The Incas were pre-Columbian (which means before the arrival of Christopher Columbus on American shores) native people of western South America. This is what the text books say, but it would be more accurate to describe Incas as the leaders of these pre-Columbian peoples. Before these modern days of all people being equal, the Incas did not feel at all equal to the illiterate peasants they ruled, though they were not over-educated themselves, speaking a language called Quechua, a series of clicks made with the lips, roof of the mouth and teeth. It was not written, and is still spoken and used for communication purposes across the Andes. In the 1960s a communist military President of Perú tried to re-introduce quechua as the official language; he failed. He had a wooden leg, and this was used in a cruel joke by the Peruvians, who nicknamed him Inca Sinchupata (‘Inca Withoutaleg’ – his real name was Velasco Alvarado).
The capital was Cuzco, now much modernized starting with the Spaniards who built several churches and town houses – many still standing. The Incas were contemporary with, and subsequently superseded another culture – Chimú. Records beginning in the 16th century state that the Inca Dynasty was founded by Manco Capac around 1200 a.d. but serious development did not start until around 1438, by which time the Incas dominated an empire stretching from (what is now) northern Ecuador, across Perú and into Bolivia, including parts of northern Chile and Argentina by 1525. We are talking about some 3,500 kilometres running north to south.
Three rulers carried out this expansion: Pachacuti (died 1471), Topa Inca (died 1493) and Huayna Capac (died 1525). After the latter’s death civil wars began breaking-up administration and government of the empire, disturbing Huaynac’s son Atahualpa in his attempt to rule such a colossal region. Sadly for him, but not for civilization, Atahualpa was further interrupted by the arrival of the Spanish under Francisco Pizzarro, making landfall in 1552.
Pizarro’s business, for which he had been contracted, was conquest – total domination of the native peoples being a necessary evil for which Pizarro was prepared. War broke out between the handful of Spanish soldiers, sailors and priests and the natives. Atahualpa was defeated and invited as a prisoner of war to gather gold, silver and precious stones from his empire and fill a large room with them for the conquistadores, at Cajamarca high up in the foothills of the Andes.
Once Pizarro had secured what was supposed to be literally a king’s ransom, he ordered the strangling of the Inca King. It was 1533. Records do not show when Atahualpa was born, but in an important stage play composed on this subject, the dramatist Peter Shaffer offers a noble prince in his early thirties. *
Pizzaro went on to capture Cuzco and change its architecture, and begin the business of shipping Inca treasure back to Imperial Spain. By 1537 the Incas’s empire had been subdued. A secret the Spanish did not know was that they had built a fortified stronghold high up in the green mountains above the Urubamba River, only discovered (by a North American pilot in a small aeroplane) in the 20th century. This was and is Macchu Picchu.
One of the earlier rulers, Sapa Inca, known as ‘Son of the Sun’ ruled by divine right (of the Sun, not God) and was indeed treated as if he were a god. He controlled a vast legislative bureaucracy, regulating a complex system of regional capitals. One of these became the capital of Ecuador – Quito. Agriculture, food production, collection and distribution, the production of crafts (for example figures and plates of pure gold and silver as well as pewter), the building or roads and bridges, the running of an efficient army (at least until the arrival of Spaniards armed with gunpowder and carried by horses) and the erection of fortresses were all organised by Sapa Inca. As dictator he was unlike Stalin in that if he found small rebellious populations, he did not slaughter them out of hand, but moved them to another part of the Empire.
Writing as we know it did not exist, but records were kept on quipus, sets of cords of different colours and thicknesses tied together with a system of (coded) knots. Inca technology was surprising in its intricacy and generally high standards. It certainly amazed and pleased the Spaniards, who discovered factories and workshops busy in the production of ceramics, textiles and metal artefacts, decorated finely, incorporating many regional patterns. In architecture the Incas were accomplished masters, incorporating massive and perfectly cut stone in their masonry (see the fortress of Sacsahuamán)
Their agriculture was based on hillside terracing where they cultivated maize and the potato as well as narcotic herbs used for chewing to keep hunger at bay. For food they grew the guinea pig, a great delicacy, along with the domestic dog; llama and alpaca for both food and clothing. Religion was restricted to the Sun cult.
*The Royal Hunt of the Sun, staged in London and New York, and filmed in 1969 with Christopher Plummer as Atahualpa.