A Look at the Golden Age of the Incas
By Awake! correspondent in Peru
It is the time of the winter solstice—time for the grand festival of the sun. As the cloudless winter sky over Cuzco brightens, the worshipers flock inside the massive curved walls enclosing the Temple of the Sun.
All eyes now focus on the high priest as he kills the sacrificial llama, extracts the still-beating heart, and performs an act of divination to determine the new year’s fate. A brightly polished silver mirror flashes in his hand as he focuses the sun’s rays on a piece of cotton. Finally, there is a puff of smoke, and the sacred fire burns once more. The nine-day festival has begun.
THE Incas and their civilization have long engendered wonderment among explorers, historians, and readers of history alike. The fabulous Inca riches in gold and silver that were plundered by Spanish conquistadores altered the whole European economic system. Engineering marvels, such as the citadel of mysterious Machu Picchu, the Sacsahuaman fortress of Cuzco, and the ingenious irrigation system testify to Inca technological brilliance. Some even claim that there was no robbery, laziness, or vice among the Incas. Be that as it may, that a single government could control many diverse tribes, many of which were ensconced in the nooks and crannies of some of the most lofty and treacherous mountains in the world, is simply remarkable.
Their Origin—A Mystery
But just who were the Incas? Where did they come from? What caused their mighty empire to crumble?
No one really knows where the Incas came from. Some have noted similarities they shared with the ancient Egyptians. Like Pharaoh, the Inca lord was revered as the son of the sun-god and would also marry his sister to preserve “royal blood.” Some religious practices were identical, and the Inca boats that once traversed Lake Titicaca were very much like Egyptian reed boats. Nevertheless, for all their similarities, there are also a number of great differences between the Incas and the Egyptians. Thus, an Egyptian origin for the Incas is called into serious question.
Interestingly, one Inca legend claims that the original Incas were flood survivors. The book Sociografia del Inkario states: “All the traditions of the people of the Andean altiplano speak of a flood that had submerged the whole earth.” According to one Inca legend, all living beings perished. However, another version speaks of some individuals “who, by hiding in a hollow up on a very high mountain peak, were saved and repopulated the earth.”
The parallel with the Bible’s Flood account is striking. Nevertheless, the ancestors of the Incas must have made their way to South America some time after the confusion of languages at Babel.—Genesis 11:1-9.
What, though, were the ancient Incas like? How did they live? In answer let us go back in time to the golden age of the Incas.
Life in an Ayllu in the Inca Domain
It is the year 1500. We gaze upon a valley plain below, dotted with small dwellings. It is a village of an Inca ayllu, that is, a clan of families who live and work together. The whole Inca empire is divided up into ayllus, each supervised by a chief called a curaca. Families live in thatched-roof houses built of stone and mud. Practically no tables, chairs, or any other creature comforts exist. They simply sit on the floor to eat their two frugal daily meals of dehydrated potatoes, corn, quinoa, and dried llama meat. At night, the whole family sleeps on the floor.
A mysterious fear of evil pervades Inca life at almost every turn. We approach a group of people gathered around a newly laid foundation for an adobe room. A man ceremoniously places a dried llama fetus in a small built-in niche. This is to appease the Pacha-Mama, or Mother Earth, and to protect the home from evil. Other fetishes, consisting of trinkets of animals, shells, and feathers, will be inserted in the joints of the walls or woven into the thatched roof.
The Incas fear that evil may befall them even when they sleep. Strange dreams are thought to be adventures had by the soul when it leaves the body during the night. The next morning, a sorcerer may be consulted to interpret such dreams.
Life expectancy is short, but the Incas believe in reincarnation. Fingernail clippings, hair cuttings, and teeth are all meticulously saved in case the returning spirit may need them. In the meantime, if the person has been good, he will go to a place of waiting called Hanan Pacha; if not so good, to Hurin Pacha; and if bad, to Ucu Pacha to suffer in misery—similar to Christendom’s vision of heaven, hell, and purgatory.
The Glories of Cuzco
Next, we approach the sprawling Sacsahuaman fortress, which protects Cuzco, the very heart of the Inca empire. Massive cut stones, some weighing over a hundred tons, have been dragged here from distant quarries, over mountains and ravines, by thousands of Inca workmen. These stones form a series of three formidable walls. The zigzag design of the walls forces any would-be invaders to turn their backs on Inca archers and lancers.
Right now, though, crowds jam the plaza of the Temple of the Sun, and all hail the arrival of a triumphant procession. A group of awestruck and frightened country folk are being led in as prisoners. They gaze wonderingly at the huge thatched-roof temple buildings, which are decorated with dazzling gold.
