The Incas Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Incas were one of many South American tribes engaged in a power struggle in the Andean highlands from the thirteenth century through the middle of the fifteenth century.

Political Considerations

The Incas were one of many South American tribes engaged in a power struggle in the Andean highlands from the thirteenth century through the middle of the fifteenth century. Prior to this time, this region had been occupied by many different tribes. Between 500 and 1000 c.e. the Tiahuanco culture (Andes)Tiahuanco and Huari Huari culture (Andes)cultures, for example, developed large urban settlements and organized state systems. During the years from 1000 to 1456, however, the region encompassing modern Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile experienced a process of fragmentation that resulted in the development of small, regional states. Although warfare between different tribes was common, no one group was clearly dominant. The Incas were just one of the many tribes involved in warfare in the southern highlands near modern Bolivia. They were not especially strong at this time and had to form alliances to survive. The Chanca tribeChanca and Quechua Quechua tribetribes in the Apurímac Basin and the Lupaca tribeLupaca and Colla Colla tribetribes in the Titicaca Basin presented the biggest threats to the Incas, who, until the fifteenth century, dominated only a small area near Cuzco.IncasSouth America;IncasIncasSouth America;Incas

Military Achievement

Under the leadership of the Incan warrior PachacutiPachacuti (Incan emperor)Pachacuti (c. 1391-1471), the Incas defeated the Chanca tribes in a battle at Cuzco, Battle of (1438)Cuzco in 1438. According to legend, the boulders on the battlefield became warriors who fought for the Incas. After this victory, Pachacuti became emperor, and the Incas began to expand their territory by conquering other tribes. Under Pachacuti the Incas emerged as the strongest military power in the southern highlands, and their territory stretched as far south as the Maule River in modern south-central Chile. Unlike other peoples, however, the Incas did not loot and abandon vanquished tribes, but rather they incorporated these former foes into their own military. The Incas conquered the western Titicaca Basin and nearly all of the Urubamba, Apurímac, and Mantaro Basins during the twenty-five years following their defeat of the Chancas. The military and logistical support provided by the vanquished tribes enabled the Incas to control the territory of the southern highlands and to begin expanding their territory through conquests along the northern coast. The defeated Chancan tribes, now fighting for the Incas, began conquering the northern tribes, which formed a part of the Chimú Chimú Empire[Chimu Empire]Empire.

The Incas attacked and defeated the Chimú tribes after Topa Inca Topa Inca YupanquiTopa Inca Yupanqui (Incan emperor)Yupanqui (r. 1471-1493), Pachacuti’s son, led attacks as far north as Ecuador before returning south along the coast. He extended the Incan Empire and maintained his father’s policy of incorporating the vanquished tribes into the military. His son, Huayna Huayna CapacHuayna Capac (Incan emperor)Capac (r. 1493-1525), succeeded him as emperor and solidified the empire by conquering smaller areas throughout Ecuador, expanding Incan territory as far north as Colombia and establishing boundary markers to the Angasmayo River. Huayna Capac made Quito the northern capital of the empire, which spanned 2,500 miles. The Incas called their empire Tabuantinsuyu (Inca Empire)Tahuantinsuyu, meaning “the land of the four quarters.” The Incan territory was divided into four regions and subdivided into more than eight provinces.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

An Inca-style battle scene in which warriors wear helmets and quilted tunics and wield swords, axes, and spears in hand-to-hand combat.

(Library of Congress)

The Armor;IncanUniforms;IncanIncas had an advanced Bronze Age technology in the fifteenth century that served as the foundation of the military force. The sling was the deadliest projectile weapon. Other effective weapons included bows and arrows, lances, darts, a short variation of a sword, battle-axes, spears, and arrows tipped with copper or bone. The weapons used by the Incan lords were decorated with gold or silver. For protection military leaders wore casques, or Helmets;Incanhelmets, made from wood or the skins of wild animals and decorated with precious stones and the feathers of tropical birds. Soldiers wore the costume of the province from which they came; their armor consisted of a wooden helmet covered with bronze; a long, quilted tunic; and a quilted shield. The soldiers, who jogged at a pace of about 3 miles per hour and traveled nearly 20 miles per day, carried only their own supplies, while an army of soldiers was responsible for carrying baggage on their backs. Garrisons were housed in fortresses, whereas detachments occupied storehouses, which consisted of magazines filled with weapons, grain, and ammunition. Sacsahuamán (Incan fortress)Sacsahuamán, the site where the Incas defeated the Chancas, was the only fortress garrisoned by the Inca people. Sacsahuamán was only one of many Incan fortresses; others included Paramonga, a fortress constructed like a mountain of adobe bricks that had once been a part of the Chimú kingdom. These storehouses provided the army with food and clothing, thus avoiding the necessity to pillage villages as the army traveled across the country.

