The Inca Empire was the largest empire in the Americas, stretching down the Andes to include parts of modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Chile, and Argentina. The Inca themselves called their empire Tawantinsuyu, which translates to “The Four Regions Together” or “Realm of the Four Parts.”
The rise of the Inca Empire is a story of meteoric success. For a century, Inca leader after Inca leaders incorporated vast new swathes of territory into their growing empire. Beginning sometime in the 1400s, the empire was at its zenith when Spanish conquistadors led by Franciso Pizzaro marched into the borders of Tawantinsuyu.
By 1525, the Inca Empire had conquered approximately 770,000 square miles of territory. How did this one group of Quechua speaking people come to so thoroughly dominate the political landscape of western South America?
The Incas’ Origins
The Inca, like any other people throughout time (modern, ancient, medieval, whatever) had tales of their origins which combined fact and myth. And, like anyone else, the myths are a lot more fun, so let’s start with those.
According to the records Spanish chroniclers left, there were some 40 different origin stories the Inca told about their people and their empire. Luckily for us, historians have since realized all these stories fall into three main categories: the Inca originating at a place called Pacariqtambo and a god creating the first Inca ruler at Lake Titicaca.
The Pacariqtambo Origin Story
The most popular of these three among the Inca seems to have been the story that placed their origins at Pacariqtambo.
The crux of the Pacariqtambo origins story is that the first Incas were created by the gods in a set of three or four different caves. The area where these caves were located was known as Tambo Tocco. The Inca called the central cave Capac Tocco and the caves on either side Maras Tocco and Sutic Tocco.
According to this legend, Viracocha, the creator god, created the first Inca emperor, Manco Capac. The sun god, Inti, then created Manco Capac’s brothers and sisters in three different caves.
At first, however, it was not clear who would emerge as the leader. The gods had created eight brothers and sisters, who were then paired off and married. Apparently, once out of the cave the brother named Ayar Manco was chosen to lead the small group and took the title Manco Capac.
Once leader, Manco Capac led the Incas in search of a homeland, ultimately founding the Inca capital at Cuzco. Along the way, the other mythical first Incas met interested fates, from being trapped inside a cave to turning themselves into sacred objects.
By the end of the journey, only Manco Capac, his son, and the women of the original group remained. All later Inca rulers would claim descent from Manco as a means of legitimizing their rule – like how European kings at the time claimed to have been put on the throne by god.
The Lake Titicaca Origin Story
Another popular origin story among the Inca, and far less convoluted, was one that saw Manco Capac created at Lake Titicaca.
A massive land locked lake high in the Andes along the border of Peru and Bolivia, Lake Titicaca had played an important role in Andean religion for a long time. So, it’s no surprise that the Inca ended up working the impressive lake into the stories they told about themselves.
According to this legend, Inti created Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo (a female character who also featured prominently in the Pacariqtambo myth) on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. The god gave these two the mission of bringing civilization to the people of the region and gave Manco Capac a gold staff which would guide him to the Inca’s homeland.
Along their journey, Manco Capac used the rod to test the soil in order to find a suitable location for his people to put down roots (see what I did there?). Finally, upon arriving in Cusco, the staff sank into the ground, signifying that Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo had reached their destination.
The people of the area then recognized Manco Capac as their ruler, and built his royal residence and sun temple in honor of Inti on the spot where the golden rod sank into the earth.
What Archaeology Has to Say
Given that historians and archaeologist are only now beginning to crack the code on the Incan system of encoding meaning in strings known as quipu, much of the verifiable evidence we have for the early days of the Inca civilization come from the archaeological record.
Based on the work of archaeologists, it seems that two different peoples combined to form the group that became the Incas. The first had their roots in the area around Cusco, which could become the Incan capital. The second migrated north from Lake Titicaca.
So, even though mythological origins stories have fantastical tales of gods creating men, brothers marrying sisters, and a golden staff guiding an emperor, there does seem to have been a nugget of fact beneath the myths.
After these two groups of people combined into a single society, their historical difference seems to have been encoded into law. Inca society was divided in two, with an upper and lower tier. The set of Incas whose ancestors come from the area around Cuzco made up the upper part. This upper tier of Incan society was given precedence in religious and imperial ceremonies, but was otherwise equal to the lower tier. The lower part of Incan society was made up of those who claimed ancestry from the Lake Titicaca emigrants.
These two groups came together at the right place and right time to form a quickly expanding empire. Their region of the Andes had been home to complex political systems for centuries and was home to two major empires that the Inca could learn from before ultimately defeating.
