Sacred Inti Watana Stone in Machu Picchu, Peru

Inca Civilization

The Inca Empire at its peak spanned from Colombia in the north and Bolivia to the south and was comparable to the Roman Empire in its size. The Inca called their empire Tawantinsuyu, and it was the Spanish who gave the name Inca to this empire. The name “Inca” means “Lord“ in Quechua.

Just like the Roman Empire, the Inca Empire started as a city-state in Cuzco. According to the legend, the Sun God sent four of its sons, called Ayar siblings, and their wives to the sacred city of Cuzco to establish an empire. Cuzco eventually became the capital of the Inca Empire.

The Inca Emperors, who were called Sapa Inca, were worshiped as divinity. When an Inca ruler died, his title went to his son and he became the ruler of the empire.

According to Spanish historians, there were 13 Inca emperors, including the founder Manco Capac and the last king Atahualpa, who was executed by the Spanish Conquistadors.

Once the empire was founded, it expanded rapidly because of the excellent organization skills and efficient governance. The Inca society was community-based and everyone worked for the community.

The Inca society was run like a socialist state. The emperor and his family-owned 1/3 of the land, the religious institutions owned the 1/3 and rest went to the farmers.  The Inca government collected grains as taxes from the farmers and stored them in large storage houses and distributed to the rest of the populations. Likewise, they collected the textiles and distributed the entire population. They kept meticulous records of transactions using quipus.

Inca Empire map
Inca Empire map

The Inca were the ruling class and were a small portion of the population they ruled. The population of the Inca Empire was diverse and included the people they conquered.

The Inca Empire was divided into regions called suyus. There were the following four suyus: Chinchaysuyu (north region), Antisuyu (east region), Kuntisuyu (west region) and Qollasuyu (south region).

Spanish Conquest

The Spanish conquest of Peru started in 1531 when the Spanish Conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro arrived in Cuzco. At that time, the Inca Empire was in turmoil because of the power struggle between the two sons – Atahualpa and Huascar  – of the emperor Huayna Capac, who died suddenly of smallpox.

Francisco Pizarro seizing the opportunity captured Atahualpa and demanded ransom for his release. Even after Pizarro received the ransom, he refused to release Atahualpa. In the meantime, Atahualpa’s brother Huascar was assassinated. Pizarro accused Atahualpa of the assassination of Huascar and executed him in 1533 CE.

After the execution of Atahualpa, Pizarro installed Manco Inca, who is another brother of Atahualpa, as a puppet emperor. But after realizing the intentions of the Spanish, he revolted against them and fled Cuzco and created a Neo-Inca State in the mountains of Vilcabamba. It lasted until 1572 when the Spanish captured his son Tupac  Amaru,  who became the emperor after Manco Inca, and executed him.

Francisco Pizarro thus exploited the division in the Inca society and eventually took over the Inca Empire and plundered its treasure and destroyed their culture and monuments.


Quechua was the official language of the Inca Empire and was imposed on other cultures in the empire. However, different cultures were allowed to retain their distinct identity,  and as a result, many dialects of Quechua emerged.

During colonial rule, the Spanish discouraged the use of Quechua. Many dialects of Quechua are now dead or dying. Quechua is an official language in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia,  and It is now spoken mainly by the indigenous people of South America.

Quipu –  Inca writing system

Even though the Inca did not have a traditional writing system, such as hieroglyphics, they had an ingenious way of recording the numeric and non-numeric data using a device called Quipu, which means “knot” in Quechua.

Quipu is a collection of knotted strings made from cotton strands and camelid (alpaca or llama hair) with one of their ends tied to a principle string. The number of strings in a quipu range from a few to a couple of thousand. Each string contains multiple knots of different colors and sizes.

The Inca used quipus to store business data and their history. The characteristics of knots, such as the color and distance between the knots, were used to encode information.

The Inca considered the task of creating, deciphering, and maintaining quipus a specialized skill, and they allowed only a class of people called Quipucamayocs to perform this task. The members of the ruling class were also taught to read quipus.

Quipucamayocs used quipu like a database of information about the persons, objects,  time, work type, taxes, etc. They acted like accountants and performed basic mathematical functions such as add, subtract, multiply and divide. Experts believe that the decimal system was to encode numeric data. In addition, quipu was used for recording the history, especially the history of the Inca Emperor and royalty.

When the Spanish wanted to learn the secret of quipus, the Quipucamayocs refused to divulge them. When the Spanish tortured them to extract the secrets to find gold, they preferred death over divulging their secrets. So, the knowledge to decipher quipus was lost forever.

The Spanish destroyed most of the quipus, but some are still available in museums and academic institutions. Many researchers in the world are engaged in deciphering symbols or the language contained in quipus.

The images below show two samples of quipus on display at the Larco Museum in Lima,  Peru.

Quipus on display at Museo Larco, Lima


The Inca produced fine textiles using a variety of materials, including cotton, llama, alpaca and vicuña wool. They used beautiful designs and matching colors to produce decorative textiles. To add colors, they extracted dyes from plants, minerals, and insects.

Textiles were prized possessions because the Inca valued textiles more than gold and silver. As the Inca civilization did not have the currency system, they used textiles as barter.

Clothes in the Inca society indicated a person’s status. The nobility and common people wore a different type of clothes. The royalty wore special clothes made of fine vicuña wool.


