The Rise of the Inca: From Rags to Riches

From the Lecture Series: Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations

By Brian M. Fagan, PhD, University of California, Santa Barbara

The historical accounts of the rise of the Inca from total obscurity to imperial fame is the definition of a rags-to-riches story. Their achievements in economy, government, and architecture continue to resonate to this day.

Ancient inca sculptures carved out from rock near Machu Picchu, Peru
(Image: John Ozguc/Shutterstock)

In the 11th century, the Inca were one of many small farming societies in the highland valleys of the Andes. Their leaders were petty war chiefs who fought constantly with each other. Historians aren’t sure who these rulers were or how they became conquerors because at some point the Inca began to create their own glorious past. This history tells us that at around the beginning of the 15th century, an Inca leader called Viracocha Inca turned himself from a mere tribal raider into a conqueror.

Painting of Viracocha, Eighth Inca (between 1750 and 1800)
Raider turned conqueror, Viracocha Inca (Image: Unknown/Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum/Public Domain)

Learn more about how the myths were based in part on historical truths

Viracocha soon presided over a small kingdom and promptly proclaimed that he was a living god, fashioning himself as a divine ruler. He created a new religious cult of Inti, a celestial, divine ancestor associated with the sun. “I have an imperial vision. I have a divinely sanctioned job—conquest.”


Then, about 1438, a brilliant warrior, Cusi Inca Yupanqui, became the Inca ruler. With great arrogance and assurance, he assumed the name Pachakuti, which means “he who remakes the world” and set about reforming and transforming the Inca domain into a state. Pachakuti did several things that had a lasting impact and created fatal weaknesses in Inca civilization.

This is a transcript from the video series Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations. Watch it now, on The Great Courses.

He began by fostering a new cult of the royal mummies. To modern sensibilities, that seems bizarre to us, but actually, the logic behind it was to reinforce continuity. At his death, a ruler was mummified, but he continued to “live” in his palace. His devoted followers would talk with him and eat with him, and the mummy attended all the great ceremonies of state.

This symbolism was of vital importance, as it ensured the continuity of Inca life and, even more important, it reinforced the relationship between the royal ancestors, the living leader, and Inti, the sun god.

Learn more about how the empire was ultimately torn apart by civil war and disease

New Ruler—New Land

17th century Illustration of the chronicle of Martín de Murúa showing the Inca Pachacútec worshipping Inti at Coricancha
Pachakuti was the ninth ruler of the Inca state. (Image: By Cronista Martín de Murúa/Public domain)

Perhaps even more pervasive was another custom introduced by Pachakuti but probably also used at Chimor. That was the institution of split inheritance. Under this custom, the dead Inca ruler retained all his possessions and all his land. All that the new ruler who succeeded him acquired was prestige, the title of Inca or Supreme Inca, and little else. That meant he had to acquire his own wealth and land to live in royal splendor and, ultimately, to support his mummy.

Fortunately for the Inca, they had a series of extremely able rulers. By 1493, the Inca Topa Yupanqui had extended the empire into Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. His armies also conquered Chimor, whose water supplies were already under Inca control.

Fortunately for the Inca, they had a series of extremely able rulers. By 1493, the Inca Topa Yupanqui had extended the empire into Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile. His armies also conquered Chimor, whose water supplies were already under Inca control.

By the time of the Spanish Entrada, Inca domains extended far into Ecuador in the north and were beginning to expand into the rain forests on the eastern side of the Andes. There, however, the armies were hampered because they were not used to fighting in heavily vegetated terrain.

Learn more about the Inca’s ingenious technology

Tawantinsuyu—Land of the Four Quarters

Fortunately for the Inca, their rulers were far more than conquerors. They were brilliant propagandists who constantly reminded everyone that they were gods and that everyone’s welfare depended on them. Like the pharaohs and others, they were careful to reward bravery in battle and to bring economic advantage to those they conquered.