The Early Years of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire
No matter how the Inca culture came about, by the thirteenth-century they had established Cuzco as an independent polity. Over the next century, Cuzco and the Inca continued to develop and grow. Incan wealth grew so much that Inca Roca, who ruled the Inca from 1350-1380, had a palace built for himself.
In these first stages of the Incan state it functioned more like a kingship than an empire. A powerful ruler, called the Sapa Inca, governed out of Cusco, a rapidly developing city, and made alliances and war with neighbors.
For the first two hundred or so years of Inca history, this was how it went. The fourth Inca ruler, Mayta Capac, began to expand Inca power within the Cusco valley. By conquering or allying with neighboring peoples in a way that allowed him to collect tribute. This increased wealth fueled Cusco’s development, allowing the Inca rulers to build structures like palaces and temples in their capital.
The fifth Inca ruler, Capac Yupanuqi (also spelled Qhapag Yupanki) expanded the Inca’s borders beyond the Cusco valley for the first time. From here on in, Inca expansion will continue at a breakneck pace and so we’ll refer to their rulers as emperors for the remainder of the article.
Following Capac Yupanuqi, Viracocha Inca, bearing the name of the creator god, instituted a brilliant policy. Following the conquest of a region, a number of that area’s inhabitants would be relocated elsewhere within Inca territory. This took away conquered peoples’ abilities to retain their sense of community and independence from the Inca Empire, making it much harder to stage a rebellion. This policy served the Inca well throughout their entire period of growth, though it must have proven heartbreaking for those who were relocated hundred, or even thousands, of miles from home.
The Newly Risen Inca Empire Gets Going
With their sea legs now under them, the Inca began building one of the largest empire’s the world has ever seen. 1438 is the date traditionally agreed upon for the Incas adopting an aggressive type of imperialism. In that year, the neighboring Chanca nation invaded Inca territory. The Chanca seemed to have won early victories against the Inca, as the emperor Viracocha Inca fled with his heir, Inca Urcon.
Picking up the slack, another son of Viracocha, Inca Yupanqui, took control of the Inca armies and led them to victory against the Chanca. Following this victory, Inca Yupanqui claimed the throne, making himself the Inca emperor, and took the name Pachacuti.
The Conquests of the Great Sapa Inca Pachacuti
Pachacuti reigned from 1438-1471. Under his stewardship the Inca Empire expanded north to Quito, Ecuador and southward to take the highlands around Lake Titicaca, a religiously important site of the Inca.
Pachacuti led the conquests of the territory between Lake Titicaca and Lake Junín. This gave the Inca control of roughly half of modern day Peru.
As Pachacuti aged, he gave control of the Inca field armies to his son, Topa Inca. As commander under his father, Topa Inca conquered the rest of Peru and pushed the empire’s boundary north to Quito. It seems reasonable that victories cemented him as Pachacuti’s true successor in the eyes of the Inca.
Expansion Under Topa Inca
Following the death of his father, the great Sapa Inca Pachacuti, Topa Inca took sole control of the Inca Empire. If we judge Inca emperors by their conquests, then Topa Inca proved a worthy successor to his formidable father.
Under Topa Inca, the Incan Empire expanded by a whopping 2,500 miles. This included extending the empire to its southernmost point, in what is today central Chile. Along the way, Topa Inca’s armies conquered the highlands of Bolivia and northwest Argentina.
Even with the modern advances of automotive travel, traversing the thousands of miles that separate Cusco from Santiago, Chile would be daunting. Imagine doing it on foot, at the head of an army, having to conquer enemies all the way.
Closer to home, Topa Inca pacificied a rebellion that broke out along the southern coast of Peru. Though this area was already part of the empire, Topa Inca’s success against the rebels guaranteed that Inca hegemony would not again be threatened in the area.
Huana Capac and the Empire’s Final Victories
Under Huana Capac, the next leader of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire reached its zenith. During the time that the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean and the Aztec Empire was happening farther north, the Incan Empire reached its largest size.
Huana Capa ruled Tawanatisuy from 1493-1525. During this time, he pushed the borders of the empire to the border of modern day Ecuador and Colombia. He then moved east to annex territories in the eastern Peruvian jungles near today’s Cajamarca.
Unfortunately for his empire, Huana Capac died suddenly and without naming an heir. This kicked off a bloody civil war for control of the empire and the imperial crown.
Lastering from 1527-1532, the civil war pitted brother against brother, literally, as the two sons of Huana Capac, Atahuallpa and Huascar, vied to replace their father as the Sapa Inca.
Ultimately, Atahuallpa and his forces proved victorious. Unfortunately, we’ll never know if he would have proven a worthy successor to Huana Capac. The resources and man power lost during the struggle, however, weakened the Inca Empire and its military strength at the worst possible time. Mere months after Atahuallpa took the throne, Francisco Pizzaro and his band of conquistadors arrived in Peru.
