How the Incas Lost Their Golden Empire
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN PERU
Sunrise. The snowcapped Andes were painted a soft pink by rays of light shooting into the morning sky. Early risers among the Indian folk took in the warmth dispelling the chill of the cold night at altitudes of 14,000 feet. [4,300 m] Slowly, the sun’s rays reached down to take in the temple of the sun in the center of the capital of the Inca Empire, Cuzco (meaning “Navel of the World”). Golden walls reflected the sun’s rays. Solid gold llamas, vicuñas, and condors sparkled in the Inca’s* garden in front of the temple. Passersby blew kisses into the air in worship of their god, the sun. How grateful they were to be alive and to be blessed by the sun that gave them their livelihood, so they believed!
BETWEEN the 14th and 16th centuries, a great golden empire held sway on the west coast of South America. Ruled by brilliant architects and technicians, the Incas were a people organized to better themselves socially. The fabulous Inca Empire extended its limits for almost 3,000 miles [almost 5,000 km], reaching from the southern part of present-day Colombia all the way down into Argentina. In fact, “the Inca thought they controlled almost all the world.” (National Geographic) They believed that beyond the limits of their empire, there was nothing worth conquering. Yet, the rest of the world did not even know that this empire existed.
Who were the Incas? What was their origin?
Who Came Before the Incas?
Archaeological finds show that the Incas were not the original inhabitants of the continent. Other well-developed cultures preceded them by several hundred to several thousand years. These have been classified by archaeologists as the Lambayeque, the Chavin, the Mochica, the Chimu, and the Tiahuanaco cultures.
Those early groups worshiped various animals—jaguars, pumas, and even fish. Reverence of mountain gods was widespread among them. Their pottery showed that some tribes practiced sex worship. Near Lake Titicaca, high up on the border between Peru and Bolivia, a tribe built a temple containing phallic emblems, which were worshiped in fertility rites to ensure a good crop from the Pacha-Mama, meaning “Mother Earth.”
The Myth and the Reality
It was about 1200 that the Incas made their appearance. According to chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Inca princess and a Spanish knight and landowner, myth had it that the original Inca, Manco Capac, along with his sister/bride, was sent down by his father, the sun-god, to Lake Titicaca to bring all peoples under worship of the sun. Today, this legend is still recounted to children in some schools.
Myth aside, however, the Incas probably originated from one of the Lake Titicaca tribes, the Tiahuanacos. In time, the spreading empire took over many of the well-organized works of conquered tribes, expanding and perfecting canals and terraces already built. The Incas excelled in building colossal structures. There are many ideas as to how their architects were able to put together the fortress and temple of Sacsahuaman, which dominates the city of Cuzco from a high plateau. Tremendous 100-ton monoliths were joined together. No mortar was used to bind them. Earthquakes have had little effect on the fitted rockwork found in the walls of the ancient city of Cuzco.
The Shining Temple of the Sun
In the royal city of Cuzco, the Incas organized a priesthood for worship of the sun in a polished stone temple. The interior walls were embellished with pure gold and silver. Along with the priesthood, special convents were established, such as the reconstructed one at the sun temple of Pachácamac, just outside Lima. Virgins of outstanding beauty were trained from as young as eight years of age to be ‘virgins of the sun.’ Archaeological evidence indicates that the Incas also offered human sacrifices. They sacrificed children to the apus, or mountain gods. Some bodies of children have been found frozen on Andean peaks.
While the Incas and earlier tribes had no knowledge of writing, they did develop a system of keeping records by the use of what was called the quipu. This was “a device made of a main cord with smaller varicolored cords attached and knotted and used by the ancient Peruvians” as a memory aid for assigned keepers of inventories and records.—Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary.
How Was the Empire Held Together?
