Inca society: Wikis


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Inca tunic

The society of the Inca Empire was centered in what is now Peru, from AD 1438 to AD 1533. Over that period, the Inca used conquest and peaceful assimilation to incorporate in their empire a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean mountain ranges. The Inca empire proved short-lived: by AD 1533, Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, called Sapa Inca, was killed on the orders of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, marking the beginning of Spanish rule.



There is some debate about the number of people inhabiting Tawantinsuyu at its peak, with estimates ranging from as few as 4 million people, to more than 37 million. The reason for these various estimates is that in spite of the fact that the Inca kept excellent census records using their quipu, knowledge of how to read them has been lost and almost all of them had been destroyed by the Spaniards in the course of their conquest.[1]

Social structure

The most powerful figure in the empire was the Sapa Inca ('the unique Inca'), who was the Inca king, and the coya, who was the queen. When a new ruler was chosen, his subjects would build his family a new royal dwelling. The former royal dwelling would remain the dwelling of the former Inca's family. Only descendants of the original Inca tribe ever ascended to the level of Sapa Inca. Most young members of the Inca's family attended Yachayhuasis (houses of wisdom) to obtain their education.

Part of the reason the Inca empire expanded so much over a short period of time is because of a unique belief[citation needed]. This belief states that a Sapa Inca continues to rule over his lands, even after he has died. Any one ruler only becomes rich and powerful if he owns his lands. This means that in order to obtain lands that were his alone, each new ruler must conquer more peoples and spread his territory further. Hence, with each new emperor, the empire expands.

The Tahuantinsuyu was a federalist system which consisted of a central government with the Inca at its head and four provinces: Chinchaysuyu (NW), Antisuyu (NE), Qontisuyu (SW), and Qollasuyu (SE). The four corners of these provinces met at the center, Cuzco. Each province had a governor who oversaw local officials, who in turn supervised agriculturally-productive river valleys, cities and mines. There were separate chains of command for both the military and religious institutions, which created a system of partial checks and balances on power. The local officials were responsible for settling disputes and keeping track of each family's contribution to the mita (mandatory public service).

Pisac constituted an administrative, religious and agricultural complex for the Incas

The four provincial governors were called apos. The next rank down, the tukuyrikuq (local leaders), numbered about 90 in total and typically managed a city and its hinterlands. Below them were four levels of administration:

Level name Mita payers
Hunu kuraqa 10,000
Waranqa kuraqa 1,000
Pachaka Kuraqa 100
Chunka kamayuq 10
Social Classes of the Incan Empire
Social Classes Representatives
  • Sapa Inca
  • The Auqui: Son of the Sapa Inca.
  • The Coya: Wife of the Sapa Inca
  • Royal Panacas: First generations of each Pañaca ( royal relative).
  • Nobility of Blood: Other members of las Pañacas (royal relatives).
  • Nobility of Privilege: Those who had attained distinction through their services; Sacerdotes & Acllas; High chiefs.
  • Hatun Runa: The general public.
  • Mitimaes: Those belonging to newly conquered races.
  • Yanaconas: Servers of the Inca and Empire, many of which were prisoners.

Every five waranqa curaca, pachaka curaca, and chunka kamayuq had an intermediary to the next level called, respectively, picqa waranqa curaca, picqa pacaka curaca, and picqa conka kamayoq. This means that the middle managers managed either two or five people, while the conka kamayoq (at the worker manager level) and the apos and t'oqrikoq (in upper management) each had about 20 people reporting to them.

Modern day Incan descendant.

The descendants of the original Inca tribe were not numerous enough to administer their empire without help. To cope with the need for leadership at all levels the Inca established a civil service system. Boys at age of 13 and girls at age of first menstruation had their intelligence tested by the local Inca officials. If they failed, their ayllu (extended family group) would teach them one of many trades, such as farming, gold working, weaving, or military skills. If they passed the test, they were sent to Cuzco to attend school to become administrators. There they learned to read the quipu (knotted cord records) and were taught Inca iconography, leadership skills, religion, and, most importantly, mathematics. The graduates of this school constituted the nobility and were expected to marry within that nobility.

