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15th century AD
     Cuzco and the Incas
     Inca roads
     The quipu
     The Inca state
     Inca architecture
     Inca sun rituals

16th century

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Cuzco and the Incas: 15th century

In the early 15th century the town of Cuzco is a small place, the headquarters of one of many competing tribes within the region which was once ruled from Tiwanaku. But in about 1438 a younger son of the ruler defeats the neighbouring Chanca people, usurps power, gives himself the resounding title Pachacuti ('transformer of the earth') and begins an astonishing process of military expansion. The policy is continued by his son, Topa Inca (also sometimes called Tupac Inca).

By the end of two long reigns (about fifty-five years in all) the Cuzco dynasty, known as the Incas, are in loose control of an empire stretching from Quito in modern Ecuador to the Maule river in Chile - a distance of nearly 2500 miles.

Even allowing for the exaggerations of oral history transmitted within a ruling dynasty, this is a remarkable achievement. Pachacuti and Topa Inca, though hardly household names, are a double generation of conquerors comparable to Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander.

The Inca expansion also shares some features with Genghis Khan's programme of conquest. A few brutal military victories suffice to terrify other petty rulers into cooperation, and the success of the Incas derives partly from excellent roads and communications.

Inca roads: 15th century

The Inca roads, the arteries of an empire, amount in all to more than 14,000 miles. They are not paved, in the way of Roman roads, nor are they even much flattened - for this empire contains no wheeled vehicle nor any horses.

The Incas rule over massively varied terrain, made up of large areas of jungle, desert and rugged highlands. Their roads are in effect paths, kept clear in these difficult conditions. Suspension bridges span small ravines, enabling runners to hurry unimpeded with a message - or caravans of llamas to make slower but steady progress with bales of raw materials and precious fabrics.

As in the ancient Persian empire and many others, runners are housed at short distances along the routes to provide a rapid relay service. But unlike similar routes in Asian empires, these roads transmit only verbal messages. The Incas have no writing. Their empire is administered like a vast game of Chinese whispers. No doubt most communication gets through in accurate form. But then perhaps long-distance messages in all early empires tend to be simple - instructions to fight, to return to base, to send stated amounts of men or materials, with sometimes news of a king's death or the identity of his successor.

Instead of writing, the local medium for recording simple information is an invention of the Andean civilizations - the quipu.

The quipu: 7th - 16th century

The quipu (meaning 'knot') is a recording device used in Andean civilizations at least as far back as Wari in the 7th century, but it is associated in particular with the administration of the Inca empire. It consists of a length of rope from which numerous other threads are suspended, some of them with their own subsidiary offshoots. The length of each thread, its colour and the position of any knots in it can acquire specific meanings.

At its simplest this is an easy way of recording quantities of different goods. If a length or colour of thread is an agreed symbol for a given commodity, the knots (registering units, tens or hundreds) will give a quick account of the total.

The quipu can also cope with more abstract themes. If threads or knots are allocated the role of days and months, a time scale is easily recorded. In this way simple historical records can be kept, such as the length of a king's reign since his accession.

What a quipu cannot do is substitute for writing. It can record how long a king has reigned but not what his name was. It may provide a messenger with a mnemonic, but it is the messenger who must remember the message. Without writing, the historical records of the quipu must be supplemented by witnesses from the past - as is touchingly admitted by a Peruvian Indian, attempting to write a 'Proper history' of his people for the Spanish king.

The Inca state: 1428 - 1532

The structure of Inca society resembles a blueprint for a utopia, drawn up by a political theorist concerned for the physical well-being of the citizens but with no interest in the higher ideals of liberty or equality. Since most human beings share this sense of priorities, the people living under Inca rule seem to have been tolerably content.

Land is allotted by the state to peasant families, to till for their own needs. In return the state levies tax in the form of labour. Male heads of households take their turn working in fields reserved for the Inca administration, building roads and bridges, or serving in the army.

Such a system of serf labour has been commonplace in many societies. Under the Incas it appears not to be done in an atmosphere of coercion. Indeed there is evidence that work is frequently accompanied by much festivity. Chicha, a beer made from maize, plays a major part in life.

Another Inca system familiar elsewhere is that of the mitmakuna. These are entire communities of families, moved often hundreds of miles to new regions where they will form a secure settlement, on Inca principles, in a region which might otherwise be unruly. This is similar to ancient Roman colonies.

More unusual are two groups known as mamakuna and yanakuna. These are women and men selected early in their lives to serve the state.

The mamakuna, more numerous than their male counterparts, live in segregated communities. The most beautiful among them may find a place in the emperor's harem; others may be given away by the state in dynastic marriages. But their main functions are religious and economic. They are priestesses in the state cult of the sun; they are the spinners and weavers of the superb Inca textiles for which the society is famous; and they seem also to have been largely responsible for the brewing of the maize beer known as chicha.

The male yanakuna serve the Inca rulers and other high members of the society in various ways, and unlike the mamakuna they seem to have been free to marry. Their main task is caring for the Inca's herds of animals. This gives the yanakuna a mobility and a network of links throughout Inca society, for most llamas belong to the state - and the llama, larger than the related alpaca, is the only beast of burden in Peru.

With the yanakuna on the roads and in the market places, and the mamakuna in temples and workshops in the cities, these lifetime servants of the state are like an elementary civil service. Their presence is as much a sign of Inca control in a region as the characteristic Inca architecture.

Inca architecture: 15th - 16th century

The Incas share with another much earlier civilization, that of Mycenaean Greece, a habit of building with massive blocks of masonry. But the precision of the Peruvian masons puts all others to shame. In their capital at Cuzco, or in subject cities where they wish to emphasize their presence, the Incas leave their trade mark in great slabs of stone, often of eccentric shape, fitting together with an uncanny and beautiful precision.

The modern city of Cuzco has grown upon and around its Inca origins. But Inca masonry can still be seen, underpropping churches or flanking streets, as a reminder of the great builders of the 15th century.

To the north of Cuzco, on the open hillside, are the three vast polygonal ramparts of Saqsawaman - a structure once believed to be an Inca fortress, but more probably a temple to the sun and an arena for state rituals.

Even more mysterious, in the jungle at the far end of the Urubamba valley, is the long-lost city of Machu Picchu. Its site is as dramatic as the story of its rediscovery (see Discovery of Machu Picchu). High on an inaccessible peak in the jungle, the Inca masons somehow contrive to place their vast dressed stones, even in this remote spot, with wonderful exactitude.

Inca sun rituals: 15th - 16th century

Like some of the Roman emperors, the Incas identify themselves with the sun. And like the Japanese royal house, they even persuade their people that they are the living descendants of the monarch of the heavens.

The most sacred idol in the Inca pantheon is a great golden disc representing the sun. It is known as Punchao, which means daylight or dawn. Great religious ceremonies, sometimes lasting several days, are based upon the pattern of dawn and dusk, day and night. The Inca, as the sun's representative on earth, presides over the rituals.

One of the most important festivals in the Inca year is the eight-day feast which celebrates the harvesting of the maize crop. Each day a ritual chanting begins with the rising of the sun, grows to a crescendo at noon, and diminishes to silence again by dusk. Burnt offerings of llamas and libations of maize beer are made to the sun god. The Inca and his court are in their most splendid robes, encrusted in gold and silver. The effigies of the Inca's ancestors are also present - with retinues of female attendants.

One of the last enactments of this Colourful festival, so much more gentle than the contemporary Aztec sun rituals, is witnessed and described in 1535 by a young Spanish priest.

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