Strict laws and planned strategy firmly established the one central government. An initial requisite was that all learn Quechua, the language of the Incas. “Quechua,” says the book El Quechua al Alcance de Todos (Quechua Within the Reach of Everyone), is considered “the most comprehensive, most varied, as well as the most elegant of the dialects of South America.” It is still spoken by about five million people in the mountains of Peru and by other millions in five countries that had been part of the empire. A group southeast of Lake Titicaca still speak Aymara, a tongue derived from the Quechua of pre-Inca times.
The use of Quechua had a unifying effect on the almost 100 conquered tribes and was an aid to the village curaca (lord) who governed each group. Each family was assigned land to work. After conquest, the Inca permitted local tribal dances and fiestas to continue and provided theatrical presentations and games to keep all subjugated peoples contented.
The Mita Tax
No monetary unit existed throughout the empire, which meant that gold, as such, had no value to individuals. Its appeal was that it reflected the sun. The only tax imposed, the mita (Quechua, “a turn”), was the requirement that subjects take turns doing forced labor on the Incas’ many road and building projects. Thousands of Indian workers were thus recruited by law.
Utilizing the mita workers, the Inca master builders constructed a network of roads over 15,000 miles [24,000 km] long! Starting from Cuzco, the Incas built a system of rock-based roads to link the most distant points of the empire. Trained messenger runners, called chasquis, used them. They were stationed in huts at intervals of one or two miles. As a chasqui with a message arrived, the next chasqui began running alongside him, like a relay runner. Using this system, they covered distances of 150 miles [240 km] a day. In short order the ruling Inca had reports from all over his empire.
Along the roads, the Inca established large storehouses. These were kept filled with food supplies and clothing for the use of armies of the Inca while on journeys of conquest. The Inca avoided war when possible. Using strategy, he sent emissaries to invite tribes to come under his reign, on condition that they accept sun worship. If they complied, they were permitted to carry on in their own tribe, directed by trained Inca instructors. If they refused, they became victims of ruthless conquest. The skulls of the enemy dead were used as goblets for drinking chicha, a potent beverage made from corn.
It was under the ninth Inca, Pachacuti (1438 onward), his son Topa Inca Yupanqui, and the conqueror-statesman Huayna Capac that the empire rapidly expanded its borders and reached its maximum extent north to south. But this was not to endure.
Invaders From the North
About the year 1530, Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro and his soldiers came down from Panama, enticed by reports of gold in this unknown land that was by then riven with civil war. Prince Huáscar, legal heir to the throne, had been defeated and imprisoned by his half brother Atahuallpa, who was moving toward the capital.
After a difficult march into the interior city of Cajamarca, Pizarro and his men were well received by the usurper Atahuallpa. Nevertheless, through treachery the Spanish succeeded in pulling him from his litter and holding him captive while, at the same time, they slaughtered thousands of his astonished and unprepared troops.
Yet, even while being held captive, Atahuallpa continued the civil war. He sent messengers to Cuzco to kill his half brother Inca Huáscar as well as hundreds of the royal family. Unwittingly, he simplified Pizarro’s plan of conquest.
Seeing the greed of the Spanish for gold and silver, Atahuallpa promised to fill a large room with gold and silver figurines as a ransom for his release. But to no avail. Once again treachery intervened! After the promised ransom was piled up, Atahuallpa, the 13th Inca, who was considered an idolater by the monks, was first baptized as a Catholic and then strangled.
The Beginning of the End
The capture and murder of Atahuallpa was a fatal blow to the Inca Empire. But the Indian population resisted the invaders, and the empire’s death throes lasted another 40 years.
When reinforcements arrived, Pizarro and all his soldiers were eager to move to Cuzco to lay their hands on more Inca gold. In this quest the Spanish were not averse to cruel acts of torture to extract secrets of treasure from the Indians or to intimidate and quell any resisters.
Accompanied by Huáscar’s brother Prince Manco II, who was next to become Inca (Manco Inca Yupanqui), Pizarro pushed on to Cuzco and ransacked it of all its immense gold treasure. Most of the golden images were melted down into gold bullion for Spain. Small wonder that English pirates were eager to seize Spanish galleons carrying the rich treasures of Peru! Heavily laden with treasure, Pizarro left for the coast, where in 1535 he founded the city of Lima as his center of government.
