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Who were the Incas?

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The Incas were a Quechua-speaking people and ancient civilization of Peru. Between AD 1200-1400 the Incas were one of a group of warring city states in the South Sierra of Peru. Legends tell of the emergence of the first ruler, Manco Capac, from a cave and his instructions from the Sun which were to build a capital where a golden rod plunged deep into the earth. Thus the city of Cuzco was founded. The military struggle for supremacy in the region did not end until 1438 when the Chanca attack was repelled by Yupanqui. This man overthrew his father and brothers and became supreme ruler, the Sapa Inca, and took the name Pachacuti. He consolidated the Empire and reorganized the administrative system. In 1463 his son, Topa Inca, assumed military control and extended the Empire as far as North Ecuador and southwards into Chile and Argentina. Amongst his conquests was the powerful kingdom of Chimor. The Inca, Huayna Capac, made few territorial gains, these being mainly in Amazonia and Ecuador—but set about constructing a second capital at Quito. His death in 1525 left the Empire (Tahuantinsuyu) divided between the two capitals led by Huayna Capac's son, Huascar, and atahualpa respectively. A period of civil war began in which Atahualpa was victorious, but his victory was short-lived for in 1532 Pizarro with a band of only 160 men marched to Cajamarca, assassinated the Inca (1533) and pillaged gold and silver from the Empire.

The Inca was the son of the sun, the chief god, to whom both human and animal sacrifices were made daily. There were many other gods (national and local) all of which received offerings and sacrifice. Astronomical observation enabled the Inca to develop a 12-month solar calendar and a ritual lunar one. The major religious festivals took place at the solstices and involved much ceremony and sacrifice.

The Inca were exceptionally well organized to administer an empire over 3500 km in extent. The Inca ruled supreme but had a hierarchy of governors, lesser officials, and local lords to rule provinces and even groups of 50 men. New towns were built throughout the Empire (e.g. Huanuco, Jauja, Quito etc.), based on the style of Cuzco, which became provincial capitals and assisted the Incanisation of the Empire. This was also done by removing groups from anti-Inca territories to the Cuzco area and replacing them by pro-Inca peoples. A system of metalled roads spanned the whole country linking every major city to Cuzco, and wayside inns (tambos) were built at intervals equal to a day's march.

Teams of runners (chasquis) carried official messages by word of mouth throughout the Empire. There was no system of writing, only mnemonic devices of knotted strings called quipus. The Inca and his hierarchy demanded tribute in terms of food and luxury goods from the provinces, and even owned lands which free peasants had to cultivate for a fixed time every year, the fruits of which maintained temples or armies.

The Inca also engaged in trade in luxury items, such as coca and spondylus shell with Amazonia and the coast of Colombia. The Incas were great engineers and architects using large, well-dressed stones (orthostats) to construct fine buildings, temples and palaces, and even agricultural terraces. Irrigation canals were built many kilometers long to water fields.

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