Incan Empire (1438 – 1533)

A South American power that stretched from Ecuador to Southern Chile.

Quipu knots
The death of Atahualpa

Who were the Incas?

The Incas were a powerful civilization that flourished in the Andes Mountains of South America. They built impressive cities like Cuzco and Machu Picchu, with monumental buildings constructed using large stones cut and fitted together without mortar.


The Incas’ territory was rich in gold, silver and other precious metals, which they often used for religious purposes, like making intricate staffs for priests. They also venerated llamas as sacred animals, as well as using them for food and clothing.

The Incas were ruled by emperors known as the Sapa Inca who held absolute power over their subjects. At the height of its power, this empire stretched all the way down the western coast of South America, from modern Ecuador to Chile.

The origin of the Incas

The Incas started off as a farming settlement in the mountains of Peru. Their first ruler was Manco Capac, who was said to carry a golden staff. According to legend, he and his sisters built the city of Cusco after Manco Capac had stuck this staff in the ground.

The Incas continued to grow in strength, and in the 15th century, they started to build an empire. Whenever they encountered another tribe, they tried to come to diplomatic agreements, but if the tribe refused, the Incas would use their military might instead.

While the Incas’ territory was rich in gold and precious metals, they did not have access to iron or steel. Because of this, they used wooden weapons, like clubs and spears. Sometimes, they would also take advantage of the mountainous terrain, rolling rocks down slopes to crush enemy soldiers.

Roads and bridges

The Incas were highly efficient when it came to claiming enemy territory, and even more efficient at maintaining and controlling it. A lot of this came down to infrastructure, which enabled them to connect newly acquired territories with the rest of the empire.

They built roads through mountains and valleys, which meant that goods, messages and government officials could travel easily from place to place. The Incas even constructed rope bridges over treacherous ravines and gorges. These bridges were extremely strong, and marvels of early modern engineering.

These roads and bridges were suitable for llamas, which were often used for transport, as well as chasqui runners – professional messengers who carried documents around the empire. It was an advanced system which helped the Incas to maintain communication and control.

Quipu knots


The Incas did have a writing system, but it was unlike anything else in the world. They communicated using quipu knots: strings of knotted cords, usually made from cotton or wool.

The knots were tied in different ways to represent different numerical values. This allowed the Incas to keep track of their taxes and census data with great accuracy. These records were often carried around the empire by the chasqui messengers.

Historians believe that quipus were used for more than just numerical records; they think the Incas also used them to store words and literary content such as stories or poems. Unfortunately, the stories told by quipu knots are yet to be decoded.

Religious worship

The Incas believed in a pantheon of gods, with the sun god Inti being the most important. They built temples to honor him, such as the Sun Temple in Cusco, which had walls completely covered by sheets of gold.

Llamas were also important animals in Inca religion, and played a role in many of their oldest stories. For example, in one story, the llamas warned people to move to higher ground. Afterwards, a flood swept through the valley, washing away all the people who did not listen.

The Incas often sacrificed llamas and alpacas, but they only practiced human sacrifice on rare occasions, like an emperor’s funeral. The sacrifices were usually children, probably because adults were no longer innocent and pure.

Incan gold

The Inca had access to vast supplies of gold and silver, but they did not view these precious metals in terms of pure material value. Instead, they had religious importance.

The Incas believed gold was the sweat of the sun, and represented the sun’s regenerative powers. Temples were often adorned with gold, while priests wore golden jewelry and carried golden staffs.

The neighboring Muisca people had access to even more gold than the Incas. Supposedly, the Muisca chief would cover his body in gold dust, then jump into a lake as part of a religious ritual. Stories like these may have inspired the myth of El Dorado – a city of gold which was said to exist somewhere deep in South America.

The arrival of Europeans

In 1532, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro arrived in the Inca Empire with a small force of men. He caught the Incas during a period of instability; a recent succession crisis had only just been resolved, with Atuahalpa becoming Sapa Inca.


Atahualpa decided to meet with the Spanish. They assembled in the town of Cajamarca, and a Spanish priest was sent forward to speak with Atahualpa. The priest offered the Sapa Inca a Bible – the Spanish thought, if they could convert Atahualpa to Christianity, there would be no need for fighting.

But Atahualpa had never seen a book before. He put it next to his ear and waited for it to talk to him. When it did not, he threw the Bible to the ground, exasperated. The Spanish were insulted, and launched an attack, killing 2000 Incas and taking Atahualpa hostage.

The collapse of the Incas

After taking Atahualpa hostage, the Spanish demanded a room full of gold in return for the emperor’s life. The Incas scrambled to do as the Spanish had asked, but when the gold was assembled, the Spanish killed Atahualpa anyway.

Without their Sapa Inca, the empire’s collapse was swift and devastating. Several new emperors came to power, but they were weak and easily defeated. To make things worse, many Incas were killed by European diseases such as smallpox, which they had no natural immunity against. In some places, more than 90% of the local people were killed by European disease.

Those who survived faced a new way of life under Spanish rule, with their culture and religion suppressed and replaced with Catholicism. Thousands of Incas were enslaved by the Spaniards, and forced to work in mines.

The legacy of the Incas

Certain aspects of the Incan Empire survived the Spanish onslaught. For example, in parts of modern Peru, millions of people still speak Quechua – a group of languages once spoken in the Incan Empire. In addition to this, some of their customs have survived, such as a traditional weaving technique using llama wool and natural dyes.

Apart from this, most of the Incan legacy was eliminated by their Spanish conquerors. They destroyed temples, burned quipu knots, and stamped out any Incan religious practices.

One place which the Spanish did not manage to destroy was Machu Picchu: a mountain settlement so remote that the Spanish did not know it existed. It was rediscovered in the 1900s, and is a rich archaeological site. Its inhabitants probably died of smallpox, but their legacy lives on in the ruins and artifacts which historians can study today.

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