Manco Inca Yupanqui, by then fully enlightened as to the greed and treachery of the conquerors, staged a revolt. Others too rebelled against the Spanish, but finally the Indians had to retire to remote places to resist as well as they could. One of these safe havens could have included the sacred city of Machu Picchu hidden away in the mountains.
The Last Inca
In the final act, Tupac Amarú, a son of Manco Inca Yupanqui, became Inca (1572). Spanish viceroys now governed Peru. Viceroy Toledo’s goal was to finish off the Incas. With a large army, he entered the Vilcabamba area. Tupac Amarú was captured in the jungle. He and his pregnant wife were taken to Cuzco for execution. A Cañari Indian raised the executional blade over Tupac Amarú. The thousands of Indians gathered in the plaza groaned in audible sorrow as with one stroke their Inca was beheaded. His captains were tortured to death or hanged. With cruel dispatch, the rule of the Incas came to an end.
The appointed viceroys, along with many Catholic monks and priests, slowly spread their influence, good and bad, over the Indians, who for a long time were simply regarded as slaves. Many were forced to work in gold or silver mines, one of which was a mountain with rich silver ore, located in Potosí, Bolivia. To survive the inhuman conditions, the mistreated Indians resorted to using the coca leaf for its drugging effect. It was not until the early 19th century that Peru and Bolivia gained their independence from Spain.
Modern-Day Descendants of the Incas
What is the situation of the descendants of the Incas in this modern era? The Peruvian capital city of Lima, like many other modern cities, teems with millions of citizens. But out in the provinces, it sometimes seems that the clock stopped a hundred years ago. Many isolated villages are still controlled by Catholic priests. To the Indian farmer, the Catholic church in the village square is the central attraction. The many statues of splendidly dressed saints, the multicolored lights, the golden altar, the burning candles, the mystic ceremonies intoned by the priest, and especially the dances and fiestas—all of these appeal to his need for diversion. But such eye-pleasing diversions have never done away with ancient beliefs. And the use of the coca leaf, which is thought to have mystic powers, still influences the lives of many.
With their indomitable spirit, these descendants of the Incas—many now of mixed blood—have managed to preserve their colorful dances and typical huaino music. Even if they are initially reserved with strangers, their inherent hospitality comes through. For those who personally know these descendants of the Inca Empire—who observe their daily struggle to survive and can reach out, touch, and care—their story indeed rends the heart!
Education Brings Changes
In an interview with Awake!, Valentin Arizaca, a descendant of Aymara-speaking Indians from the village of Socca on Lake Titicaca, related: “Before I became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was a Catholic in name only. Along with some of my friends, I carried on many pagan practices. I chewed the coca leaf too, but I have now left all of that behind.”
Remembering very well the many superstitions that held her in constant fear of displeasing the apus, Petronila Mamani, 89 years old, said: “I regularly took offerings to appease the mountain gods and to ensure my livelihood. In no way did I want to displease them and risk the resulting plagues. Now, in my old age, I have learned to see things differently. Thanks to the Bible and Jehovah’s Witnesses, I am free from such thinking.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are teaching many Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians to read. They, in turn, teach others the Bible. In this way thousands of Inca and Spanish Indians are being educated in order to better their lives. They are also learning of God’s promise in the Bible of a new world of justice, peace, and righteousness, soon to be established over all the earth.—2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4.
The word “Inca” can refer to the supreme ruler of the Inca Empire and can also refer to the natives.
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The Golden Empire of the Incas
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Top: The original temple of the sun serves as the foundation for this Catholic church in Cuzco
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Left: Pre-Inca phallic image in a temple at Chucuito
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Right: The blood of Inca sacrifices ran down these stone carvings
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Right: Irrigated terraces at Machu Picchu, near Cuzco
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Bottom: View through an ancient doorway at Machu Picchu
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Bottom right: 100-ton blocks of the fortress-temple of Sacsahuaman