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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On the remote Peruvian island of Taquile, in the middle of the great Lake Titicaca, hundreds of people stand in silence as a Catholic priest recites a prayer. Many of these men and women are descended from Inca colonists sent here more than 500 years ago. Most still keep to the old ways. They weave brilliantly colored cloth, speak the traditional language of the Inca, and tend their fields as they have for centuries.

Today, they are celebrating the fiesta of Santiago, or St. James. In Inca times this would have been the festival of Illapa, the Inca god of lightning. As the prayers draw to a close, four men dressed in black raise a painted statue of Santiago. Walking behind the priest in a small procession, they carry the saint for all to see, just as the Inca once shouldered the mummies of their revered kings.

The names of those Inca rulers still ring with power and ambition centuries after their death: Viracocha Inca (meaning Creator God Ruler), Huascar Inca (Golden Chain Ruler), and Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (He Who Remakes the World). The royal Inca dynasty to which these men belonged rose from obscurity in Peru's Cusco Valley during the 13th century. Through charm, bribery, intimidation, and conquest its members created the largest pre-Columbian empire in the New World.

Until recently, scholars possessed few clues about the lives of Inca kings. Now, archaeologists are making up for lost time. Combing rugged mountain slopes near Cusco, they are discovering thousands of previously unknown sites, including the lost estates of Inca rulers. On the frontiers of the lost empire, they are piecing together dramatic evidence of the wars Inca kings fought and of their ability to forge dozens of ethnic groups into a united realm. The Inca's military might and impressive civilization sent a clear message, archaeologist Dennis Ogburn says: "I think they were saying, 'We are the most powerful people in the world, so don't even think of messing with us.'"

The Civilization Began much Earlier than People Think

U.S. archaeologist Brian Bauer has long been interested in the origins of the Inca Empire. When he began his studies in the 1980s, most historians believed that a brilliant, young Andean named Pachacutec became the first Inca king in the early 1400s, and transformed a small collection of villages into a mighty empire in just one generation. Bauer didn't believe it. He believed the Inca dynasty had far deeper roots, and was determined to find evidence of this.

So Bauer began exploring the Cusco Valley, the cradle of Inca civilization. With another U.S. archeologist, R. Alan Covey, and a team of Peruvian assistants, he marched up and down the steep mountain slopes carefully recording every pottery fragment or toppled stone wall he came across. Persistence paid off. Bauer and the others eventually discovered thousands of previously unknown Inca sites. This new evidence revealed for the first time how an Inca state had risen much earlier than previously believed—sometime between 1200 and 1300. The ancient rulers of the region, the mighty Wari, had fallen by 1100, in part due to a severe drought that afflicted the Andes for a century or more. Local chiefs across the Peruvian highlands battled over scarce water and led raiders into neighboring villages in search of food. Hordes of refugees fled to frigid, windswept hideouts above 3,962 meters (13,000 feet).

Inca Farmers Plant the Seeds for Growth

In the fertile, well-watered valley around Cusco, however, Inca farmers stood their ground. Instead of splintering apart and warring among themselves, Inca villages united into a small state capable of mounting an organized defense.

At the same time, temperatures in the Andes started to become milder. As temperatures climbed, Inca farmers moved up the formerly icy slopes. They built tiered agricultural terraces, irrigated their fields and reaped record corn harvests. "These surpluses," scientist Alex Chepstow-Lusty says, allowed the Inca to "free up many people for other roles, whether building roads or maintaining a large army." In time, Inca rulers could call up more soldiers than any neighboring chief.

With this big stick, Inca kings began eyeing the lands and resources of others. They struck marriage alliances with neighboring lords, taking their daughters as wives, and dispensed generous gifts to new allies. When a rival lord spurned their advances or stirred up trouble, they flexed their military might. In all the surrounding valleys, local lords succumbed one by one, until there was only one mighty state and one capital, the sacred city of Cusco.

Flush with success, Inca kings set their sights farther afield, on the wealthy lands surrounding Lake Titicaca. Sometime after 1400, one of the greatest Inca rulers, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, began planning his conquest of the south. It was the dawn of the empire.

Battles Build an Empire

Massed on a high, cold Peruvian plain north of the great lake in the mid-1400s, the army of the Colla bristled with battle gear, daring the Inca invaders to make war. Pachacutec scanned the enemy ranks in silence, preparing for the great battle ahead. The lords of the Titicaca region ruled as many as 400,000 people in kingdoms spread around the lake. Their lands were rich and desirable. Gold and silver veined the mountains, and herds of alpacas and llamas fattened in lush meadows. Military success in the Andes depended on such livestock. A llama, the only draft animal on the continent, could carry 31.7 kilograms (70 pounds) of gear on its back. Llamas, along with alpacas, also provided meat, leather, and fiber for clothing all in one—crucial military assets. If the Inca king could not conquer the Titicaca lords who owned these vast herds, he would live in fear of the day these lords would come to conquer him.

Pachacutec issued the order to attack. Playing panpipes carved from the bones of enemies and war drums fashioned from the skins of dead foes, his soldiers advanced toward the Colla forces, a moving wall of terror and intimidation. Then both sides charged. When the fog of battle lifted, Colla bodies littered the landscape.