While some workers were held in great esteem, such as royal goldsmiths and weavers, they could never themselves enter the ruling classes. The best they could hope for was that their children might pass the exam as adolescents to enter the civil service. Although workers were considered the lowest social class, they were entitled to a modicum of what today we call due process, and all classes were equally subject to the rule of law. For example, if a worker was accused of stealing and the charges were proven false, the local official could be punished for not doing his job properly.


Inca childhood was harsh by today's standards.

When a child was born, the Inca would wash the baby in cold water and wrap it in a quilt. Later, the baby was put in a pit in the ground as a simple playground. By around age one, the baby could expect to receive very severe discipline.[citation needed]

At age fourteen, boys earned a loincloth in a ceremony to mark their manhood. Boys from noble families were subjected to many different procedures of endurance and knowledge. After the test, they received earplugs and a weapon, the colour of which represented rank in society.[citation needed]


Women were an essential part of Inca society. Their principal role in society was to care for their children, cook, weave, make chicha beer and work at the fields; however, they had many other household duties to make their lives after marriage very strenuous.[citation needed]


Incan women were typically married at the age of sixteen. In Inca society, due to economic regulations, men of lower rank could only have one wife. The aristocracy, starting with the curaca, were allowed to engage in polygamy.[2]

Trial marriages were typical within Inca culture. In this type of marriage, the man and woman would agree to try out being married to one another for a few years. At the end of this time, the woman could go home to her parents if she wished, and her husband could also send her home if he did not think it would work out. However, once the marriage was made final, they could only divorce if the woman was childless.

Women would almost always marry men in the same social class as them. However, while it was very rare for them to marry a man with a higher social ranking, it was still possible for some young women. The only way for a young woman to alter her social ranking would be if a man of higher ranking took notice of her[citation needed].

In the Inca society, a wedding was not a joyous celebration[citation needed]. Instead, it was looked at more as a business-like agreement. Therefore, it is important to note that for the Inca, marriage was an economic agreement between two families. Once a woman was married, she was expected to collect food and cook, watch over the animals and the children[citation needed]. A woman’s household obligations would not change after she became pregnant. When she did find out she was pregnant she prayed and made offerings to an Inca god, Kanopa.


The Inca were a conquering society, and their expansionist assimilation of other cultures is evident in their artistic style. The artistic style of the Inca utilized the vocabulary of many regions and cultures, but incorporated these themes into a standardized imperial style that could easily be replicated and spread throughout the empire. The simple abstract geometric forms and highly stylized animal representation in ceramics, wood carvings, textiles and metalwork were all part of the Inca culture. The motifs were not as revivalist as previous empires. No motifs of other societies were directly used with the exception of Huari and Tiwanaku arts.


Characteristic Incan construction at Sacsayhuamán.

Architecture was by far the most important of the Inca arts, with pottery and textiles reflecting motifs that were at their height in architecture. The stone temples constructed by the Inca used a mortarless construction process first used on a large scale by the Tiwanaku. The Inca imported the stoneworkers of the Tiwanaku region to Cusco when they conquered the lands south of Lake Titicaca. The rocks used in construction were sculpted to fit together exactly by repeatedly lowering a rock onto another and carving away any sections on the lower rock where the dust was compressed. The rocks fit together so well that a knife blade could not be slipped between them. Their forts where made of huge stone so perfectly cut that no tar or plaster was needed. The tight fit and the concavity on the lower rocks made them extraordinarily stable in the frequent earthquakes that strike the area. The Inca used straight walls except on important religious sites and constructed whole towns at once.

