The Land of Four Quarters…Tawantinsuyu
by Don Klingborg, DVM
The Incan empire, created in less than 100 years, governed more people and landmass than the Ming Dynasty, Ivan the Great, the Great Zimbabwe, the Ottoman Empire, the Triple Alliance (Aztec’s) or Europe during the late 1400’s/early 1500’s. Thupa Inca’s conquests and governance, by every measurement, rivaled Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
Across their 100-year reign the Incas managed to unify the political, religious, economic and art systems of multiple cultures, build more than 25,000 miles of paved roads with drainage systems and successfully occupy ecosystems ranging in altitudes from sea level to 14,000 feet.
Their social/economic system included no money and no markets. Knots in fabric represented their recorded language. Considered the best-known example of “vertical socialism”, they managed to eradicate hunger and “successfully” integrate multiple cultures using a system that relocated whole populations to distant areas. (Their system relied on hegemonic governance that keeps the internal affairs of conquered areas in the hands of the original rulers who became vassals of the Incas. The alternative system, territorial empire building, relies on direct occupation with the conquering armies, eliminates the old rulers and annexes the land and people. The hegemonic system is by comparison very inexpensive to maintain but less tightly controlled.)
How did this mighty people, then, with a local army 50 times larger than the invasion force led by Pizarro (totaling 168 mercenaries), lose on a day in 1532 without inflicting a single casualty? Reading about the battle and the tactics are interesting, but even more interesting for me was pondering how this civilization fell so far so fast? There are many stories including giving credit to the use of steel for weapons (Europeans) rather than art (Incas). Most historians today suggest the Incas lost primarily due to factionalism and disease.
When Inca kings died their culture considered them to simply be transformed into another form. They mummified them, continued to care for them, and their assets remained as their property to use for their support in perpetuity. The mummies would be placed outside to enjoy the sun during the day, moved back in at night, and were often taken to battle at some distance so that they might continue to participate in “life”. The new kings, therefore, had to make their own way, build their own alliances and win their own followers. The majority of these new kings are thought by many to have come from brother-sister couplings as the family blood was considered the “pure” lineage. A few kings evolved from children born to non-sister family members. As soon as a new king was identified there was a pattern of slaughter of brothers and the brother’s offspring to minimize the threat of being overthrown.
It seems likely such a system would lead to “rocky transitions” of leadership, divisive outcomes and the factionalism that plagued them especially at the time of Pizarro’s invasion.
Next, the Inca military was rigidly structured and original thinking was not encouraged. While the Incas had the weapons and geography necessary to successfully fight the Spanish, they were reluctant to alter their traditional methods. Had they changed tactics many historians believe they would have won easily.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the European “invasion” of the Americas introduced a number of diseases including smallpox, influenza, typhus, diphtheria, measles and hepatitis. A smallpox epidemic hit the Incas in 1524-25 (you can follow the progression of smallpox from a Caribbean island to Central America and from there north and south as carried by asymptomatic carriers—with the first epidemic affecting the Incas 8 years before the first arrival of Europeans in Peru), resulting in half or more of the population dying. Among the deaths were the reigning Inca (king), his heir, other close family members and the main generals of the army. A civil war followed this loss of the political elite that led to more losses of leadership and factionalism (the Inca king and potential heirs tended to share their seed liberally resulting in potentially hundreds of offspring making claim on the throne). Pizarro’s timing was perfect!
While the fight for the empire continued for another 40 years after the initial battle, disease continued to decimate the native populations. Additional smallpox epidemics occurred in 1533, 1535, 1558, and 1565. Add epidemics of typhus in 1546, influenza in 1558 (with smallpox), diphtheria in 1614 and measles in 1618. The historian Dobyns calculated that in the 130 years following the first contact between the Americas (North, Central and South America) and Europeans about 95% of “Americans” perished as a consequence of disease. If his estimates are right, 100 million Americans died from disease between 1492 and 1630.
Cusco, the capital of the Incas, is at 11,000 feet while Machu Picchu is at ~8,000 ft above sea level.
Machu Picchu is thought to have been built as a royal retreat and sacred center in the mid 1400’s. The uncertainty is associated with our failure to decode the Inca system of writing ((“khipu”—which uses knotted strings) and defacing of stone imprints by the Spanish conquerors. Most of the written history of this time and the Inca’s comes from the conquerors recording their version.
Machu Picchu is very special because there is no evidence the Spanish actually found it and subsequent human populations have not inflicted significant damage. Machu Picchu was essentially “lost” to the jungle for ~350 years before an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, found it in 1911. Surrounded on three sides by a river (far far below), the city is frequently bathed in a mist. Centuries of jungle growth enveloped the structure that includes fields, housing, storage, temples and an impressive water system. What you see is only 40% of the building that occurred, with 60% underground forming the foundations and drainage for the structures and walls. The weather is milder and wetter than Cusco.