Huáscar and Atahualpa Share Inca Rule Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The death of Inca ruler Huayna Capac created a succession crisis that resulted in a war between two half brothers. The civil war decimated the elite Inca class, left the empire leaderless, and signaled the end of the Inca Empire.

Summary of Event

When the Spaniards arrived in the Western Hemisphere, an empire called Tihuantinsuyu Tihuantinsuyu (four quarters), almost the size of the former Roman, spread across most of the Pacific coastline of South America. The eleventh Sapa Inca (divine ruler) was Huayna Capac, who ruled with the support of his kinsmen (called Incas). The Incas had been pushing their boundaries northward in 1525. Inca Empire Huayna Capac Huáscar Atahualpa Pizarro, Francisco Atahualpa Huayna Capac Ninan Cuyochi Cusi Atauchi Ullco Colla Pizarro, Francisco Huáscar Atahualpa

When an epidemic sweeping through Tihuantinsuyu struck Huayna Capac in Quito, there was an immediate need for him to name a successor. The Inca state had no laws of succession, but customarily the Sapa Inca would announce his successor. He placed the borla, a tasseled headband, on the forehead of one of his sons of the coya, his official wife. The Sapa Inca could choose the most able or the most beloved of those sons. The Inca nobles then ratified the choice and made a public announcement. The designated heir then married a woman from his kinship group, who then became his official wife. The heir-designate also began exercising administrative or military tasks as a coregent. At the Sapa Inca’s death, full powers of office passed to the coregent.

Huayna Capac lacked a coregent, and there were other complications in his family situation. His coya, Cusi Rimay, had died shortly after giving birth to her only child, Ninan Cuyochi. Hoping to prevent a succession crisis, Huayna Capac married Chimbo Ocllo, but she had given birth to daughters only. Huayna Capac had many sons by secondary wives, and their kinsmen would champion them as candidates for the borla. To prevent intrigue, assassinations, and civil war, a delegation visited the ailing Inca and asked whom he named as successor. Huayna Capac identified Ninan Cuyochi as his principal heir and Huáscar as secondary choice. The nobles quickly went to Ninan Cuyochi but discovered that he had already died of the epidemic, a disease often, but not conclusively, identified as smallpox. They returned to verify that Huáscar was his choice, but Huayna Capac too had died.

The nobles planned to carry Huayna Capac’s mummy to Cuzco for proper burial. In Cuzco, where Huáscar was a regional governor, they would invest him with authority, marry him to a suitable coya, and announce Huayna Capac’s death. However, before the mummification process was completed, messengers, probably from Huáscar’s mother, Rahua Ocllo, went to Cuzco and told Huáscar to prepare himself to become the Sapa Inca.

News leaked out to other Inca families, too, and several conflicting rumors about the succession swirled through the empire. One rumor related that Huayna Capac chose Huáscar years before his death, and this choice had been ratified. A second claimed that the principal choice had been another son, Atahualpa. Another rumor said that Huayna Capac’s choices of Ninan Cuyochi and Huáscar had been conditioned on good auguries, and the oracle of the Sun reported that neither should wear the borla.

Rahua Ocllo had been campaigning with the Inca nobles in Cuzco on Huáscar’s behalf. She stressed her descent from a sister of Topa Inca and possibly charged that Atahualpa’s mother was a Quiteña princess and not descended from a sister of another Inca ruler, Pachacuti, as had been claimed.

When the procession, which had become openly funereal in character, left Quito, Atahualpa stayed behind. Just outside Quito, three events angered Huáscar and aroused his suspicions of Atahualpa. Huáscar loyalists uncovered a plot to murder Huáscar and make Cusi Atauchi, another half brother, the Inca. Cusi Atauchi and the conspirators were caught and executed.

When the procession neared Cuzco, Huáscar met a delegation of nobles. Having been earlier blamed for not inviting Atahualpa to his father’s funeral and to the accession rituals, Huáscar demanded the nobles explain Atahualpa’s absence. When they replied that Atahualpa stayed with the army to defend Huáscar’s realm against rebellion from troublesome groups in the north, he charged the nobles with treason and had them tortured and killed. Finally, Ullco Colla, the curaca of Tumibamba, informed Huáscar by messenger that Atahualpa was in reality building a fortress, not a northern palace for Huáscar, in Tumibamba in preparation for an uprising.

