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Home >> Across Cultures  >> The Incas who ruled the Andes

The Incas who ruled the Andes

More than a hundred years ago, history professor Hiram Bingham III stumbled upon the lost city of Machu Picchu. If it weren’t for him, the mysterious engineering marvel of the Inca civilisation would have remained hidden. Atop a Peruvian Andes mountain, 8,000 feet above sea level in the Cusco region, sits the citadel of the Incas–Machu Picchu, surrounded by River Urubamba.

The Inca ruin exhibits extraordinary masonry with terraces, buildings, fountains and temples. Such advancement in architecture, during 14th century AD, has left historians and explorers baffled. Archaeological studies reveal that the Incas constructed forts and walls with finely-cut polygonal or regular blocks of stones which fit like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Their mastery over stone work prevented buildings from collapsing in this earthquake-prone region. The speciality of these structures is that the Incas did not use any mortar between the stone blocks, and yet the entire city is made of white granite! Surprisingly, even to this day, a knife blade cannot be inserted between these stones.

The masonry is just the tip of the iceberg. The master planners that they were, the Incas excelled at terrace farming, laying extensive road networks and building powerful armies. Incas had all the major attributes to be ranked a civilisation–architecture, urbanisation and technology. But they lacked one important parameter to be officially considered a civilisation–a language script. So, in the absence of written records, whatever is known of the Inca civilisation is mostly because of the Spanish conquerors and their history.

In the absence of written language, Incas developed a unique way to keep their records–Khipu. They used knotted strings that hung from horizontal cords, kind of like abacus. It is believed to be Incas’ way of accounting. Though many studies suggest Khipu was non-numerical, others argue it resembles the modern binary system. No Khipu has been deciphered till date, leaving room for speculations.

Amidst all the good things that kept the Incas going, mounting rebellion among the subjects stuck out like a sore thumb. To add to the troubles, the Incas were fighting a battle in Ecuador, when a small pox epidemic hit the empire, killing several subjects mercilessly. However, the ultimate downfall of the Incas is attributed to the Spanish invasion. The civilisation of Incas barely existed for about a hundred years, before they were brought down by the Spanish.

In less than a century, Incas had formed an empire that had sophisticated technology, powerful army, organised bureaucracy and well-structured administration.

But in the span of a century, the Incas managed to build an extensive empire along the rough territories of the Andes–from modern day Chile to Columbia. This feat is credited to Emperor Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. He was the ninth Sapa Inca (Inca ruler), and is considered the founding father of Machu Picchu. It was Pachacuti’s vision to expand the empire beyond the Cusco region. He conquered territories in Huantanay Valley and beyond, thus expanding the empire before the Spanish conquest in 1532.

When it came to administration and politics, the Incas believed in aristocracy; only the elite ruled the society. At the top of the pyramid was the king and groups of nobles called panaqa. Then came the distant relatives of the king, followed by people who were not Incas by blood, but were made Inca by privilege. At the bottom of the pyramid were local administrators who looked after smaller settlements. Interestingly, an empire that was known for its strong administrative structure did not have currency. So, the Incas followed the barter system and paid taxes too in the form of goods or labour.

The Incas divided the agricultural land into three parts–one part for the god and the state religion, one for the supreme ruler and the third for the farmer’s own consumption. They grew potatoes, corn, beans, tomatoes, and hot peppers among other crops. They stockpiled their agricultural produce in the warehouses, making sure they could feed the kingdom for years in case of calamity. Clearly, the Incas aced in agriculture too. In fact, according to experts, growing crops on the terraces prevented landslides in the Andean mountains.

With extensive farming came the need for trade and transportation. In order to distribute their produce across the vast kingdom, the Incas laid roads. It is said the Incas built an extensive road network that covered 40,000 kilometres, linking villages, the state capital, and sacred sites, despite the rough terrains.

Inca was thus prosperous, albeit short-lived, as one of the greatest civilisations in the Americas. In less than a century, Incas had formed an empire that had sophisticated technology, powerful army, organised bureaucracy and well-structured administration. Today, the Inca ruins have lived to tell the tale. Of course, we may never find out the secrets behind the Incas’ skilful mastery of many trades, but therein lies our fascination.

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