The Inca also sculpted the natural surroundings themselves. One could easily think that a rock along an Inca trail is completely natural, except if one sees it at the right time of year when the sun casts a stunning shadow, betraying its synthetic form[citation needed]. The Inca rope bridges were also used to transport messages and materials by Chasqui running messengers. The Inca also adopted the terraced agriculture that the previous Huari civilization had popularized. But they did not use the terraces solely for food production. At the Inca tambo, or inn, at Ollantaytambo there is evidence that the terraces were planted with flowers[citation needed].

The terraces of Moray are a spectacular example of Incan terracing. It has been suggested that they were used to develop new strains of crops as large temperature differentials between the top and bottom terraces have not been observed, or they may have been purely decorative.

The Inca provincial thrones were often carved into natural outcroppings, and there were over 360 natural springs in the areas surrounding Cusco, such as the one at Tambo Machay. At Tambo Machay the natural rock was sculpted and stonework was added, creating alcoves and directing the water into fountains. These pseudo-natural carvings functioned to show both the Inca's respect for nature and their command over it.


For fishing, trade, construction, transport and military purposes, the Inca built seagoing vessels called balsas by weaving together totora reeds. The largest of these vessels were 20 to 30 meters long, making them comparable in length to Spanish Caravels. This method of constructing ships from woven reeds is an ancient Peruvian tradition which long predates the Inca. There are depictions of such vessels in Moche pottery dating back to 100 A.D.


Inca officials wore stylized tunics that indicated their status. It contains an amalgamation of motifs used in the tunics of particular officeholders. For instance, the black and white checkerboard pattern topped with a red triangle is believed to have been worn by soldiers of the Inca army. Some of the motifs make reference to earlier cultures, such as the stepped diamonds of the Huari and the three step stairstep motif of the Moche.

Cloth was divided into three classes. Awaska was used for household use, having an approximate thread count of about 120 threads per inch, and usually made from llama wool. Finer cloth, qunpi, was divided into two classes: The first, woven by male qunpikamayuq (keepers of fine cloth) from alpaca wool, was collected as tribute from throughout the country and was used for trade, to adorn rulers and to be given as gifts to political allies and subjects to cement loyalty. The other class of qunpi ranked highest. It was woven in the Acllawasi (acllahuasi) by "aclla" (female virgins of the sun god temple) from vicuña wool and used solely for royal and religious use. These had thread counts of 600 or more per inch, unsurpassed anywhere in the world, until the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

Aside from the tunic, a person of importance wore a llawt'u, a series of cords wrapped around the head. To establish his importance, the Inca Atahualpa commissioned a llawt'u woven from vampire bat hair. The leader of each ayllu, or extended family, had its own headdress.

In conquered regions, traditional clothing continued to be worn, but the finest weavers, such as those of Chan Chan, were transferred to Cusco and kept there to weave qunpi. (The Chimú had previously transferred these same weavers to Chan Chan from Sican.)

The Incan government controlled all clothing of their society[citation needed]. One would receive two outfits of clothing, one formal and one casual pair, and they would then proceed to wear those same outfits until they could literally be worn no longer. Since the government was in such strict control on their clothing, the Incans could not alter their clothing without the permission of the government.


Discoveries have been made about the Incan hairstyles through studying their ancient mummies. It is believed that women of this culture had very long hair that they would most typically braid. Men on the other hand, would still have relatively long hair, yet would occasionally cut it with a certain type of knife. It has been thought that certain hairstyles may distinguish one class from another.


The wearing of jewelry was not uniform throughout the empire. Chimú artisans, for example, continued to wear earrings after their integration into the empire, but in many other regions, only local leaders wore them[citation needed].

Ceramics and metalwork

Chimú-Inca ceramic from the Late Horizon.

Ceramics were for the most part utilitarian in nature, but also incorporated the imperialist style that was prevalent in the Inca textiles and metalwork. In addition, the Inca played drums and on woodwind instruments including flutes, pan-pipes and trumpets made of shell and ceramics.

