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. Until recently scholars knew little about this empire. Discoveries near Cusco, Peru, have changed all that. Cusco was the cradle of Inca civilization.

Brian Bauer, an archaeologist from the United States, has long been interested in the Inca Empire. When he began his studies in the 1980s, most historians believed the first Inca ruler was a young Andean named Pachacutec, who became king in the early 1400s. They believed he turned a small collection of villages into a mighty empire in just one generation. Bauer didn't think this was possible. He was certain the Inca empire went back much further.

So Bauer began exploring the Cusco Valley. He and his team marched up and down the steep mountain slopes. They carefully recorded every broken piece of pottery or toppled stone wall they came across. Their slow, careful work paid off. Bauer managed to discover thousands of previously unknown Inca sites. Evidence found in these sites proved the Inca empire had risen much earlier than previously believed. Instead of the 1400s, it had formed sometime between 1200 and 1300.

Inca Farmers Feed the Growing State

Before the Inca, the rulers of the region were the mighty Wari. By 1100, the Wari had fallen. In part, this was due to a severe drought in the Andes that lasted for at least 100 years. After the Wari fell, local chiefs across the Peruvian highlands battled over scarce water. They also led raids into neighboring villages in search of food. Many villagers fled to freezing, windswept hideouts high in the mountains.

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

At the same time, temperatures in the Andes started to become milder. As temperatures climbed, Inca farmers began to produce record harvests. They figured out new and clever ways to grow crops along mountain slopes. Soon, they had an abundance of food. This led to a growing population. In time, Inca rulers could call up more soldiers than any neighboring chief.

Inca kings soon began enlarging their territory. They struck alliances with neighboring lords, and handed out generous gifts to their new allies. When a lord stirred up trouble, the Inca kings sent their troops against him. In all the surrounding valleys, local lords gave in one by one. Finally, there was only one mighty state and one capital, the city of Cusco.

Inca kings then turned their attention to the rich southern lands surrounding Lake Titicaca. Sometime after 1400, King Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui began planning to seize this area. Pachacutec was one of the greatest of all Inca rulers.

The Colla Are Kicked Out

At the time, the Titicaca region was controlled by the Colla. Their lords ruled as many as 400,000 people in kingdoms spread around the lake. Their lands were rich with gold and silver, and they owned huge herds of alpacas and llamas. There were no horses in the Andes, so military success depended on such animals. Llamas could carry 31.7 kilograms (70 pounds) of supplies on their backs. If the Inca king could not conquer the Titicaca lords who owned these vast herds, he could never be safe.

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

Pachacutec issued the order to attack and his soldiers began advancing.

The fighting was fierce, but Pachacutec's men proved to be stronger. At battle's end, Colla bodies littered the ground.

The Inca Move in

In the years that followed, Pachacutec and his descendants defeated all the southern lords. However, military victory was only the first step. The lands the Inca had conquered were filled with many different peoples, who spoke different languages and had different customs. Many had no wish to be ruled by outsiders. Inca officials realized they needed to unify their vast empire. Only then would they be able to maintain control.

If provinces resisted, Inca rulers sent away the local people. Then, they replaced them with loyal subjects. The new arrivals settled in newly built towns. These were set up along Inca roads, which made it easier for Inca troops to quickly reach them.

Under Inca rule, Andean civilization flowered as never before. Inca engineers built a system of interconnected highways. Inca farmers mastered high-altitude agriculture. They grew around 70 different crops and filled storehouses with up to seven years' worth of food. Inca masons constructed architectural masterpieces. Some, like Machu Picchu, continues to amaze visitors today.

Inca Kings Built Royal Estates

The great Inca King Huayna Capac took power around 1493. By then, little seemed beyond the reach of the Inca's kings. To bring grandeur to his new capital in what is now Ecuador, Huayna Capac put more than 4,500 rebellious subjects to work hauling immense stone blocks all the way from Cusco. The stones were dragged a distance of nearly 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles). They were carted up and down steep mountain roads.

Meanwhile, in the Inca heartland, an army of workers built a royal estate for Huayna Capac and his family. At the king's command, they moved the Urubamba River to the southern side of the valley. They leveled hills and drained marshes. In the center of the estate, they built Huayna Capac's splendid new country palace, Quispiguanca.

This was only one of many grand royal estates. Each new Inca king built a city palace and a country home. So far, the ruins of 12 royal Inca estates have been discovered.

Even after these kings died, they remained the powers behind the throne. After Huayna Capac died around 1527, retainers mummified his body and carried it back to Cusco. Members of the royal family often visited the dead king to ask his advice on important matters. An oracle sitting at the king's side gave them his answers.

The Teen King Fights Back

In the year 1533, thousands of people packed into Cusco's main plaza. They were there to celebrate the arrival of their new, teenage king.

Two years earlier, Spanish invaders had landed in the north, bearing deadly new weapons. The Spaniards had taken the Inca king, Atahualpa, prisoner. Eight months later, they killed their royal captive. In 1533, the Spaniards picked a young prince to rule as a puppet king. His name was Manco Inca Yupanqui.

It was Manco Inca who was being installed that day in 1533. The crowd watched as the royal teenager was carried into the square. The mummies of his ancestors were carried along with him. They reminded all that Manco Inca came from a long line of kings.

In the months that followed, the Spanish invaders seized the palaces and country estates of Cusco. They took royal Inca women as mistresses and wives. Greatly angered by this, Manco Inca rebelled in 1536. He then tried to drive the Spanish from Cusco. When his army was defeated, he fled to the jungle city of Vilcabamba. From there, he continued to launch attacks for many years. The Spanish weren't able to seize Vilcabamba until 1572.

Where the Inca Mummies Lie Is a Mystery

During those war-torn years, the Inca's empire began to crumble. The Inca attempted to save what they could. Servants collected the precious bodies of the sacred kings and concealed them around Cusco. These hidden mummies were worshipped in secret. In 1559, the Spaniards decided to stamp out this practice. After a lengthy search, the remains of 11 Inca kings and several queens were tracked down and taken.

Spanish officials buried the greatest of the Inca kings in Lima, Peru. They were hidden in a secret spot far from the Andes and the people who loved and worshipped them. Today, the descendants of these Inca still live in the Andes. Many still speak the Inca language, and they still remember the names of their great kings.

Today, no one can say where Peru's greatest kings lie. Perhaps one day the royal Inca mummies will be discovered and returned to their descendants.

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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