At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century, the Inca Empire stretched over a region that encompassed the Andes Mountains in South America. Named for the ethnic group that dominated one of the New World's greatest indigenous empires, the Inca Empire ruled over a domain that implemented massive public work projects and imposed a system of government, the power of which was unrivaled in South America.
According to Inca legends, the first group of Incas migrated to the Cuzco Valley in the 13th century. They soon dominated the surrounding region and achieved victory over the Chanca tribes in the mid-15th century. The leader of the Incas at that time, Pachacutin, built an imperial system of government at Cuzco and forced regional tribes to become vassals to the Inca lords. By 1500, the Inca Empire included most of present-day Peru and parts of Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia.
Much of what is considered Inca culture was assimilated from the people already populating the region. The Quechua language was a common form of language spoken by numerous indigenous peoples in the central Andes region. Commonly spoken prior to the rise of the Incas, it was used by them to help unite their growing empire. The class structure and local religious/political structure also merged into the Inca society from commonly held traits found in a wide variety of pre-Inca Andean cultures. The local lords or kurakas were responsible for overseeing the religious rituals as well as the acquisition and distribution of provisions for the general populace and for any religious ceremonies.
Inca culture also was divided into kinship groups known as ayllus, both the basic close family kinship groups and the large community kinship groups. Again, this was a practice utilized by neighboring cultures and used by the Incas as a unifying factor for their growing empire. A unique aspect introduced into the kinship concept by the Incas, probably by the emperor Pachacutin, was the imperial kinship group, or panaqa. This structure included not only the immediate family of the emperor or Sapa Inca, but also incorporated future descendants and the servants of the family. The panaqa of the Sapa Inca supported the emperor during life, and continued to serve by caring for his mummy long after death. As a new emperor was chosen, he developed a new panaqa structure from out of the old one he had himself belonged to prior to ascending to the throne. In this fashion, with each subsequent ruling Inca, the old panaqa structure would fracture and compete for attention and economic support in the form of lands and positions that helped sustain the family and servants of the panaqa.
Other features that predated the Inca included the presence of dual moieties representing military and priestly duties. Embraced by the Incas, these moieties became known as the Hanan and Hurin dynasties. It was the Hanan dynasty with its military focus that was responsible for the 15th-century rapid spread of the empire, which reached its greatest extent through northern expansion under the emperor, Huayna Cápac.
In 1527, Huayna Cápac died of smallpox. The disease had been transmitted across the Andean region by natives in contact with members of the Spanish expeditions across Central and South America. The deaths of Huayna Cápac and his appointed heir (who died soon after the emperor) set off an internal civil war for control of the Inca Empire. Emperor Huáscar became the ruler in 1527 but was challenged by his brother, Atahualpa, who controlled a large part of the Inca Army. By 1532, Atahualpa captured Huáscar, imprisoned him, and took control of the empire as Emperor Atahualpa, just as the Spanish were entering his territory.
The rise of the Spanish in the Andes brought forth those elements already present in the Inca culture that contributed to internal rifts among the Incas and enabled the invaders to turn competing groups of indigenous peoples against each other. In particular, the rapid succession of one Sapa Inca after another—with five serving as emperors in a period of seven years—fractured the royal kinship units into competing panaqas. Additionally, with the strain of five years of internal civil war between Huáscar and Atahualpa, followed by the demands and ravages of the invading Spanish, the local kurakas found it increasingly difficult to sustain adequate stores of goods for hard times ahead.
Spanish forces under Francisco Pizarro attacked and captured Atahualpa near the town of Cajamarca. In a surprise attack, the Spanish, with far superior weapons and the benefit of surprise, slaughtered the Inca entourage, captured Atahualpa, and held the Inca ruler hostage. The Incas paid a huge ransom in gold and silver for the release of Atahualpa, but the Spanish killed him anyway in the summer of 1533.
The Spanish used their new-found authority in the region to appoint a series of puppet Incas that helped them maintain control. When they appointed Emperor Manco Inca Yupanqui, in Cuzco, the Spanish were initially firmly in control, until their abuses forced him into a government in exile and years of armed rebellion. From their remote capital of Vilcabamba, the Inca continued to resist, using Spanish arms and even their horses to wage war against the foreigners. Though the Inca continued to exist in the small enclave in the Amazonia region for several years, the Spanish had definitively conquered the former Inca Empire, and the last Inca ruler, Túpac Amaru, was captured and executed in 1572.
See also: Atahualpa; Ayllus; Cajamarca, Battle of; Chanca; European Diseases, Role of; Huáscar; Huayna Cápac; Kuraka; Manco Inca Yupanqui; Pachacutin; Pizarro, Francisco; Quechua; Sapa Inca; Túpac Amaru Vilcabamba.
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