When gifts and pledges of fealty arrived in Cuzco from Atahualpa, Huáscar flew into a rage. He killed the messengers and sent messengers of his own to Atahualpa, demanding that he come to Cuzco to display his respect for his father and for him in person. In reciprocation for the gifts Atahualpa had sent, Huáscar sent women’s clothing, cosmetics, and jewelry. When Inca generals in the north learned of Huáscar’s insult, they knew that it would be followed soon by arrest; so, they offered their loyalty and services to Atahualpa, who accepted them. He openly rebelled against the rule of Huáscar.

The Cañaris rebelled against Atahualpa, imprisoned him, and held him for Huáscar, but he escaped to Quito and returned with his army, destroying the city and its population. Huáscar raised an army to send north, and Atahualpa rallied support in the north and punished towns and provinces loyal to Huáscar.

Huáscar alienated many of his Inca supporters in Cuzco shortly after establishing his government. He took office and formed an army without hosting the traditional festivals that established a bond between the ruler and his subjects. He further insulted the generals by dismissing the traditional palace guard led by Inca nobles from the upper moiety and replaced it with troops from the northern provinces of Cañari and Chachapoya and led by nobles from the lower moiety. Furthermore, he threatened to abandon the upper moiety to which he and Atahualpa belonged because of Atahualpa’s rebellion. Most of Huáscar’s supporters were also from the upper moiety and feared that they had fallen under suspicion because of kinship ties to Atahualpa. Before the first battle between the armies of the two brothers, Huáscar’s generals and captains began changing their loyalties.

Huáscar’s army defeated Atahualpa in the war’s first battle near Tumibamba, but reinforcements from Quito forced a quick second battle that resulted in the death of Huáscar’s general and a retreat to the south. Atahualpa organized an investiture ceremony in Tumibamba and accepted the borla and the title Sapa Inca. The new Inca’s army pressed Huáscar’s army to Cotabamba near Cuzco. There, Huáscar planned to trap and destroy Atahualpa’s army, but a combination of espionage and subterfuge resulted in Huáscar’s own defeat and capture.

Atahualpa was far to the north in Huamachuco when he heard the news. He ordered his generals to advance to Cuzco and kill all of Huáscar’s active supporters, including wives, children, and servants. He assumed that all of the sons and daughters of his father Huayna Capac remaining in Cuzco had been his opponents, and he sentenced them, and their households, to death.

Finally, he condemned to death all members of the Topa Inca kinship group, to which Huáscar belonged through his mother. Topa Inca, although already dead, was also condemned. His mummy was taken from its shrine and burned to ashes. Atahualpa ordered that Huáscar and his mother be sent as captives to him in Cajamarca, where he hoped to meet the strangers who had arrived by ships on the nearby coast. Atahualpa’s victory was complete.


Atahualpa’s triumph signaled the end of Tihuantinsuyu. The nearly constant wars of expansion of his father and grandfather had been interspersed with rebellions for independence. These wars drained the empire of manpower and resources without establishing a sense of identity of the conquered groups within the empire. When Atahualpa turned his back on Cuzco and headed north to satisfy his curiosity about the strangers, he virtually released his subjects from any claims of loyalty he thought his victory might command.

On November, 1532, Francisco Pizarro captured Atahualpa in a surprise attack. Fearing that Pizarro would reinstate Huáscar, Atahualpa ordered Huáscar killed, and fearing that Atahualpa was secretly amassing an army to rescue him, Pizarro condemned Atahualpa to death. Inca supporters then helped Pizarro suppress the armies that remained loyal to the shattered idea of Inca greatness.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Betanzos, Juan de. Narrative of the Incas. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton and Dana Buchanan. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996. An account of Inca history and traditions completed in 1557.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cieza de León, Pedro de. The Discovery and Conquest of Peru: Chronicles of the New World Encounter. Translated and edited by Alexandra Parma Cook and Noble David Cook. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. One of the earliest chronicles, written by one of Pizarro’s soldiers shortly after the events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Nigel. The Incas. Niwot: University of Colorado Press, 1995. A readable and rigorous study of the Inca Empire from its legend-shrouded origins to its catastrophic collapse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. History of the Inca Realm. Translated by Harry B. Iceland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Premier authority on Inca history and society.

1471-1493: Reign of Topa Inca

1493-1525: Reign of Huayna Capac

1532-1537: Pizarro Conquers the Incas in Peru

Categories: History