Military Organization

The Infantry;IncanIncan military was highly organized and consisted of nearly 200,000 soldiers. The military served as a public service organization that brought food and materials from one region of the country to another and trained specialists who contributed to the growth of the empire. In order to prepare future soldiers, military training took place on a bimonthly basis and began with Children;IncanBoys as soldiers;Incanboys as young as ten years old, who took part in physical activities such as wrestling, weight lifting, and sling shooting. This training enabled the Incan commanders to determine which soldiers could be used as specialists, such as builders, stonemasons, bridge experts, and assault leaders. Village elders reported on the progress of the boys, whom the military drafted as either warriors, carriers, or craftsmen. Short-term service Drafts;Incandrafting ensured an ample supply of young men in each district. The periods of service depended upon climatic conditions, and not all men returned to civilian life. The commanders ordered the most outstanding soldiers, those who were the bravest, the most disciplined, and the most adept at fighting, to remain permanently in the military.

The organization of the army was similar to that of the decimal system utilized by the Romans. Although the commanders were usually members of the Incan royal family, many ascended from the ranks because of their extraordinary ability and devotion to the emperor. One of the demands placed upon the commanders, who had to deal with the logistical problems of the roads and supplies, was to calculate the most efficient way to move their military across the country. Because the strategy was to fight only if absolutely necessary, the commanders had to ensure a deployment of soldiers superior to that of the enemy and would not waste manpower by sending too many. On important occasions, the emperor personally assumed command of a campaign. Topa Inca Topa Inca YupanquiTopa Inca Yupanqui (Incan emperor)Yupanqui, for example, took personal command of an effort to expand the empire by overseeing the extension of the main highways, a task too difficult for an army commander to handle alone. Soldiers were required to participate in battles as far away from their homes as possible in order to avoid fraternization and to allow them to experience the vastness of the country and the grandeur of the empire. Because the purpose of the military was both to defend and to extend Tahuantinsuyu and to serve the Sun God, individual glory in battle was not valued by the Incas.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

The primary aim of the Incan military was to spread the worship of the Sun and to seek harmony through the integration of so-called barbarians–who lacked military discipline, worshiped false gods, and practiced human sacrifices and cannibalism–into the Incan culture. The Incas believed, therefore, that their conquests were justifiable and were motivated by a desire to improve the quality of life of their vanquished tribes. The Incas traveled with the purpose of disrupting the lives of Peru’s inhabitants as little as possible. Specialized Engineers;Incanengineering corps designed and constructed the travel routes, which extended through the mountains and along the coastal desert. The same corps of engineers also constructed giant suspension bridges where necessary. Different armies followed each route, and they eventually met before advancing. Because the idea behind the creation of Tahuantinsuyu was to spread universal peace, the Incas often showed mercy to the vanquished tribes and pursued peaceful resolutions whenever possible.