In the years that followed, Pachacutec and his descendants subdued all the southern lords. "The conquest of the Titicaca Basin was the jewel in the crown of the Inca Empire," archaeologist Charles Stanish says. However, military victory was only the first step in the Inca's grand strategy of empire building. Officials next set about establishing civil control.

Andean Civilization Flourishes under Inca Rule

If provinces mounted resistance, Inca leaders deported inhabitants and replaced them with loyal subjects. Residents of remote, walled villages were moved to new Inca-controlled towns. These towns were erected along Inca roads—roads that sped the movement of Inca troops. Inca governors ordered the construction of roadside storehouses for those troops and commanded local communities to fill them with provisions. "The Inca were the organizational geniuses of the Americas," Stanish says.

Under Inca rule, Andean civilization flourished as never before. Inca engineers transformed fragmentary road networks into interconnected highways. Inca farmers mastered high-altitude agriculture, cultivating some 70 different native crops. Often, three to seven years' worth of food would be stockpiled in vast storage complexes. Inca masons raised timeless architectural masterpieces like Machu Picchu, which continues to awe visitors today.

Estates Fit for Inca Kings

By the time the Inca King Huayna Capac took power around 1493, little seemed beyond the reach of the Inca dynasty. To bring grandeur to his new capital in Ecuador, Huayna Capac put more than 4,500 rebellious subjects to work hauling immense stone blocks all the way from Cusco—a distance of nearly 1,609 kilometers (1,000 miles) up and down steep mountain roads. Meanwhile, in the Inca heartland, a small army of men and women toiled to construct a royal estate for Huayna Capac and his family. At the king's bidding, they moved the Urubamba River to the southern side of the valley. They leveled hills and drained marshes, then planted corn and many other crops. In the center of the estate, they laid stones and bricks for Huayna Capac's new country palace, Quispiguanca.

Encircled by parkland, fields, and gardens, Quispiguanca was a retreat from the world, a place for a warrior-king to unwind. Here, Huayna Capac entertained guests in the great halls and gambled with courtiers and other favorites, while his queen gardened and tended doves. The grounds boasted a secluded lodge and a forest reserved for hunting deer and other game.

Quispiguanca was not the only spectacular estate. Each new Inca king built a city palace and country home for himself and his offspring shortly after assuming power. To date, archaeologists have located ruins of roughly a dozen royal estates built by at least six Inca kings.

Even after these kings died, they remained the powers behind the throne. "The ancestors were a key element of Andean life," says Sonia Guillén, Peru's minister of culture. When Huayna Capac perished of a mysterious disease in Ecuador around 1527, retainers mummified his body and carried it back to Cusco. Members of the royal family frequently visited the deceased monarch, asking his advice on vital matters and heeding the replies given by an oracle sitting at his side.

Spanish Invaders Take Control

In the year 1533, thousands of people packed into the main plaza of Cusco to celebrate the arrival of their new, teenage king. Two years earlier, amid a civil war, foreign invaders had landed in the north. Metal-clad and bearing deadly new weapons, the Spaniards had journeyed to the northern Inca town of Cajamarca. There they had taken the Inca king, Atahualpa, prisoner. Eight months later, they executed their royal captive, and in 1533 their leader, Francisco Pizarro, picked a young prince, Manco Inca Yupanqui, to rule as a puppet king.

It was Manco Inca who was being installed that day in 1533. The crowd watched the royal teenager enter the square, carried along with the mummies of his ancestors. The mummies reminded all that Manco Inca descended from a long line of kings. Rulers of other realms might content themselves with displaying carved or painted images of their glorious ancestors. The Inca kings went one better, displaying the expertly preserved bodies of their forefathers.

In the months that followed, the Spanish invaders seized the palaces of Cusco and the spacious country estates and took royal women as mistresses and wives. Greatly angered by this, Manco Inca rebelled, and in 1536 tried to drive the Spanish from the realm. When his army suffered defeat, he fled Cusco for the jungle city of Vilcabamba, from which he launched guerrilla attacks. The Spanish wouldn't subdue his stronghold until 1572.

No One Knows Where the Kings Rest

During those turbulent decades, the Inca's sprawling network of roads, storehouses, temples and estates began slowly falling into ruin. As the empire crumbled, the Inca made a valiant attempt to preserve the symbols of kingly authority. Servants collected the precious bodies of the sacred kings and concealed them around Cusco, where they were worshipped in secret—and in defiance of Spanish priests. In 1559, Cusco's chief magistrate, Juan Polo de Ondegardo, resolved to stamp out this practice. He launched an official search for the bodies, questioning hundreds. With this information, he tracked down and seized the remains of 11 Inca kings and several queens.

For a time, the mummies of Pachacutec, Huayna Capac, and two other royals were put on display in a hospital that admitted only European patients. But the damp coastal climate caused the bodies to rot. So Spanish officials buried the greatest of the Inca kings in secrecy in Lima, Peru, far from the Andes and the people who loved and worshipped them.

Today, no one can say where Peru's greatest kings lie. Bauer, the American archeologist, sees this as a tragedy. "Can you imagine," he asks, "how American citizens would feel if the British had taken the bodies of the first several presidents back to London during the War of 1812?" Perhaps one day this injustice will be righted, and the royal Inca mummies will be returned to their descendants.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Heather Brady
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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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