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The Inca Civilisation: Rise and Fall

2017 Inca Trail Machu PicchuThe Inca civilisation has left us a rich heritage:food such as potatoes, maize and quinoa; drugs such as quinine; and an amazing network of paved trails punctuated by superb ruins. Quechua, the official Inca language, is still spoken by 10 million people to this day. Andean people maintain elements of the Inca religion, such as making offerings to apus, the spirits of sacred mountains, while also practising the Catholic religion. Above all, the Inca values of hard work and co-operation are obvious in the daily lives of their descendants.

The Incas and their predecessors developed fine arts to a high level, notably in textiles and weaving, ceramics and metalwork. They devised the ‘lost wax’ technique for making gold sculptures that is still used today by British dentists to shape gold fillings: during centrifuging, the heavier gold displaces the lighter wax. Sadly, the Spaniards melted down virtually all Inca gold and silver in an appalling display of greed and vandalism.

Inca architecture shows an almost religious commitment to suiting the design and choice of materials to the site. Time and again, you will see an interesting rock preserved in situ and skilfully worked into the structure. Inca stonemasons often expertly shaped huge rocks so as to echo and celebrate the silhouettes of sacred mountains. These are called image stones.

Inca stonework is famous for its mortarless walls with large stones that fitted together with amazing precision. Not a blade of grass can grow in the gaps, yet the Incas had no knowledge of iron or steel and no machinery to move the stones. They worked with natural fracture lines in the rocks, sometimes drilling a line of holes which they plugged with wooden dowels; when dampened, these expanded and split the rock. Their shaping tools were made of bronze, silver and haematite, and they patiently sanded and polished the surfaces to finish them. Moving the huge stones into place needed great manpower. Although they used rollers of wood and stone, they never used wheels, perhaps because they had no metal strong enough to make an axle.

Inca religión featured worship of the sun, moon and stars. Anyone who has felt the bone-chilling cold of a clear night in the Andes will understand why they revered the sun above all. They designed windows and markers to track and predict the winter solstice, and created pointer stones accurately aligned with sacred mountains or the compass points.

The Incas lived very close to nature. They worshipped mother earth, water and sacred crops including quinoa and coca leaves. Inca descendants still make offerings to Pachamama (mother earth). The three levels of the Andean world were symbolised by three animals: the serpent (wisdom and the underworld), the puma (power and the earth’s surface) and the condor (the messenger of the skies). These levels are embodied in sacred stones with three steps.


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Although we refer loosely to the Incas in general, at any one time there was only one Inca (the Sapa Inca), son of the sun, who acted as god, king and general combined. He ruled the empire through a sophisticated system of government, with taxes, controlled movement of population and a system of knotted cords, called Quipus, for keeping records. At its zenith in the 15th century, the empire was over 5000 kilometres from north to south, and was covered by a vast network of fine roads. Fleet-footed messengers called chasquis ran barefoot in relays, bearing messages and goods. The Inca in Cusco could even enjoy fresh seafood brought 300 kilometres from the coast.

Despite its high degree of organisation, the Inca Empire was surprisingly short-lived. It was ended brutally in an infamous sequence of events. Francisco Pizarra, an illiterate Spanish peasant turned soldier, led a company of only 63 horsemen and some 100 infantry into the great Inca empire in 1532, seeking gold and other treasure. By a combination of shock tactics, treachery and lucky timing, this tiny force of conquistadors overcame the greatest empire of the day.

The Sapa Inca, Atahualpa, was told of the Spanish arrival by his chasquis. He was near Cajamarca with an army of thousands of fit, trained soldiers at the time. Surprisingly, despite being told of the Spanish raping and stealing, he agreed to meet them in the main square of Cajamarca. Atahualpa arrived dressed in great splendour but unarmed, borne high on a litter and followed by a procession of townspeople. The Spanish had set a trap, and when the signal was given their cavalry rushed out of their hiding places and butchered the natives, who were terrified by the new experience of horses and gunfire.

Atahualpa was captured alive; he offered to fill one room with gold and two more rooms with silver in exchange for his life. Misguidedly believing that the Spaniards would stick to the bargain, he told his leaderless army to disband. After the treasure had been brought from all corners of the empire by llama trains,the Spaniards treacherously murdered Atahualpa on 26 July 1533. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but after he converted to Christianity he was baptised and then garroted instead.

Inca resistance continued in various ways until the last lnca,Tupac Amaru, was captured in 1572 and executed in Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. Meanwhile, the conquistadors had taken advantage of the confused succession: Atahualpa’s half-brother Huascar had been defeated in a civil war only shortly before they arrived. They installed another of Huascar’s brothers as a puppet Inca and received support not only from Huascar’s faction but also from other native peoples who imagined that the Spanish would release them from Inca domination. What followed was centuries of exploitation and persecution, the destruction of monuments and the outlawing of their religion and even language.

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The antecedents of Culture of the Inca Empire is full of mysteries to solve, is to admire the constructive work of the Incas.

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