The Inca made beautiful objects of gold, silver, copper, bronze and tumbago . But precious metals were in shorter supply than in earlier Peruvian cultures. The Inca metalworking style draws much of its inspiration from Chimú art and in fact the best metal workers of Chan Chan were transferred to Cusco when the Kingdom of Chimor was incorporated into the empire. Unlike the Chimú, the Inca do not seem to have regarded metals to be as precious as fine cloth. Nonetheless, the metalworks of the Incas were perhaps the most advanced in America. When the Spanish first encountered the Inca they were offered gifts of qunpi cloth. Incan ceramics are usually very distinct and easy to recognize. The shapes of the vessels are highly standardized. The most typical Incan pottery would have a spherical body with a cone shaped base. This spherical body usually includes two vertical side handles with a tall neck and flaring rim. The Incans often would place animal heads on their pottery as well usually near the top of the vessel. There were also several other popular styles for Incan ceramics which included a shallow dish with a single bird head and handle, a pedestal beaker, and a single or double handled bottle.

Incans often decorated their ceramics with a multitude of images and colors. They usually decorated their pottery with bright colors of red, yellow, orange, black and white. Much like all other forms of Incan art, the pottery was often decorated with geometric shapes. The Incans would put diamonds, squares, checkers, triangles, circles and dots on almost all of their ceramic work. Other common themes were animals and insects like llamas, birds, jaguars, alpacas, bees, butterflies as well as block-like humans.

An Andean bronze bottle made by Chimú artisans from circa 1300 A.D.

As part of a tax obligation to the commoners, mining was required in all the provinces. Even though the Inca Empire contained a lot of precious metals, the Incans did not value their metal as much as fine cloth[citation needed]. The Incans adopted much of their metal-working characteristics from the metalwork of Chimu. Because of their expertise in metalworking, after the fall of Chimu many metalworkers were taken back to the capital city of Cuzco to continue their metalworking for the emperor. Copper, tin, gold, and silver were all obtained from mines or washed from the river gravels. These metals would then be handed over to metallurgists. Because the Inca had a system that emphasized political and religious organization, there were many specialized artisans like metallurgists. There were also specialized weavers, cloth makers, pottery makers, and many more. Both copper and bronze would be used for basic farming tools or weapons. Some of the common bronze and copper pieces found in the Incan empire included sharp sticks for digging, club-heads, knives with curved blades, axes, chisels, needles and pins. All of these items would be forged by a metallurgist and then spread throughout the empire.

The Incans reserved their more precious metals for ornaments and decorations. Gold and silver were common themes throughout the palaces of Incan emperors. It was said that the walls and thrones were covered with gold and that the emperor dined on gold and silver service. These golden plated services would often be inlaid with llamas, butterflies or other creatures. Even beyond the gold and decoration of the emperor’s palace were the ornaments that decorated all of the temples throughout the empire. The temples of the Incans were strewn with sacred and highly precious objects. Headdresses, crowns, ceremonial knives, cups, and a lot of ceremonial clothing were all inlaid with gold or silver.

Many historians believe that the choice of gold was to distinguish the more “sacred” or “holy” pieces from others[citation needed]. The commonality of gold has much to do with the Incan religion surrounding the sun. Because of the beautiful reflection that gold casts, it gave the appearance of containing the sun, making the precious metal even more valued in a sun-obsessed society. Gold was reserved for the highest class of Incan society which consisted of priests, lords and of course the Sapa Inca or emperor.


Representation of an Incan quipu

The Inca used quipu or bunches of knotted strings, for accounting and census purposes. Much of the information on the surviving quipus has been shown to be numeric data; some numbers seem to have been used as mnemonic labels, and the color, spacing, and structure of the quipu carried information as well. Since it isn't known how to interpret the coded or non-numeric data, some scholars still hope to find that the quipu recorded language.

