The rise and fall of the Inca Empire – Gordon McEwan

The rise and fall of the Inca Empire – Gordon McEwan


It was the Western Hemisphere’s
largest empire ever, with a population
of nearly 10 million subjects. Over an area of more
than 900,000 square kilometers, its people built massive
administrative centers, temples, and extensive road
and canal systems. They did so in an inhospitable,
extreme terrain, all without the use of wheels,
horses, iron, or even written language. Yet within 100 years of its rise
in the fifteenth century, the Inca Empire would be no more. According to legend, the ancestors of the Inca rulers
were created by the sun god Inti, and they emerged
from a cave called Tambo Toco. Leading four brothers
and four sisters was Ayar Manco, who carried a golden staff
with instructions to find the place where
it would sink into the ground, showing fertile soil. After many adventures
and extensive searching, Ayar Manco and his siblings
reached the Cuzco Valley, where the staff pierced the ground. After fighting off the fierce
local native population, they founded their capital, and Ayar Manco became Manco Capac,
the first Sapa Inca, or king of the Incas. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Incas first settled
in this valley around 1200 CE. They remained a small kingdom until 1438, when they were nearly overrun
by the neighboring Chanka tribe. The Inca king at this time, Viracocha,
and his designated heir fled in fear, but one of his other sons remained and successfully rallied
the city’s defenses. For his military skill, he became
the ninth Inca ruler, assuming the name of Pachacuti,
or “Cataclysm.” Pachacuti expanded Inca rule
throughout the Andes mountains, transforming the kingdom into
an empire through extensive reforms. The empire’s territory was reorganized
as Tahuantinsuyu, or “four quarters,” with four divisions ruled
by governors reporting to the king. Although the Inca had no writing, they used a complex system
of knotted strings called quipu to record numbers
and perhaps other information. A decimal-based bureaucracy
enabled systematic and efficient taxation
of the empire’s subjects. In return, the empire provided security,
infrastructure, and sustenance, with great storehouses containing
necessities to be used when needed. Great terraces and irrigation works
were built and various crops were grown in
at different altitudes to be transported all over the empire. And it was during Pachacuti’s reign that the famous estate
of Machu Picchu was constructed. Pachacuti’s son Topa Inca continued
the empire’s military expansion, and he eventually became ruler
in 1471 CE. By the end of his reign, the empire
covered much of western South America. Topa’s son Huayna Capac
succeeded him in 1493. But the new ruler’s distant military
campaigns strained the social fabric. And in 1524, Huayna Capac
was stricken by fever. Spanish conquistadors had arrived
in the Caribbean some time before, bringing diseases to which
the native peoples had no resistance. Millions died in the outbreak, including Huayna Capac
and his designated heir. The vacant throne ignited a civil war
between two of the surviving brothers, Atahualpa and Huascar, greatly weakening the empire. In 1532, after finally winning
the Inca civil war, Atahualpa and his army
encountered the European invaders. Although greatly outnumbered, Francisco Pizarro
and his small group of conquistadors stunned the king’s much larger force
with guns and horses, neither of which they had seen before. Atahualpa was taken captive
and killed about a year later. The Spanish conquerors
were awed by the capital of Cuzco. Pizarro described it as so beautiful that
“it would be remarkable even in Spain.” Though the capital had fallen and the native population had been
destroyed by civil war and disease, some Incas fell back to
a new capital at Vilcabamba and resisted for the next 40 years. But by 1572, the Spaniards had destroyed
all remaining resistance along with much of the Incas’ physical
and cultural legacy. Thus, the great Inca empire fell
even faster than it had risen.

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