The Four Regions of Tawantinsuyu
As the Inca grew their new empire, they divided it into four realms, or suyus. This seems to have been done to ease the administration of such a vast empire, as each suyu had its own governor. This governor oversaw the local administrators, who themselves administered the law, organized labor projects, oversaw the people collecting resources, and generally imposed the will of the empire.
Each of the four realms brought the Ina plenty of wealth and headaches along the way. To better understand how the Inca thought of and governed their new empire, let’s examine the four regions of Tawantinsuyu.
Antisuyu stretched east of Cusco into the rainforest environments of Peru, Argentina, and Ecuador. Though the maps of this region will be larger or smaller depending the source you consult, the Incas seem to have thought of Antisuyu as the rainforest region of their empire.
The word “anti” in Quechua appears to have been the word the Incas used for the various ethno-cultural groups that lived in the Amazonian climates to their east. Interestingly, the word “anti” was later hispanicized to “Andes,” which gave the mountain range its modern name.
The Inca never built large towns or military garrisons within the Antisuyu region. Instead, they used it as a means to extract natural resources not readily available in the Cusco valley. Also, the elites of the empire appear would build structures to serve as their vacation homes here, reminiscent of how Roman leaders built luxurious villas throughout the conquered regions of Italy.
In fact, Antisuyu was home to Machu Picchu. The site’s finely crafted sun temple, imperial chambers, and terraced architecture continue impress on modern viewers the wealth and luxury on display in Antisuyu.
Spreading west and north of Cusco, Chinchaysuyu reached all the way to modern day Quito. It was an extremely important economic asset to the Inca Empire, as it was wealthier than the three other suyus combined.
This region of Tawantinsuyu covered the Andean highlands and Pacific coast between Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. To effectively manage this massive and wealthy province, the Incas established an intricate system of roads.
Known as the qhapaq ñan, this road system criss-crossed the entire empire. But, the roads in Chinchaysuyu are great examples of Inca ingenuity and might. Heading west out of Cusco, a major road carved an almost direct path to the Pacific coast; no easy feat when you consider they had to drop several thousand feet in elevation along the way. This coastal road then extended north into Ecuador. Another northern road ran along the Andean highlands straight to Quito.
These roads helped keep the wealth flowing and ensured the Inca could send military units to put down would-be rebellions easily. No empire worth its salt would want to lose its cash cow.
The largest region in Tawantinsuyu, Collasuyu stretched south from Cusco. It covered areas in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and southern Peru.
The region first came to the Inca’s attention due to the large herds of llamas and alpacas a rival kingdom (Tiwanaku) raised in the mountain pastures in Peru and Bolivia. Textiles were an extremely important part of Andean and Incan culture, so these herds represented great wealth to the Incas.
The region also held one of the mythical origin sites for the Inca: Lake Titicaca. Collasuyu thus also evolved into a very important religious region for the Incan Empire. A number of temples have been excavated and archaeologists have found evidence of human sacrifice along the mountain peaks in the area
This suyu also provided the Inca with precious metals, including silver, copper, tin, and valuable gold resources.
Similar to Collasuyu, Contisuyu held a significant place in the Inca religion. They believed that it contained the site of Pacariqtambo, one of the sites of the Inca’s founding in their own lore. This religious importance has been corroborated by archaeologists, who have also found sacrificial bodies high in the mountains.
In this region of Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire also showed off its civil prowess. Continsuyu stretched west and south from Cusco to the shores of the Pacific. This is a difference in altitude of 19,000 feet. Building their elaborate road system here was no easy thing.
Sources on Tawantinsuyu, the Inca Empire
- “Engineering the Inka Empire,” americanindian.si.edu
- Gordon F. McEwan, The Incas: A New Perspectives (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 57
- McEwan, The Incas, 57
- McEwan, The Incas, 58
- McEwan, The Incas, 58
- McEwan, The Incas, 58-60
- McEwan, The Incas, 67-68
- Mark Cartwright, “Cusco,” worldhistory.org
- “Inca,” britannica.com
- Mark Cartwright, “Inca Civilization,” worldhistory.orgg
- Michael A. Malpass, Daily Life in the Inca Empire (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996)
- “Inca,” britannica.com
- Malpass, Daily Life in the Inca Empire
- Mark Cartwright, “Inca Government,” worldhistory.org
- Craig Morris and Adriana von Hagen, The Incas: Lords of the Four Quarters (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 186
- Morris and von Hagen, The Incas, 133
- “Engineering the Inka Empire,” americanindian.si.edu