The Incas emerged as a distinct group near present-day Cuzco in approximately 1200 CE. Although their expansion did not begin until 1438 under Pachacuti Inca, by the time the Spanish arrived about 1532 their empire, known as Tawantinsuyu, or the Land of the Four Quarters, extended from Northern Ecuador to Central Chile, a distance of some 3,500 kilometers.
The Incas emerged from conflicts between a number of competing polities in southern Peru and Bolivia. Military success, particularly against the Chanca, helped the Incas to believe that they were under the protection of the sun god, Inti, of whom the emperor was an earthly manifestation. As such, the Incas considered they were on a divine mission to bring civilization to those they conquered. Their expansion was also driven by the development of the royal mummy cult, according to which the lands owned by a dead emperor were needed to support his cult, thereby forcing the new emperor to acquire new lands for himself.
Inca expansion was brought about by military campaigns. Where possible, the Inca used diplomacy by offering gifts to native lords in return for submission to Inca rule. The vast Inca armies, which might have numbered tens of thousands of soldiers, probably intimidated many groups into submission, but others fiercely resisted. This resistance resulted in considerable loss of life. Successful campaigns were concluded by triumphal marches in Cuzco, where the army displayed its trophies and prisoners of war, and subsequently received gifts of gold, cloth, land, or women. Important defeated leaders were executed and their skulls made into trophy cups, and soldiers often used the bones of the enemy for flutes or made the skins of flayed prisoners into drums. Little punishment was exacted on subjugated societies as a whole, except where resistance was fierce or they subsequently rebelled, in which case Inca reprisals were swift and harsh. It has been estimated that between 20,000 and 50,000 and Cayambe and Caranqui were massacred at Yaguarcocha, in northern Ecuador, in revenge for their resistance. To ensure the subjugation of conquered peoples, the Incas established garrisons and undertook massive resettlement schemes that involved the transfer of rebellious groups nearer to the Inca heartland. To further this end, loyal subjects were also moved to regions where Inca control was more tenuous.
The emperor or other high-ranking nobles led Inca military campaigns. The professional army comprised the emperor's bodyguard of several thousand soldiers and captains drawn from among the Inca nobility. For military campaigns, local leaders mustered soldiers through a rotational system of labor service called the mit'a. Military training began at an early age, and all able-bodied males were required to do military service. Led by their native rulers, these groups of soldiers would link up with campaign armies as they passed through their territories. In this way, armies of tens of thousands of soldiers, and on occasion, in excess of 200,000, were mustered. Storehouses and lodgings strategically placed along the Inca highways facilitated the movement of troops.
Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire was relatively swift, although the last Inca ruler, Tupac Amaru I, was not executed until 1572. The Spanish possessed certain military advantages over the Incas. The Incas knew how to produce bronze, but did not make widespread use of it for weapons, which were largely made of stone. These included stone tipped spears, bows and arrows, clubs, and slings. The Inca also used stone boulders to ambush enemies in narrow passes. Inca stone weapons made little impression on Spanish steel armor, while their own cotton quilted armor and shields of hide or wood provided little protection against Spanish steel swords. Although the Spanish possessed harquebuses and sometimes cannon, these were unwieldy and only accurate over short distances. More critical were horses, both for the terror they inspired among the Inca, who had never before seen them, and for their speed and maneuverability. They were considered to be worth one hundred men in battle, and they could be used effectively on the Inca highways, facilitating the rapid movement of troops, supplies, and information.
Inca military strategy also proved to have limitations in conflicts with Spaniards. Inca strategy was carefully thought out and was imbued with symbolism and ritual. Hence, Inca attacks were often conducted at the full moon and, in respect for the lunar deity, fighting ceased at the new moon. The Incas were therefore unprepared for Spanish attacks that appeared to follow no ritualized pattern. The Spanish often used surprise tactics effectively, for example, in the capture of the Inca leader Atahualpa at Cajamarca in 1533. Nevertheless the Incas were quick to adapt to the new external threat and often used local geographical knowledge to mount ambushes or to lure the enemy to terrain that was not suitable for the deployment of horses or for open battle, which was favored by the Spanish.
Even though the Spanish may have possessed certain military advantages, most scholars believe that conquest was greatly facilitated by epidemic disease and political conflicts within the Inca Empire that weakened native resistance. In 1525, smallpox arrived in the Andes ahead of the Spanish, probably through native trade networks. This resulted in high mortality, because the Incas lacked immunity to Old World diseases. It was also the cause of the death of the Inca emperor Huayna Capac, which precipitated a dynastic war between his sons, Huascar and Atahualpa. This war was raging when the Spanish arrived.
Spanish rule brought major transformations to native economies and societies. The Spanish sought wealth, primarily from mining gold and silver, and they attempted to convert native Andeans to Christianity. During this process they congregated the Indians into new towns, subjected them to tribute and forced labor, and usurped their lands. Due to epidemic disease, conquest, and changes to native societies, by 1620 the population of Peru alone had fallen from approximately 9 million in 1532 to only about 670,000.
Some people argue that even without the Spanish arrival, the Inca Empire would have collapsed. Its continued expansion depended on a supply of gifts to satisfy subjugated lords and reward those who had taken part in military campaigns. The burden of supplying goods and soldiers increasingly undermined native production and the power of native lords, straining their loyalty to the Inca cause. Indeed, some local groups even became Spanish allies. When the Spanish arrived, the Inca Empire had clearly become overextended.
SEE ALSO Indigenous Peoples; Peru
D'Altroy, Terence N. (2002) The Incas. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Guilmartin, John F., Jr. (1991) "The Cutting Edge: An Analysis of the Spanish Invasion and Overthrow of the Inca Empire, 1532539." In Transatlantic Encounters: Europeans and Andeans in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Kenneth J. Andrien and Rolena Adorno. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kendall, Ann (1973) Everyday Life of the Incas. New York: Dorset Press.
Rostworowski, María, and Craig Morris (1999). "The Fourfold Domain: Inka Power and Its Social
Linda A. Newson
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