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The Incas were an ancient people who lived in South America. Their unique culture began to spread during the 12th century, and within 400 years, they controlled a larger territory than any other South American cultural group had ever controlled. At its largest, over 1 million lived in a territory hugging the western coastline of South America from Ecuador in the north to what is now Chile in the south.
Incan culture spread by conquering other cultural groups. Installing local leaders into the government, they were generally generous toward anyone who defended against intruders. They also made a point of providing favorable treatment to all people who did not resist conquest.
The leader of the core group of Incas was called the Inca and was considered to be a divine descendant of the sun god — the most important god of their polytheistic religion. The Inca had absolute power, and immediately below him in the social hierarchy was his royal family, which was made up of his siblings, parents, wife, children, and concubines. Below the royal family were the tribal heads, who each led a clan. Under them were the commoners, who were organized in groups of tens, with a boss for each group. This strict hierarchy strongly discouraged individual social advancement and created a highly centralized society.
The Incas managed some impressive feats, such as large-scale terracing of mountainsides and building many stone structures without the help of mortar. They were so successful at terracing that, during their heyday, there was more cultivated land in the Andean highlands than there is in modern times. Perhaps their most well-known terraced mountain-ridge is Machu Picchu in Peru.
Members of this culture also built many large buildings with stones that were so precisely cut that they did not require mortar. Because of their building prowess, many of their buildings are still standing today. They also used their stone-cutting skills to build roads complete with tunnels and bridges throughout the Andes, and they built aqueducts to bring water to their cities.
Their language is called Quechua, which is still spoken by many indigenous peoples living in the Andes. Instead of writing, the Incas used colored knotted cords called quipu to keep records. They were also highly accomplished in mathematics, medicine, and astronomy.
In 1531, Spaniard Francisco Pizarro invaded their territory. With only 200 soldiers, he managed to kidnap Atahualpa, the then-current Inca. Atahualpa resisted Pizarro's attempts to use him as a puppet ruler, so Pizarro executed him in 1533. After another 40 years of struggles, the Spanish finished conquering the group in the 1570s.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who were the Incas and where did they originate?
The Incas were a South American civilization known for creating the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. They originated in the Peruvian highlands around the early 13th century. According to historical records, their empire, Tawantinsuyu, expanded through a combination of military conquest and peaceful assimilation, encompassing regions of modern-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia.
What were the major achievements of the Inca civilization?
The Incas are celebrated for their sophisticated engineering and architectural feats, including the construction of Machu Picchu and an extensive network of roads and bridges that connected their vast empire. They also developed advanced agricultural techniques, such as terrace farming, and had a unique system of record-keeping known as quipus, which used knotted strings to convey information. Their achievements in social organization and governance were also notable, with a centralized bureaucracy that effectively managed resources and people.
How did the Inca Empire come to an end?
The Inca Empire met its demise with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro in the 16th century. The Spaniards captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa in 1532, and despite receiving a ransom of gold and silver, they executed him. The combination of military conquest, the spread of European diseases to which the Incas had no immunity, and internal strife eventually led to the fall of the empire by 1572.
What was the religious belief system of the Incas?
The Incas were polytheistic, worshipping multiple gods related to natural elements and celestial bodies. Their chief deity was the sun god, Inti, and they believed their emperor was a descendant of the sun. The Incas also practiced ancestor worship and believed in an afterlife. They held various rituals and festivals throughout the year to honor their gods and maintain harmony with nature.
How did the Incas manage to run such a large empire without a written language?
Despite not having a traditional written language, the Incas managed their empire through the use of quipus, a system of knotted cords that recorded numerical and other types of information crucial for administration. Additionally, they relied on an extensive network of messengers known as chasquis, who ran along relay stations throughout the empire to convey orders and news. This efficient communication system allowed the Incas to maintain control over their vast territories.