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6.17: Incan Empire (Early 12th C – 1572)

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  • In pre-Columbian America, the Incan Empire was established in Peru in the early 12th century and lasted until the Spanish invaded in 1532 CE. They created an empire covering Peru, parts of Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile along the chain of the Andes Mountains. The environment was harsh and diverse with mountains, plains, deserts, and jungles, making travel difficult. Everywhere they went, they built monumental buildings, extensive road systems, and harnessed the land with terraced hillsides. The most famous settlement was Machu Picchu (6.81) constructed high in the mountains. Kings ruled the empire from Cuzco, the capital with a nobility class protected by the citadel at Sacsayhuaman (6.80) while the rest of the people worked the land. The economy of the Incan empire was established on trading goods and services without any real markets and seemingly no money. Unlike most cultures, the Incas did not pay monetary taxes. Instead, people were required to provide their labor and, in turn, received food and goods.

    6.80 Sacsayhuaman
    6.81 Machu Picchu

    The Incan’s did not have a written language system, yet they had an extensive counting system to calculate and track transactions. Land was divided into sections, some for the gods, some for the rulers and some for the people. They used the quipus (6.82) as a counting device with base 10 counting and recording with a set of knots on the groups of strings (6.83). The quipus were portable, capable of counting up to 10,000 per quipus. If anything went higher, they added another set of strings. Historians also believe they might have used quipus to record historical events.

    Quipus example
    6.82 Quipus example
    6.83 Quipus

    The sun god was the supreme deity and the moon goddess second in command. Temples, stonework, and metal artworks of polished gold, silver, and copper were created to honor these gods. Almost all of the metal art from the Incans was melted down by the Spaniards and is lost today. Textiles (6.84) were significant to the general population, and their designs had recognizable motifs like the checkerboard pattern found in a wide variety of clothing. Ordinary people wore textiles made from cotton, llama, and alpaca wool, the super-soft vicuna wool textiles only available for the ruling class. Colors were made with plants boiled to create natural dyes, and each color had a designated meaning. Most textiles were made for the elite, but ceramics had broader use by everyone. The most common shape of the ceramics was a round vessel (6.85) with a long neck and two small handles used to store maize. The ceramics were painted using a polychrome method with geometric patterns, animals, or birds.

    Patterned textile
    6.84 Patterned textile
    6.85 Ceramics

    Historians are still puzzled about how the Incas created their stable societies lacking wheeled vehicles, animals to ride or pull plows, only able to make bronze tools, and did not have a writing system. Living in an isolated environment, they developed a different pathway to a thriving civilization, until the Spanish came, decimating the Incan population with disease and destruction.