See how this powerful culture ruled from the Andes mountains of Peru 500 years ago.
The year is 1475. It’s wintertime, and the Inca (EENG-kah) royal family is vacationing in Machu Picchu, a small city that serves as their royal retreat in what’s now Peru. The Inca capital city, Cusco, is now too cold, so the royals have traveled about 50 miles down the Andes mountains.
Wearing golden jewelry and colorful ponchos made of alpaca wool, the royals, priests, and other high-ranking officials feast, hunt, worship their gods, and entertain guests. Meanwhile, the other 750 residents work to maintain the city, serving the royals and growing food like potatoes, corn, and beans on the hillside.
At their most powerful, the Inca had the largest empire in the world at the time—today, it’s still the largest empire to ever exist in the Americas. Stretching from modern-day southern Colombia to southern Chile, they ruled over western South America from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. Although Spain conquered the Inca Empire in 1533, many Inca people retreated into the mountains, where their culture, language, and practices remain today.
History of the Inca civilization
Historians think that Inca people arrived in the valley where they would later build their capital city, Cusco, around 1100. It was a difficult place to live: Rain didn’t fall often, so crops were tough to grow. That meant that groups often fought for the best land near rivers. Over time, the Inca conquered nearby people, gaining more power and eventually taking control of the Cusco Valley around 1300.
In 1438, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (pah-chah-KOO-tee EENG-kah YOO-pahn-wee) became the ninth Inca emperor. With his sons as military captains, the emperor began a massive expansion of the Inca territory beyond the Cusco area. He gave government jobs to people who spoke Quechua, the Inca language. This king also ordered construction of Machu Picchu around the year 1450.
Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui gave power to his son Topa Inca Yupanqui in 1471. He expanded the empire more than any other Inca leader and eventually controlled most of western South America. At this time, the Inca ruled over 12 million people who spoke about 30 different languages.
The Inca demanded that conquered people who didn’t speak Quechua, like the Chanka who spoke Aymara and the Chimú who spoke Mochica, had to serve in the army and build military outposts, temples, and roads. Those roads were impressive. Troops and Inca officials moved throughout the empire on a system that included two main highways, one along the coast and another along the Andes. Many smaller roads connected the two. The road system also included tunnels, bridges, and storehouses to provide travelers with supplies and rest stops.
Throughout the empire’s history, small groups of conquered people often rebelled against the Inca, and rebellions were happening in the 1500s, too. Then around 1526, two sons of an Inca king fought over who should rule next, and a civil war began. At the same time, diseases like smallpox brought by European explorers killed around 65 percent of the population. This is when the Spanish encountered the Inca.
The search for gold was one of the main reasons that the Spanish wanted to explore and conquer the Americas. (That’s because when Christopher Columbus returned to Spain from his first voyage in the Americas, he told stories of people adorned with gold.) Led by Francisco Pizarro, a group of 180 Spanish went searching for a large city with temples covered in gold—it was Cusco. For years the Inca had mined gold and silver from the Andes mountains to create beautiful pieces of jewelry and art.
In 1533, Pizarro teamed up with enemies of Inca emperor Atahualpa to capture him. To save his own life, Atahualpa offered Pizarro enough gold and silver to fill the room that he was being kept in.
But the bargain didn’t save him—or the empire. After the treasures were gathered, Pizarro melted down all the gold and silver pots, jewelry, figurines, and other items, then split the treasure among the Spanish invaders. (Historians estimate that it was worth about $387 million in today’s money.) Then Pizarro executed Atahualpa, ending the Inca Empire.
Life in the Inca civilization
Most Inca people were farmers or herders, looking after alpacas and llamas. Extended families lived together on the same land, making their own clothing and blankets from alpaca and llama wool. Their homes were made of stone or adobe mud and topped with a roof of dried grass. All members of the family were expected to help, including children.
Because the Inca lived in the mountains, they often had to build terraces, or flat areas cut into the hillside, to plant their crops in. They also had to dig canals so they could direct mountain streams and rain to crops like quinoa, corn, avocados, and potatoes.
The harsh climate meant that food was sometimes scarce, so the Inca figured out how to preserve some crops to make them last a long time. For example, they would slowly squeeze the moisture out of potatoes over several days. The dried-out potato could last up to 10 years.
The Inca believed that their rulers were sons of the sun god Inti (in-TEE) and mummified them after death by removing their organs, preserving the body with alcohol, and freezing their remains in the cold, dry mountain air. Like ancient Egyptian pharaohs, these royals were buried with their treasures. Average people also sometimes mummified their dead by simply placing them in cold, dry caves. They would sometimes bring out the mummified ancestors during ceremonies like weddings or harvest festivals, or to important community meetings.
Historians have found evidence that some of these mummified people were sacrificed to the Inca gods. However, the Inca did not perform human sacrifice nearly as often as the Aztec people did.
The Inca didn’t have a written language. Instead, they used knotted cords called quipu (KEE-poo) to keep records. Experts think that things like the style of the knot and the color of the string all contained information. Researchers are using computers to try to untangle these long-lost codes.
Why the Inca civilization still matters
The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, so it wasn’t known to the outside world until 1911, when Peruvian guide Melchor Arteaga led explorer Hiram Bingham to the site. Experts were amazed to see ruins of Machu Picchu’s buildings still standing despite being on a mountain that experiences earthquakes. Today, people from all over the world travel to visit Machu Picchu, hiking along the Inca trail that was used 500 years ago.
Some Peruvian people still use Inca weaving techniques to make clothes today, and over eight million people still speak Quechua, the language of the Inca. You probably use a few Quechan words, too, like condor, jerky, llama, poncho, puma, and quinoa.
• The Inca called their capital city, Cusco, the "belly button of the world."
• Machu Picchu means “old peak” in the Quechua language.
• A system of relay runners carried messages up to 150 miles a day along the Inca roads.
• When Inca people became young adults, they received new names that described their personality, like Jaguar or Star.
• The Inca cut the stones of their buildings to fit together without any binding material. That way, when an earthquake struck, the stones could bounce around before settling back into place.