The Inca Empire

The story of the Incas is really quite extraordinary.  In many ways their accomplishments are comparable to the Greeks, the Mayans, and the Egyptians.

As they conquered communities as far north as Quito, Ecuador and as far south as the middle of Chile,  they incorporated and spread the best techniques for architecture, astronomy, and architecture that they found.  We are still perplexed by their building construction and  unable to replicate it.  However, they had no written language, and when the Spanish invaded they did their level best to destroy all evidence of the Inca culture.  Much of what is known was written down by one man, Garcilaso de la Vega, who was half Spanish, half Inca.

We have learned many interesting things about the Incas:

Building Construction

Saqsaywaman is big. Char and our guide, Joseph

The Inca temple, Saqsaywaman is a big collection of huge boulders tightly knit together. Char and our guide, Joseph

One of the most interesting things about the Incas is their building construction.  They built

How they split the granite rocks.  The first step is to chip holes along a line.

How they split the granite rocks. The first step is to chip holes along a line.

rock walls out of granite

Bronze chisel, seen in the Inca Museum. This might have been used to chip the holes in granite

Bronze chisel, seen in the Inca Museum. This might have been used to chip the holes in granite

boulders weighing up to 130 tons.  What is amazing is that no mortar was used, and these huge rocks fit together so closely that you can´t stick a knife between them.  One tourist remarked that if you gave her big sheets of paper and a pair of scissors, she couldn´t fit the papers together as closely as the Incas placed those boulders.  How did they do it?  The most reasonable explanation we heard was given in a site called Saqsaywaman, where our guide said it took 20,000 men 70 years to build it.  With that much manpower you might be able place a boulder, see where it needs grinding, remove it, grind it, and try again. Peru is subject to major earthquakes.  In 1950 one destroyed most of Cusco, yet the Inca walls are still nearly perfect after more than 500 years.  Why?   The Incas built the walls so they are inclined slightly, not standing at 90 degrees like most Spanish colonial buildings.

Empire Management

Quipu – a means to communicate through knots tied in colored strings

The Incas began over-running their neighboring cultures in about 900 AD and achieved an empire that stretched 3,200 miles from mid Ecuador to mid Chile by the early 1400´s.  Most of their expansion was in the last 100 years before the Spanish arrived.  The primary means of communication was runners, called chasquis,  running on 25,000 miles of roads and carrying messages encoded in knots tied in strings called Quipu.  How could they expand so quickly and how could they control such a vast empire?  One interesting response to this question is the idea that people actually wanted to be absorbed into the Inca Empire because it brought them a better over-all quality of life.

The Incas used the citizens in the empire to build their amazing buildings and work on the large agricultural projects.  Instead of paying in taxes, people paid by providing labor.  We were told that it’s probable most people enjoyed this form of “taxation” because work was one of the key values of the Incan society. Plenty of Chicha corn beer and music likely helped too.

Agriculture, Astronomy, Plant Breeding, Medicine

The Incas built labs for studying optimal methods of irrigation, terracing, and what plants to plant where.

Tipon, a site where the Incas experimented with irrigation.  Though it doesn´t show in this photo, functioning aquaducts run above each terrace, and the water can be diverted to flood a terrace.

Tipon, a site where the Incas experimented with irrigation. Though it doesn´t show in this photo, functioning aquaducts run above each terrace, and the water can be diverted to flood a terrace.

They developed new breeds of potato, corn, and quinoa.  They invented a foot plow for turning over the soil.  Their method for freeze drying potatoes was one of several food storage techniques they developed.    They were sophisticated regarding the timing of solstices and equinoxes, like the Mayans, and built structures to reflect and shine light in ways that would demonstrate exactly when the solstices occurred, as these were important points for planting and harvesting.  They had a calendar, but we learned it was not as exact as the Mayan calendar, as it had only 360 days in a year.  They had expertise in the use of medicinal plants, and even performed surgery to relieve brain swelling.  After the surgery they used golden caps to cover the wound.




Their religion was similar to that of many other Native American cultures, with a focus  on the earth (symbol: puma), sky (symbol: condor), and underground (symbol: serpent).   Interestingly, when we offered a beer to one of our guides, he poured a bit on the ground before drinking any, making an offering to Pachi-Mama, the mother earth.

The Inca Chakana symbol apparently provided a structure for expressing the various dimensions of their beliefs.

It represented the Inca Empire, with the four cardinal directions, and Cusco in the center, as Cusco was the geographical center of the empire.

It represented the 3 sectors of the universe, and the 3 animals that represent them:

        1. The Condor represents the Sky
        2. The Puma represents the terrestrial surface
        3. The Serpent represents the underworld

It represents the 3 rules

  1. Don´t lie
  2. Don´t be lazy
  3. Don´t steal

It represents the 3 pursuits for a full life

  1. Knowledge
  2. Love
  3. Work

The center circle represents Pacha Mama (mother earth).


Gold and Silver

The Incas considered gold and silver to be useful materials, but they did not consider them to have intrinsic value.  When the Spanish stripped Cusco of an estimated 39,000 pounds of gold and 78,000 pounds of silver, and melted it all down into ingots for transfer, the Incas began to understand the European concept of gold and silver as items of enormous intrinsic value.

Examples of some of the uses Incas had for these materials were decorative features on buildings, jewelry, cups and bowls, and mirrors for sending signals from one guard post to another by reflecting sunlight.

Evidently the Incas considered finely woven fabrics to be treasures. In this short video of a woman weaving in the traditional way, you can see how her left hand is selecting which warp strings the shuttle will go over and under to create the pattern.

Comparison to other Cultures

It is interesting to compare the Incas to other cultures such as the Aztecs which left pyramids and roads, and wonder whether there was any communication between the cultures.

It is also interesting to compare the Incas to cultures such as our Native Americans that left foundations of simple adobe houses and pottery chards, and wonder why their development was so different.  One thought is that perhaps the Native Americans lived in a land where an individual could fairly easily get everything they need by hunting and gathering.  Where the Inca lived, they were more successful if they worked together to build irrigation systems and terrace the land.

We also consider that we tend to admire cultures such as the Egyptians, Mayans, and Incas that left impressive architectural structures behind.  But these cultures were highly stratified, with a few powerful people dictating to the masses who did all the work.  Would we prefer to live in one of the cultures tourists admire, or one more similar to the American Indians, which appear to offer more equality?

Inca Pride

Traditional clothes and colors

Traditional clothes and colors are seen everywhere

When the Spanish arrived in the mid 1532 they did their best to squash all evidence of the Inca culture.  It seems that they actually raped Peru.  They removed all the gold and silver.  They tore down the temples and built churches on the foundations of the temples, they made everyone put crosses on top of the houses, they outlawed the Quechua language, and they converted everyone to Catholicism.

Interestingly, after the 1821 revolt against the Spanish it seems that the Peruvian people basically continued in the Spanish imposed culture, but without the Spanish rulers. 88% of Peruvians still identify themselves as Catholic.

Recently there has been a surge in visitors coming to see Machu Picchu and other Inca ruins.  Tourism grew at a 25% compounding rate over the last 5 years. It seems that the Peruvians are seeing all this interest from the outside and are starting to take much more interest in, and pride in, their Inca heritage.  You´ll read in our Cusco post about the astonishingly frequent and fervent displays pride in the traditional culture.


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