Civil Engineers plaque at the Machu Picchu archaeological site
Civil Engineers plaque

The Incas were excellent engineers. They solved many problems plaguing the Cuzco region and built long-lasting edifices, and they did so by using locally available materials. The stones used in the Inca edifices were precisely cut and finely polished. No mortar was ever used to bind stones.

The plaque shown in the image is on display at the Machu Picchu archaeological site and is a testament to the civil engineering skills of the Incas.

One of the problems the Incas faced was seismic activity in the Cuzco region, which suffered from frequent earthquakes. They devised ingenious ways to interlock and fit them perfectly. The images below show some examples of their construction.

Qorikancha hallway
Qorikancha hallway

Inca engineers designed many internal locking mechanisms between the stones to bind them perfectly to make the structures earthquake-proof.  The images below show some of the techniques the Inca used to fit and lock stones together. These stones were found in Qorikancha.

Internal locking mechanism between the stones.

Polygonal wall at the fortress of Saksaywaman in Cusco, Peru
A polygonal wall at the fortress of Saksaywaman

The Incas basically used two types of  stones :

  1. Regular shaped stones: These are either rectangular or trapezoidal shaped and can be found in Qorikancha and Machu Picchu
  2. Multi-angle stones:  The stones are polygonal-shaped and some of them had as many as 12 internal angles. Even with multiple angle stones, the Incas were able to fit them together perfectly. These stones are found Saksaywaman.  The Incas learned some of the techniques from other cultures, such as the Kilke, that existed before them.
Cusco: Qorikancha trapezoidal door
Cusco: Qorikancha trapezoidal door

The Inca buildings have trapezoidal-shaped doors, windows, and niches on the wall. The trapezoidal-shaped construction has the narrow side on the top and wide side at the bottom, which is an ingenious way of making the building stable. Besides, trapezoidal shapes are aesthetically pleasing.

Inca engineers were able to haul massive stones from the quarry and put them in place. Even though they understood the principle of the wheel, they never used it for practical purposes. They did not use beasts of burden either, and yet they could build monuments that used massive stones.


The farmers in the Inca Empire cultivated several major crops, including maize, quinoa, corn, and potatoes. The food in the Inca Empire was abundant because they used innovative farming techniques, such as Terrace Farming, and efficient storage techniques for preserving the food.

Llamas grazing near Urubamba valley
Llamas grazing near Urubamba valley

The Inca livestock included alpaca and llama herds, which were used for wool, meat, and transportation.

Agricultural Terraces (Andenes)

Inca agricultural terraces
Inca agricultural terraces

Because of the mountainous terrain of the Inca Empire, the Inca resorted to terrace farming, which is similar to the farming techniques used in Rice Terraces of Bali.

The Inca created flat surfaces along the mountain slopes by building terraces and cultivated different types of crops depending on the elevation. In order to provide water to the crops, they built sophisticated aqueducts to channel the rainwater through terraces.

The ruins of agricultural terraces can be found all over the Cuzco region, including the citadel of Machu Picchu.

Food Storage

Qollqa - Inca food storage structure
Qollqa – Inca food storage structure

The Inca Empire built a vast network of structures in the mountains for storing the food items, such as grains. These structures, known as qollqas, preserved the food stock for a long time because of the lower temperature in the mountains. The Incas built qollqas on locations high enough for the preservation of food and low enough for the quick access, and they maintained an accurate inventory of the stock using quipus.  See Quipu – Inca Writing System.

The image above shows a qollqa located on a mountain near Ollantaytambo.

Inca Religion

The Incas worshiped Viracocha whom they believed was the supreme God and a creator similar to Brahma in Hinduism. He created humans first then the sun, moon, and stars at Lake Titicaca. When he was unhappy with the first set of humans, he sent a flood to wipe the earth clean but saved only three human beings to start all over again. Many cultures and religions, including Christianity, seem to have this notion of the great flood that eliminated the entire population of our planet.

Lake Titicaca was one of the most sacred sites for the Inca and used to be an important pilgrimage site for the emperors, nobility and the citizens of the Inca Empire. There is some similarity between Lake Titicaca and Manasasarovar, a lake in the Himalayas which in Hindu mythology is the abode of Shiva and a sacred site for Hindus.

Besides Viracocha, the Inca worshiped the Sun (Inti), Earth (Mama Pacha), Moon (Mamma Quilla) and many important things they see in nature such as mountains, rivers, lakes, thunder, and rain. They built temples for various gods.

The Inca believed in the afterlife and worshiped their ancestors. They embalmed and mummified the bodies of their ancestors and made offerings to them on important days and during religious ceremonies.

Inca Realms

Inca cross found in Machu Picchu with steps representing the three Inca realms
Inca cross found in Machu Picchu with steps representing the three Inca realms

Just like in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the Inca religion also had the notion of three major realms called pachas:

  1. Hanan Pacha: Symbolized by the condor, this is the upper world or heavens. All the Inca gods live in this realm. People who do good deeds go to this realm after death.
  2. Kay Pacha:  Symbolized by the jaguar or puma, this is the middle world in which living beings experience birth, life, and death. This represents the physical world, that is the earth.
  3. Uku Pacha: Symbolized by the snake, this the lower world or the inner world.  Demons live in this realm, and the god of death Supay controls this realm and the demons. People who do bad deeds go to this realm after death. This realm roughly translates to hell.

Related Pages
Machu Picchu, Ancient Cultures of Peru, Cusco, Lima, Peru

Copyright © 2017  –  2019 by Lawrence Rodrigues. All rights reserved.

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