From approximately 1450 to 1530, the western coast of South America flourished under a vast Incan Empire. At their height, the Inca were worthy of comparison to the ancient Roman society. Among their many achievements, their roadways, government, and counting systems particularly helped the Incas dominate a vast area of South America. They set up roads running the length of the kingdom from Ecuador to the southern borders of Argentina and Chile making an extensive communication system. Each road had chasquis or messengers at certain posts along the way who carried messages from one end to the other with remarkable efficiency. The network of roads led to the great success of the Incas, simplifying the government’s efforts to keep watch over the empire. Their government was very organized and kept records of everything. Although the Inca had no writing system, they had a complex method of counting called the quipu. The quipu was a system for recording data using knotted cords. Knots indicated units; tens, hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands. Single cords would be fastened to hang from a thicker cord like a fringe to keep track of such things as crop yields and storage capacity. These quipus were quite complicated and managed by quipucamayocs, or accountants. To tell the difference between knots and their meanings, quipucamayocs used different sizes and colors. For example, a yellow string signified gold, a white one: silver, and red: soldiers.
Like many other cultures, the Inca's history was based on a creation story. The Inca beginning starts with the creator god Tici Viracocha who came out of Lake Titicaca. The people inhabiting its surroundings had insulted the great god in some way so he destroyed them, and cast them into stone. After this, Viracocha created the sun and the moon and new human life forms to be distributed to different sites along the western coast of South America. Some of these new life forms headed for Cuzco, later the greatest city of the Incas. Manco Capac then came forth from Lake Titicaca and headed to Cuzco via underground caves. He finally arrived with his brothers and all of their wives/sisters to the cave of Pacariqtamba in the Valley of Cuzco. After defeating his three brothers, who turned to stone after death, and taking their wives, Manco Capac became the first ruler of the Inca. From him descended all of the later Inca rulers. Stone played a major role in the Inca creation story as well as in their daily lives. Not only was stone a primary building material for great structures, to the Inca it had a greater significance. Inside the stone was a spirit or power strong enough to turn it into men and vice versa. For this reason, the Inca worshipped stone and appreciated the actual substance instead of what could be built with it. For example, huacas or sacred stones appear in the creation story. When all of Manco Capac’s brothers turned to stone, their remains were considered to be huacas. Ayar Auca, Capac’s third brother, was renamed Cuzco Huaca and was the field guardian of Cuzco. Also, during the war against the Inca’s enemies known as the Chanca, one of the empires most accomplished rulers, Pachacutec, prayed to the gods and the huaca stones transformed into an army and defeated the Chanca.
This respect for the stone and its inner powers gave rise to their expert masonry. They used stones of unusual size and fitted them together without mortar to form walls; one could not insert a sheet of paper between these stones they were so carefully crafted together. The surfaces were smoothly carved and were not squared off to make them look almost alive. This detailed masonry can be seen in Machu Picchu, "the lost city of the Incas." The ancient city sits on top of a mountain 8,000 feet in elevation, virtually untouched since inhabited by the Incas. Because of its elevation and location, the Spanish conquistadors missed Machu Picchu and it turned into a refuge for the escaping Inca during the time of conquest. Amazingly preserved temples still stand with huge walls of artistically carved white granite that demonstrate an obvious expertise. Machu Picchu may be the best preserved and most beautiful example of masonry the Inca Empire had to offer.
Another example of the Inca's capability with stone is Sacsahuaman. The Inca described Cuzco as a puma or mountain lion with Sacsahuaman as its head. The ancient fortress in Cuzco was a storehouse containing such items as arms, clothing, and large amounts of jewels, gold, and silver. Probably taking several generations to finish, the immense building shows delicate stone work on its walls. The precision used to build and shape the stones for the structure shows the importance of the fortress. Not only were the Incas experts with stone carving, they also developed an irrigation system to conquer the difficult environmental challenges they faced. The Andes, a region made of steep slopes and soil unfit for farming, posed a challenge to the Inca. To overcome these difficult conditions, the Inca built terraces along the mountainsides. To supply water to their crops, they changed the route of rivers to provide canals for the terraces. This innovation was so successful that many of their terraces are still in use today.
The dedication shown towards stone masonry is also Inca sculpture. They molded and carved on a large scale producing buildings like the sacred Sun Temple in Cuzco, but they also worked on a smaller scale. At the time of conquest, chroniclers described extraordinary statues and sculptures made of silver and gold, but few remain because the Spanish melted most of them down. Some small figurines are left. Many of these were buried along with the deceased as offerings or used in religious ceremonies like this llama. Made of silver or gold, these figurines were usually fully dressed covering the precious metal almost completely. Much like their beliefs about stone, the use of the metals was the important factor. Weaving was another significant artform for the Inca. Similar to their government, their weavings were highly organized. Using geometric patterns and brilliant colors for decoration, these fabrics were considered highly valuable. In fact, trade was based on the exchange of weavings. Some of these weavings had records of certain events, which could have been interpreted as a form of writing, but none of these fabrics have survived to the present day.
Although the Incan Empire was large and advanced, it flourished for only a short time. Starting around 1450 A.D., it lasted roughly a century. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his men arrived from Panama during a time of civil unrest for the Inca. Huayna Capac, the ruler of the time, had died and left his kingdom to one of his sons Huascar. Enraged, Atahualpa, Capac's other son, defeated and murdered his brother. Taking advantage of the weakness of a culture in civil war, Pizarro attacked and killed Atahualpa, signifying the end of the Inca Empire, then melted down all of his gold.
The Inca culture was highly sophisticated, but most information about them was lost during the time of conquest. The Spanish chroniclers, who provided us with witness information, generally observed the Inca with a European bias and destroyed most of their decorated cities leaving us with little evidence of a once great culture. Today archaeologists work to uncover some of the buried mysteries to further our knowledge of the Inca.