10 Interesting Facts About The Inca And Their Empire

The Andean civilization, which is estimated to have developed from as early as 4th century BC, is regarded as the first civilization in South America. It is one of five civilizations in the world considered by scholars to be “pristine”, that is indigenous and not derivative from other civilizations. The Inca people were a part of the Andean civilization. They were a pastoral tribe who inhabited the region of Cuzco of modern day Peru around 12th century. The Inca rulers started a series of conquests in the middle of the 15th century to unite most of the Andean cultures into the Inca Empire. The Inca empire was perhaps the largest empire in the world in early 16th century. Though the Inca never numbered more than 100,000 individuals, they ruled an empire of more than 10 million people. The term Inka means “ruler” or “lord” in Quechua, the main language of the Inca Empire. It was used to refer to the ruling class of the empire but the Spanish, who conquered the region in the middle of the 16th century, used it to refer to all the people of the empire. Know more about the Inca civilization including their empire; important kings; the Spanish conquest; and their religion, government and culture.


The Inca have several origin myths. Manco Cápac (“the royal founder”), also known as Manco Inca and Ayar Manco, features in a couple of these myths. He is considered to be the son of either Viracocha, the great creator deity of the Inca; or Inti, the Sun God and patron deity of the Inca. According to one of the origin myths, Ayar Manco and his siblings were sent by Inti to look for a place to create a civilization. They were given a magic staff made of the finest gold and where ever this staff sank into the ground, there they were to create a new city. The staff sank into the ground at Cuzco, a region in modern day southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range. This led to Ayar Manco selecting Cuzco as the place to found the Inca civilization and since then he was known as Manco Capac. Though there is no substantial evidence to confirm his existence, Manco Capac probably did exist. Several historians regard him as the first governor and founder of the Inca civilization

Inca emperor Manco Capac
Depiction of Manco Capac – Who is regarded as founder of the Inca civilization


The Inca people founded the small city state of Cuzco around 12th century AD and later it became the capital of the Inca Empire. The city was planned in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal for the Inca. Cuzco was primarily divided into two halves: hanan (upper) and hurin (lower). The relationship between the two groups was complex and at times there was friction. Manco Capac founded the Hurin dynasty. The rule of the kings of the Hurin dynasty did not extend beyond the Kingdom of Cuzco. The fifth and last emperor of the Hurin dynasty was Cápac Yupanqui. After his death, the hanan division rebelled against the hurin group. They killed the son and apparent heir of Capac Yupanqui named Quispe Yupanqui and instead gave the throne to Inca Roca. Inca Roca was also a son of Capac Yupanqui, but from another wife. He became the first emperor of the Hanan dynasty. Atahualpa, the 8th emperor of the Hanan dynasty and the 13th Inca emperor, was the last sovereign emperor of the Inca Empire before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

Inca emperors list
Inca emperors according to Hurin and Hanan dynasties


Wiraqucha, the grandson of Inca Roca, started to expand Inca territory. However, a neighboring tribe, the Chancas, attacked the Inca. Wiraqucha fled the invaders with his son and heir Inca Urcon. However, another of his sons, Inca Yupanqui, rallied some of the Inca soldiers and appealed to surrounding tribes to join him in defending Cuzco. He defeated the Chancas. When Wiraqucha returned and named Inca Urcon as emperor, the Inca nobles rebelled and Inca Yupanqui was made the emperor. Yupanqui changed his name to Pachacuti which means “earth shaker” or “he who overturns space and time”. Pachacuti began an era of conquest which transformed the Kingdom of Cuzco into the Inca Empire. He rebuilt much of Cuzco, designing it to serve the needs of an imperial city and as a representation of the empire. Also, it is believed that the famous Inca site of Machu Picchu was built as an estate for him. Pachacuti is considered an exceptional leader. Many Inca stories and hymns pay tribute to him.