This is a stark and elementary condition, but people have to see an advantage in being ruled by someone else. For all their ruthlessness, the Inca succeeded in doing just that because they cleverly combined economic benefits and incentives with rewards and justifications, as well as with a powerful ideology. They were careful to honor local lords and provided these lords were loyal, they gave them considerable authority.

Above all, the Inca rulers were consummate administrators. They were propagandists who happened to be administrators—rather a rare combination. They presided over an empire of extraordinary cultural and environmental diversity. They achieved this without written records, with just a system of knotted strings. Their rule required, of course, extraordinary numbers of people whose memories acted as inventories.

Map showing how the city of Cusco was during the Inca Empire. Painting of 1565 by Giovanni Battista Ramusio.
The city of Cusco was built on a central plaza and was bisected by two rivers. (Image: By Giovanni Battista Ramusio/Public domain)

Tawantinsuyu radiated from the center of the world at Cuzco, high in the Andes. Laid out in a cruciform plan, Cuzco was built on a central plaza and was bisected by two rivers. Just south lay the Coriancha, the Temple of the Sun. It had six one-room buildings with gold-covered walls that surrounded a courtyard. In front was a garden of golden plants before a shrine with a golden image of the sun.

A closely fitted masonry wall surrounded the entire complex. Masonry by the Inca was famous for its tight fit. They dragged granite boulders to the capital and trimmed them with river cobbles so they fit perfectly with each other. You can’t even put a credit card through some of the cracks, and with this fit, the Inca created earthquake-proof walls.

Such efficiency was typical of an empire divided into four provinces and using carefully modified institutions like the mit’ a labor tax, adopted from earlier states. They also carefully inventoried what lay in storehouses found in every community.

Machupicchu in the Peruvian Andes with winding road and Urubamba river.
The Inca created an elaborate zigzag road system that went high in the Andes. (Image: Christian Wilkinson/Shutterstock)

The essence of efficient Inca government over distant lands was efficient communications. The Inca created an elaborate road system that linked ancient roadways, like those of the Chimu, with other systems. The road system had narrow zigzag paths that went high in the Andes, with regular rest houses and where llama caravans passed constantly. It is said the Inca could pass a message from Lima to Cuzco by runner quicker than the Spanish could do it with a horse. They could move armies, dispatch messengers, and send llama caravans of trade goods the length and breadth of Tawantinsuyu.

Their passion for organization impinged on everyone’s life. The Inca divided society into 12 age divisions for census and tax purposes, with adulthood lasting as long as you could do a day’s work. They used the quipu, the knotted string, to keep accurate inventories of everything. The combinations of knots indicated supplies of grain, the contents and resources of conquered land, and the contents of village storehouses. It was a powerful instrument for ensuring social conformity.

Learn more: Spanish Contact—Pizarro Conquers the Inca

By the early 16th century, though, the institution of split inheritance had caused such expansion that the Inca were running out of places to conquer, and there were horrendous logistical problems. In 1532, civil war raged over succession, and the Spanish adventurer Francisco Pizarro landed in Tawantinsuyu. He captured the Supreme Inca, murdered him, and a year later became a master of the greatest of all Native American empires.

Common Questions About the Rise of the Inca

Q: Where was the Inca Empire?

The Inca Empire began in what would be known as Peru and spread across much of the West coast of South America. 

Q: How did the Inca expand their empire?

The Inca used reciprocity and formed alliances with the leaders of new lands they encroached upon. In new lands, they would offer gifts and if received, the tribes were expected to accept Incan authority. Otherwise, they used the force of their superior military. The tribes’ leaders were executed to ensure loyalty.

Q: What did the Inca invent?

The Inca had brilliant engineers who invented a huge variety of practices and products such as freeze-drying food, terrace farming, aqueducts, a variety of musical instruments, much art, and a centralized system of government.

Q: How did the Inca Empire collapse?

The Spanish conquistadors are responsible for the destruction of the Inca empire. Not only did they arrive with superior weapons such as guns, but they also had the advantage of horses. However, a crucial factor that weakened the empire dramatically was the introduction of smallpox.

This article was updated on September 2, 2020

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