Lofty Ambitions of the Inca

Lofty Ambitions of the Inca

Rising from obscurity to the heights of power, a succession of Andean rulers subdued kingdoms, sculpted mountains, and forged a mighty empire.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Sociology, Engineering, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History

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Long before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, the Inca created a mighty empire. It was the largest pre-Columbian empire in the Americas. The Inca empire began in Cusco, Peru. It first arose during the 1200s.

Before the Inca, the Wari ruled the Cusco region. By 1100, the Wari had fallen. Their fall was partly caused by a drought in the Andes. This drought lasted for 100 years. Hardly any rain fell. After the Wari fell, Andean chiefs battled over water. They also raided other villages in search of food. Many villagers fled. They went into hiding high in the freezing, windy mountains. Life became very hard for them.

The Empire Grows

Things were different in Cusco Valley. Inca farmers there stood their ground. They refused to flee. Instead of warring among themselves, Inca villages united into a small state. Soon, the Inca were strong enough to fight back.

Inca farmers were very skillful. They figured out clever new ways to grow crops along mountain slopes. At the same time, the Andes were becoming warmer. Farmers began producing record harvests. This led to a growing Inca population. The Inca soon had more soldiers than any neighboring people.

Inca kings began expanding their territory. If anyone stood in their way, they sent their troops against them. Others were won over with gifts. Local lords gave in one by one. Finally, there was only one mighty state. Its capital was the city of Cusco.

Inca kings soon wanted yet more territory. The rich lands around Lake Titicaca were particularly tempting. This region lay to the south of Cusco. Sometime after 1400, King Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui began planning an attack. Pachacutec was one of the greatest of all Inca rulers.

The Colla versus Pachacutec

At the time, the Titicaca region was controlled by the Colla. Their lords ruled as many as 400,000 people. Their lands were rich with gold and silver. The Colla lords also owned huge herds of llamas. These animals were very valuable in a place with no horses. Llamas could carry 31.7 kilograms (70 pounds) of supplies on their backs. Wars could not be won without them.

Pachacutec decided he wanted these riches. In the mid-1400s, two armies gathered near Lake Titicaca. On one side was the army of the Colla. On the other were Pachacutec's men.

Pachacutec gave the order to attack. His soldiers advanced toward the Colla troops.

The fighting was fierce. However, Pachacutec's men proved stronger.

Eventually, all the southern lords were defeated. But military victory was only the first step. The Inca empire had to be unified. The lands the Inca had conquered were filled with many different peoples. These peoples spoke different languages. They had different customs. Many had no wish to be ruled by outsiders.

Some areas of the empire resisted Inca rule. When that happened, Inca rulers kicked the local people out. Then, they replaced them with loyal subjects. The new arrivals settled in newly built towns. These towns were set up along Inca roads. That made it easier for troops to quickly reach them. Storehouses were also set up along the roads. They were filled with food for the troops. Local villagers had to provide this food.

The Inca Were Great Engineers

Andean civilization was very successful under Inca rule. Inca engineers built great highways. Inca farmers produced more food than ever before. Inca masons built great structures. Some still stand today. Machu Picchu is just one amazing example.

The great Inca King Huayna Capac took power around 1493. He created a new capital city in what is now Ecuador. To build this city, more than 4,500 workers dragged huge stone blocks all the way from Cusco. The stones were hauled nearly 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles). They were carried along steep mountain roads.

A City Fit for a King

Back in Cusco, an army of workers built a royal estate for Huayna Capac. They flattened hills. They drained marshes. They even moved the Urubamba River. In the center of the estate, they built Huayna Capac's splendid new country palace. It was named Quispiguanca.

This was only one of many grand royal estates. Each new Inca king built his own. So far, the ruins of 12 estates have been found.

Inca kings remained all-important even after they died. After Huayna Capac died in 1527, servants mummified his body. They then carried the mummy back to Cusco. Members of the royal family often visited the dead king. They asked his advice on important matters. An oracle sitting at the king's side gave them his answers.

The Spanish Take Over

In 1531, Spanish invaders landed in Peru. The Spaniards took the Inca king, Atahualpa, prisoner. Eight months later, they killed him. In 1533, the Spaniards picked a young prince to rule as king. His name was Manco Inca Yupanqui.

By 1536, Manco Inca was no longer willing to serve the Spanish. He began trying to drive them from Cusco. When his army was defeated, he fled to the city of Vilcabamba. From there, he continued to launch attacks. The fighting lasted for many years. Vilcabamba didn't fall until 1572.

The Empire Falls Apart

Meanwhile, the Inca's empire began to fall apart. The Inca saved what they could. Servants collected the precious bodies of the sacred kings. They then concealed them around Cusco. The hidden mummies were worshipped in secret. In 1559, the Spaniards decided to stamp out this practice. The remains of 11 Inca kings were tracked down and taken.

The Spaniards buried the greatest of the Inca kings in Lima, Peru. They were hidden in a secret spot. There they lay far from the people who loved and worshipped them.

Today, the Inca's descendants still live in the Andes. Many still speak the Inca language. Most still remember the names of their great kings.

No one knows where Peru's greatest kings lie. Their burial spot has been forgotten. Maybe one day the royal mummies will be found. Perhaps then they can be returned to their descendants at last.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Heather Brady
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 12, 2024

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