Inca emperor Pachacuti statue
Statue of Inca emperor Pachacuti at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru


Pachacuti died in 1471 and was succeeded by his son Topa Inca Yupanqui (“noble Inca accountant”). Topa Inca led extensive military conquests to extend the Inca empire across much of Southern America. He conquered the Kingdom of Chimor, the largest remaining rival to the Incas. Topa Inca died in 1493 and was succeeded by his son Huayna Capac (“the young mighty one”). The Inca empire reached the height of its size and power under Huayna Capac. It incorporated large parts of modern day Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia as well as north-west Argentina and south-west Columbia. Thus within just three generations, the Inca Empire extended to nearly the whole of western South America. With an area of more than 2 million square kilometers containing a population of around 12 million people, it was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. The Inca Empire was comparable to the historical empires of Eurasia and perhaps the largest empire in the world in the early 16th century

Depiction of Huayna Capac – Under whom the Inca Empire reached its greatest extent


The Inca referred to their empire as Tawantinsuyu (“the four suyu”) with suyu meaning regions or provinces. The four suyu were: Chinchaysuyu (north), Antisuyu (east), Qullasuyu (south) and Kuntisuyu (west). The Inca emperor was known as Sapa Inca (“the only Inca”). The empire consisted of a central government with the Sapa Inca at its head and four provincial governments with leaders known as apus. The Sapa Inca held complete power while the four apus made up the Supreme Council which advised the king on important powers. Beneath each suyu were wamani, or provinces, which often encompassed a single ethnic group. Each wamani were led by a governor known as a toqrikoq. At its peak, the Inca empire had over 80 provinces. The Inca extended their empire through negotiation, threat and bloody conquests. The local ruling class at times co-operated and were rewarded for their collaboration while at other times force was required to subjugate the region. The Inca allowed the local regions to continue their religious practices. The subjects of the empire were required to give a portion of their agriculture produce and perform mandatory public service according to their skills, known as Mita labor. In return the Inca government provided security, food, housing, clothing, education and occasional feasts.

Map of the Inca Empire
Map of the Inca Empire with the four suyu in different colors


The arrival of the Spanish in South America had led to the native population being exposed to European diseases against which they had no immunity. A smallpox epidemic broke out in the Inca Empire leading to the death of millions. Inca emperor Huayna Capac and his eldest son and designated heir, Ninan Cuyochic, died suddenly in 1527, most probably due to smallpox. Huayna had many legitimate and illegitimate children and he had died before he could nominate the new heir. The choice stood between his two sons, Huáscar and Atahualpa, born of different mothers. The situation led to a conflict between the two known as the Inca Civil War or the War of the Two Brothers. The war began in 1529 and ended with the victory of Atahualpa in 1532. Spanish conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro reached Inca territory by 1526. They knew that they had reached an extremely wealthy land full of gold and treasures. After another expedition in 1529 Pizarro traveled to Spain and received royal approval to conquer the region and be its viceroy. When the Spanish led by Pizarro returned to Peru in 1532, the Inca Civil War and European diseases had already caused much damage to the Inca empire and it had weakened considerably.


Francisco Pizarro entered the Inca Empire with just 168 men, 106 on foot and 62 on horses. The Inca initially considered the Spanish as Gods but later dismissed the idea. Inca Emperor Atahualpa agreed to meet the Spanish on 16th November 1532. He arrived with about 6,000 unarmed followers. The majority of his troops were in the Cuzco region along with his most trusted generals. Pizarro had prepared an ambush. The Spanish massacred thousands of Atahualpa’s men and captured the emperor in the Battle of Cajamarca. Atahualpa offered to fill a large room with gold and promised the Spanish twice that amount in silver. Though Pizarro took the ransom, he had no intention of releasing the Inca emperor. Atahualpa was executed in August 1533 and a puppet ruler named Túpac Huallpa was installed. He died the same year and was succeeded by another puppet ruler Manco Inca. Manco Inca managed to escape the Spanish. He retreated to the mountains of Vilcabamba and founded the Neo-Inca State. Manco Inca and his successors provided resistance to Spanish rule for another 36 years. They even won several battles. Túpac Amaru, the last emperor of the Neo-Inca State, was executed by the Spanish on 24th September 1572. This completed their conquest of the Inca Empire.