The Inca Empire, 1493-1525

The principal strategy utilized by the Incas to defeat their enemies was to destroy harvests and inflict famine. War, however, was often the only option. The Slings;Incanslingers, due to their accuracy, began the attack on a fortress. Their sling bolts easily pierced the Peruvian helmets worn by their enemies. Feints were often used to draw defenders away from the center of an attack. Soldiers assembled human pyramids to attack the higher walls of enemy Siege warfare;Incanfortresses; the pyramid shape enabled the soldiers to attack quickly with their maces. The skin of the captured leaders was often made into drums used at festivals celebrating Incan victories. After killing the leaders, the Incas ripped out their intestines, dried the bodies as carefully as possible, fitted the abdominal skin over a bentwood frame, and finally placed the skin on a carrying frame. Although these drums were not very musical, they served as amusement for the Incas and as a warning of the fate of those who dared to resist the Incan emperor. Most leaders, however, surrendered and were incorporated into the Incan system of government. The Incas roped their Prisoners of war;Incanprisoners together and sacrificed a few to the Sun God. Most of the prisoners, however, were detained long enough to ensure that they would cooperate with the Incas and contribute to the empire. The only prisoners who endured slave labor were the ones assigned to maintain the Incas’ standards for roads and villages.

The evolution of the Inca Empire was an ongoing process, as each succeeding Incan emperor tried to continue the military plans of his predecessor. After each conquest, the Incas allowed time for the settlement of the new territory before pursuing the next one. This interval also gave the vanquished time to assimilate the Incan culture and to prepare to fight in the name of their new god. The receptions given to Incan sovereigns in the capital after a conquest rivaled Roman triumph celebrations in pomp and ceremony. Dressed in the colorful costumes of their provinces of origin, the people greeted their victorious ruler, who was borne aloft in a golden chair raised on the shoulders of his nobles, as he passed beneath arches erected along the route to the Temple of the Sun. Alone in the temple, because attendants were not permitted to enter, the sovereign, barefoot and stripped of his regal costume, gave thanks for his victory. A large celebration followed in which music, dancing, and bonfires commemorated the addition of a new territory. The Inca Empire, in reality, was a confederation of tribes with the Incas in control of a common government, a common religion, and a common language. A council of rulers ruled each of the tribes, which pledged its allegiance to the emperor, who, as a descendant of the Sun God, was considered divine. The conquered tribes maintained their individual cultural identities, but they paid Incan labor taxes; payment ensured that every individual received fulfillment of all of his or her basic needs. Although the inhabitants of each conquered town spoke their native languages, the Incas also imposed the Quechua language on them in order to enable communication among the different peoples.

Medieval Sources

El Inca Garcilaso de la Garcilaso de la VegaGarcilaso de la VegaVega (1539-1616), the son of an Incan princess and a Spanish explorer, provides a detailed account of the Incan civilization both before and after the arrival of the Spaniards in his Los Comentarios Reales de Los Incas (1609-1617; The Royal Commentaries of the Incas, 1688), which remains one of the most complete and accurate available sources of information about the Incas. In the first part of this book, completed in 1609, Garcilaso de la Vega chronicles the development of the Inca Empire and discusses the political and social status of the Incas, as well as their legends, traditions, customs, and methods of warfare. The second part, written in 1617, describes the wars of the Spanish conquest, in which Garcilaso de la Vegas’s father was a primary figure. “El Inca” bases the second part of his history on the stories told to him by soldiers and conquerors who fought alongside his father.IncasSouth America;Incas

Books and Articles
  • Burland, C. A. Peru Under the Incas. London: Evans Brothers, 1967.
  • D’Altroy, Terence N. “Militarism.” In The Incas. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.
  • Davies, Nigel. The Incas. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 1995.
  • Guilmartin, John F. “Incas.” In The Reader’s Companion to Military History, edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Julie, Catherine. “War and Peace in the Inca Heartland.” In War and Peace in the Ancient World, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Kaufmann, H. W., and J. E. Kaufmann. Fortifications of the Incas, 1200-1531. Illustrated by Adam Hook. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2006.
  • Lanning, Edward P. Peru Before the Incas. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
  • McEwan, Gordon F. The Incas: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
  • MacQuarrie, Kim. The Last Days of the Incas. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.
  • Stern, Steven J. Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.
Films and Other Media
  • Great Inca Rebellion. Documentary. National Geographic, 2007.
  • The Incas. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 1980.
  • The Incas Remembered. Documentary. Monterey Home Video, 1986.
  • NOVA: Secrets of Lost Empires–Inca. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service, 1997.
  • The Royal Hunt of the Sun. Feature film. National General Pictures, 1969.

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North American Indigenous Nations

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