, leaving only small pots and earrings behind which are now confined to museums. The Incas astutely left ruins and roads all over the countryside. Perhaps they knew these would be left in place because it made getting about easier for everyone, and besides roads were harder to pilfer. The ruins too later proved to be a boon: for tourists now pay guides to take them to Inca sites made famous by tourists who...well, you see where this is going. The considerable limelight that should have been the due of earlier Peruvian cultures shines therefore on the Incas, while these earlier Peruvian cultures are unfairly relegated to the murk of museums.


Humans in Central and South America are thought not to have originated on this continent but to have migrated relatively recently, crossing the ice-bridge formed across the Bering Strait in the last ice age, entering what is now Alaska only 15-20,000 years ago. From here they are thought to have made their way down and across the American continents. Thor Heyerdahl in his second expedition showed it was possible for Egyptian explorers to have crossed the Atlantic in boats. This would have taken place much later than the earlier migration but it could explain some influences, such as the building of pyramids.

There is evidence of many different tribes beginning to work in ceramics and metals, some as early perhaps as 10,000 BC—not bad considering that the earliest cave paintings in the world in Namibia are thought to date from only 18,000 BCE.

From Wikipedia:

The first cultures with which we are more familiar were those of the Norte Chico civilization, from c. 3000 BCE, and the Chavin culture, which emerged c. 900 BCE. Though the Chavin were among the first since the builders of Norte Chico to construct monumental temples, they do not seem to have developed a significant middle class.

The Paracas culture emerged on the southern coast around 300 BCE. They are known for their use of vicuña fibers instead of just cotton to produce fine textiles—innovations that did not reach the northern coast of Peru until centuries later.

Coastal cultures such as the Moche and Nazca flourished from about 100 BCE to about 700 CE: The Moche produced impressive metalwork, as well as some of the finest pottery seen in the ancient world, while the Nazca are known for their textiles and the enigmatic Nazca lines.

Earliest known gold jewelry made in the Americas, c.2000 BC, found in a burial near Lake Titicaca

These coastal cultures eventually began to decline as a result of recurring el Niño floods and droughts. In consequence, the Huari and Tiwanaku, who dwelt inland in the Andes became the predominant cultures of the region, encompassing much of modern-day Peru and Bolivia. They were succeeded by powerful city-states, such as Chancay, Sipan, and Cajamarca, and two empires: Chimor and Chachapoyas.

These cultures developed relatively advanced techniques of cultivation, gold and silver craft, pottery, metallurgy, and knitting. Around 700 BCE, they appear to have developed systems of social organization that were the precursors of the Inca civilization.

Here is an excellent alternative description of societies who pre-dated the Incas

Mayans, Aztecs and Incas

The Mayans

The Mayan civilization stands quite distinctly apart from both Aztec and Inca civilizations. The Mayans appeared relatively early—the Classic Period begins around 200 CE—on the Yucatan peninsular of what is now Mexico, and reached its peak around 900 CE. The Mayans were fortunate in that they built on the already considerable advances made by both Olmec and Teotihuacan cultures that preceded them in the area. But the Mayans, if they did not invent written script, economics, farming, architecture and astronomy certainly did their part in advancing all of these ideas. After 900AD the Mayans went into decline for reasons that are not clearly understood. The empire did not disappear but its close association of city states dispersed and became fragmented. This proved fortunate when the Spanish arrived, for it was much more difficult for the conquistadors to quell a dispersed power structure of the Mayans than to subdue the single centre of power of the Inca empire.

Aztecs and Incas

The Aztecs and the Incas followed a path quite similar to each other and quite different from that of the Mayans. Both civilizations emerged relatively late, around the 12th century AD, rose to considerable power in less than two centuries, and succumbed to the Spanish conquests in the 16th century in part because they were already weakened by internal decisions.

Ascendence of the Incas

The term “Inca” describes a role or title, roughly equivalent to “king” or “emperor”. The Incas used the name "Tawantinsuyu" to describe their people but I'll stick with custom in using the term Inca in the generic sense, to describe the tribe of people who lived in the region of Cuzco in the mountains of Peru.

The first King, Manco Capac, was thought to have ruled the tribe around 1200 AD, although some date his death as early as 1107 AD. Through Manco’s rule and that of the succeeding eight Incas, the tribe remained, like many others in the area, just another local tribe. It was the 9th Inca, Pachaculi, who began what was to be an explosive expansion of influence in 1438 AD—reportedly in response to an attack from a neighbouring tribe. Over the next one hundred years, the Incas would spread to dominate much of what is now Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Northern Chile and some of Argentina.