In the temple courtyard, Inca accountants duly record the number of captives, animals, and other booty from this latest conquest. When the chiefs surrender peacefully, they, along with their sons, are taken to the Amautas, professional teachers. There they will learn the Inca language, the rules of Inca religion, and law. Later, they will be sent back to govern their former clan—this time as an Inca envoy. However, their children must remain in Cuzco for further schooling. This ensures that, when set free, the chiefs will not rebel against their captors.
A neighboring tribe had almost put an end to the Incas in the early 1400’s. The aged Inca lord Viracocha was forced to flee Cuzco. But his son Pachacuti rallied the troops and drove out the invaders. Spurred on by this victory, he conquered other tribes, thus forming this empire made up of various nations.
The empire’s prosperity does not depend solely upon the spoils of war, however. The secret of Inca wealth is the mita. Mita, or turn, is a labor program imposed upon everyone by the Inca ruler. Since it takes only about 60 or 70 days a year for a family to farm for its own needs, the rest of the time is devoted to the mita. Everyone thus takes his turn working on temple-owned fields, building bridges, roads, temples, and terraces, or extracting gold and silver from the mines. Millions of workers keep the empire buzzing like a beehive, while the Inca lord and his nobles control all work from Cuzco through chiefs of thousands, hundreds, and tens.
Inca law helps maintain this arrangement. Condemned criminals may be sentenced to death by being thrown to ferocious beasts. Not surprisingly, the crime rate is very low. But there are even more effective ways of averting rebellion. Every nine days a festival providing free chicha, an alcoholic drink, is presented by the Inca lord.
The Sun Sets on the Inca Domain
For years the Inca empire continued in this way until developments both inside and outside its domain brought ultimate ruin. When the Inca lord Huayna Capac died, the throne went to his son, Huáscar. But an illegitimate son of Huayna Capac named Atahuallpa rebelled and stirred up a civil war. Thousands of Incas died. Discontent and hate now divided the once peaceful domain. Atahuallpa took the throne.
Atahuallpa was not overly concerned when a small band of iron-clad men began meandering their way up through the mountains. Little did he know that they spearheaded a major international invasion, nor did he realize that the light-skinned visitors would infect his people with deadly plagues that would sweep the Inca domain.
Assured of victory by his diviners, Atahuallpa traveled to Cajamarca (located today in northern Peru) to meet a group of invading Spaniards. Though surrounded by thousands of his followers, he was completely unarmed. A Catholic monk then walked out and offered him a religious book. The intent was to convert him to Catholicism. The Inca lord, however, threw the book to the ground. Spanish cannons roared, and 6,000 Incas died.
Atahuallpa was kept alive to reveal the whereabouts of all the gold. He offered to fill a large room with gold objects in exchange for his freedom. His lavish offer accepted, Atahuallpa kept his word. The Spanish did not. Atahuallpa was strangled, and the sun set on the golden era of the Inca empire.
The passage of centuries has somewhat romanticized the life of the Incas. But it must be remembered that for all their great accomplishments, the Incas were held captive to sun worship and superstition. Today, among some inhabitants of the Andes, religious traditions, modified only slightly by Catholicism, an austere life-style, and superstition still dominate the lives of the Incas’ descendants.
Interestingly, though, many among them have left such superstitious fear behind. To the ancient Incas, the Creator was a distant deity, dependent on secondary huacas (objects of worship) and gods. But some of their progeny have learned about the true God, Jehovah, who is very close to all of those searching for him.—Acts 17:27.
[Box on page 27]
Some Facts About the Inca Domain
*What does the term “Inca” mean?
“Inca” applied first to the king, or ruler, who was called Capa Inca, meaning “Only Lord.” The term “Inca” was also given to all male descendants of royal blood. Today, the term may apply to all who lived in the Inca domain hundreds of years ago.
*How many lived in the Inca domain?
At the height of its magnitude, it is reported, 6,000,000 people inhabited the domain, though at least one source lists 12,000,000. This indicates how large the empire really was, considering that at the time the earth’s population was far smaller than it is today.
*How did the Incas communicate?
Mostly by word of mouth, since the Incas did not read or write. Quechua is a spoken but unwritten language, though there have been modern efforts to create a written form based on other languages. Brief official messages were sent using the quipu, long strings with knots to record information.
[Picture on page 25]
Inca sun worship was practiced at Machu Picchu, Peru
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Sacsahuaman fortress of Cuzco