Battle of Cajamarca
Engraving of the Battle of Cajamarca


Apart from the Inca Civil War and disease, other prominent reasons for the defeat of the Inca Empire include the capture of their emperor and superior weapons of the Spanish. Also due to the great cultural divide in the region, the Spanish allied with various tribes which provided most of the forces in their battles against the Inca. The population of the people of the Inca empire rapidly declined after the arrival of the Spanish. It is estimated that more than 90% of the people of the region died, mostly due to European diseases. The Spanish rulers repressed the people and their traditions; and most aspects of Inca culture were systematically destroyed. The cities were looted. Numerous artifacts and structures of gold were melted, refined, and made into bars. Despite all this, many people in the Andean highlands are descendants of the tribes which existed as part of the Inca empire. Several aspects of their culture have managed to survive. Quechua, the main language of the Inca Empire, is still spoken by around 8 million people and it was recognized as one of the official languages of Peru in 1975.

Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro
Portrait of Francisco Pizarro – Who led the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire


The Inca civilization was located in one of the most difficult terrains on earth. Due to the harsh and unpredictable environment, the Inca religion focused on rituals to win the favor of the gods, who were often associated with natural forces such as the sun, water, thunder etc. The Inca emperor was conceptualized as divine and was effectively head of the state religion. Next to him was Willaq Umu (“priest who recounts”), who was the High Priest of the Sun. Inca emperor Pachacuti made Inti, the Sun God, the most important Inca god; and proclaimed that the Sapa Inca was the son of Inti. Other important Inca gods include Viracocha, who was believed to have created all things, including the sun, moon and stars, as well as the earth and human beings; and Illapa, the thunder god, who was asked to provide rainfall at critical times in the agriculture cycle. To create and maintain relationships with their gods, the Inca gave them a variety of offerings. These included prayers, food, coca leaves, woven cloth and animals. On rare occasions such as natural disasters and wars, the Inca resorted to sacrificing captured soldiers and even children.

Inca deity Viracocha
Viracocha – The great creator deity in Inca mythology


The Inca didn’t have a written language. However, the Inca rulers and administrators required detailed information about things like how many people lived in a province, how much did a province owe the government in agriculture products, etc. To keep track of all kinds of information, the Inca used a recording device known as quipu, or khipu. The word “khipu” means “knot”. A quipu consisted of a long string with shorter strings of many color tied to it. Using a wide variety of colors, strings, and at times several hundred knots all tied in various ways at various heights, a quipu was used to record values encoded by knots in a base ten positional system. It was read by a specially trained administrator called quipucamayoc. Spanish conquest led to the collapse of the quipu system and the art of deciphering them died with the last quipucamayoc. Numerous scholars have studied quipus extensively but no one can read them with certainty today. There are several conjectures regarding quipus. Some think that the most information stored on them was numeric while others believe they recorded a complex language. The Spanish destroyed most khipu, but about 870 remain in museums and private collections.

Inca quipu or khipu
Close up of a small Inca quipu


Chicha is a beverage which was widely used in the Inca empire. It includes non-alcoholic drinks such as chicha morada and corn beer known as chicha de jora. Chicha morada is a sweet beverage usually made by boiling the corn with pineapple, cinnamon, clove, and sugar. Chicha de jora is an alcoholic beverage prepared by germinating maize, extracting the malt sugars, boiling the wort, and fermenting it in large vessels for several days. It is traditionally made with corn. Chicha de jora was once a sacred drink of the Inca and was consumed in vast quantities during religious festivals. It was first offered to Pachamama, the Inca earth goddess, by pouring it into the ground. Then the cup was raised to the sky to salute the mountains and after that it was consumed to raise oneself closer to the Gods. Chicha de jora is still widely produced and consumed in the Andean highlands.

5 thoughts on “10 Interesting Facts About The Inca And Their Empire”

  1. Gave me more then enough information. When I saw the first three facts, it was all I needed. Good job man.


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