In this respect they were completely unlike either Aztecs or Mayans, who expanded somewhat in a manner consistent with their success yet did not engage in active conquest of vast territory.

Contribution of the Incas

There's no doubt that the Incas were a remarkable people.
  • The Incas established a vast empire in just over one hundred years. This was not simply an extraordinary military feat but required the ongoing skill of administering a large territory, including the feeding and care of its people.
  • The Incas were master engineers who built a road system (the Inca Trail) from end to end of their empire
  • They constructed formidable walls, designed to withstand the earthquakes that frequently shook the region. These walls were notable for a strength achieved through their unique design. Where the Egyptians built structures from huge, regular blocks of stone fitted together with great precision the Incas went one better. The Incas fitted irregularly shaped stone blocks together with equal precision. Some of these stones included as many as 12 different angles on one face (seen at right) and weighed as much as 30 tons.
  • Farming: The Incas employed their walls in the construction of terraces that allowed farms to reach high up the side of the mountain valleys. They added elaborate systems of irrigation to these fields.


Different tribes all over the world typically advanced human achievement in some areas but not in others. The ancient Indians were brilliant philosophers but exerted no military might. The Chinese were also ingenious and artistic...and also mostly stayed at home. The Greeks were among the few who showed military as well as intellectual might, and who advanced the arts of architecture and story-telling. The Romans (in rough contrast) added little to the religious ideas, to the art or thinking of the Greeks; they were merely great empire-builders, administrators and road-builders.

The Incas seem comparable to the Romans. Earlier tribes had developed religious ideas, advanced architecture, temples, beautiful metalwork and textiles, and had done so beginning one thousand years before the Incas. The Incas appear to have continued but not advanced these skills and this knowledge. Unlike the Mayans and Egyptians, the Incas lacked writing and apparently even discouraged it.

Decline of the Incas

The Incas brought relative prosperity and stability to their vast empire yet they were not universally admired by those they conquered. They controlled their citizens to an extraordinary degree, dictating, among other things, even who should marry whom. Nor was there peace at the top. The Inca Huayna Capac divided the empire between his two sons Atahuallpa and Huasca, but they quarrelled and declared war. Atahuallpa eventually captured Huasca, the internecine squabble ending just as Pizzaro arrived. A resentful population and the vestiges of a civil war were not ideal breeding grounds for a strong resistance; for all this, arrogance (or naiveté) may have been Atuhuallpa’s chief weakness.

Pizarro was an illiterate oaf, a simple plunderer and he only had 200 men. Atuhuallpa seems to have seen no threat from this small tribe of idiots. But Pizarro had guns, horses, iron weapons, smallpox and the moral scruples of a lizard; it turned out that the Incas had no defence against any of these. By a mix of subterfuge and might, Pizarro was able to single-handedly destroy first Atuhuallpa and then the evidence of a civilization that was infinitely more advanced than he was (a kind of reverse evolution that has parallels today). 

Language and the Incas today

The Incas imposed the common language of Quechua throughout their domain. Quechua was not their own language but was already the most common language of the region. Today Quechua is still the language spoken by the people of the mountains from Bolivia to Argentina and identifies the indigenous culture of South America as opposed to the Spanish speaking peoples of the cities and the coast. Many of these mountain people—identified also by their distinctive costumes, whether going to church or herding goats in the mountains—tend locks of llama and alpaca in the high plateaus or farm the high terraces in the valleys much as they have done for thousands of years.

Macchu Picchu

Manco II Inca was pursued into the mountains by Pizarro after a defeat at Cuzco; he successfully hid there and fought a long guerrilla war from a stronghold called Vitcos. In 1572, the Spanish finally reached Vitcos and defeated the last of the Incas, Tupac Amaru, ending Inca resistance and the jungle closed back in over the many Inca ruins in these valleys.

It was not until the 1900s that the Yale historian Hiram Bingham went looking for Vitcos; in 1911 Bingham found Machu Picchu—or at least parts of it, for the main part of the ruins were buried. At first he thought he had found Vitcos but it was not long before Vitcos and another lost city, Vilcabamba, were discovered in the adjacent valley of Vilcambamba. But Bingham was now entirely focused on reclaiming the ruins at Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu has long been assumed to have been a holy site; there are many temples on the site and it is certainly held to be a center of many spiritual gatherings now. However, there are growing doubts that this was anything but a refuge of sorts for Incan Royalty, perhaps a kind of mountain retreat.