The Inca depended largely on oral transmission as a means of maintaining the preservation of their culture. Inca education was divided into two distinct categories: vocational education for common Inca and highly formalized training for the nobility.


The Inca made many discoveries in medicine. They performed successful skull surgery, which involved cutting holes in the skull to release pressure from head wounds.

Coca leaves were used to lessen hunger and pain, as they still are in the Andes. The Chasqui (messengers) chewed coca leaves for extra energy to carry on their tasks as runners delivering messages throughout the empire.

Recent research by Erasmus University and Medical Center workers Sewbalak and Van Der Wijk showed that, contrary to popular belief, the Inca people were not addicted to coca.

Another remedy was to cover boiled bark from a pepper tree and place it over a wound while still warm.

The Inca also used guinea pigs not only for food but for a so-called well-working medicine.

Burial practices

Peruvian mummy at the Carmo Convent (Lisbon).

The Inca believed in reincarnation. Those who obeyed the Incan moral code — ama suwa, ama llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy) — went to live in the Sun's warmth. Others spent their eternal days in the cold earth.

The Inca also believed in mummifying prominent personages. The mummies would be provided with an assortment of objects which were to be taken into the pacarina. The mallquis were also used in various rituals or celebrations. The deceased were generally buried in a sitting position. One such example was the 500-year-old mummy "Juanita the Ice Maiden", a girl very well-preserved in ice that was discovered at 20,000 feet, near the summit of Mt. Ampato in Southern Peru. Her burial included many items left as offerings to the Inca gods.


The belief system of the Incas was polytheistic. Inti, the Sun God, was the most important god, which the Incas believed was the direct ancestor of the Sapa Inca, the title of the hereditary rulers of the empire.

Other practices

The Inca practiced cranial deformation. They achieved this by wrapping tight cloth straps around the heads of newborns in order to alter the shape of their still-soft skulls. These deformations did not result in brain damage. Researchers at the Field Museum believe that the practice was used to mark different ethnicities across the Inca Empire.[3]

Food and farming

Around 200 varieties of Peruvian potatoes were cultivated by the Incas and their predecessors

It is estimated that the Inca cultivated around seventy crop species. The main crops were potatoes, sweet potatoes, maize, chili peppers, cotton, tomatoes, peanuts, an edible root called oca, and the pseudograins quinoa and amaranth. The many important crops developed by the Inca and preceding cultures makes South America one of the historic centers of crop diversity (along with the Middle East, India, Mesoamerica, Ethiopia, and the Far East). Many of these crops were widely distributed by the Spanish and are now important crops worldwide. Salsa was originated by the Inca people using tomatoes, chili peppers, and other spices.

Many varieties of Peruvian maize (corn) were well-known to the Incas for centuries

The Inca cultivated food crops on dry Pacific coastlines, high on the slopes of the Andes, and in the lowland Amazon rainforest. In mountainous Andean environments, they made extensive use of terraced fields which not only allowed them to put to use the mineral-rich mountain soil which other peoples left fallow, but also took advantage of micro-climates conducive to a variety of crops being cultivated throughout the year. Agricultural tools consisted mostly of simple digging sticks.[citation needed]

The Inca also raised llamas and alpacas for their wool, meat, and to use them as pack animals and captured wild vicuñas for their fine hair.

The Inca road system was key to farming success as it allowed distribution of foodstuffs over long distances. The Inca also constructed vast storehouses, which allowed them to live through El Niño years in style while neighboring civilizations suffered.

Inca leaders kept records of what each ayllu in the empire produced, but did not tax them on their production. They instead used the mita for the support of the empire.

The Inca diet consisted primarily of fish and vegetables, supplemented less frequently with the meat of cuyes (guinea pigs) and camelids. In addition, they hunted various animals for meat, skins and feathers. Maize was malted and used to make chicha, a fermented alcoholic beverage.


According to Ferreira and Chamot:

"The social system of the Incas had an ancient Andean origin based on the ayllu, an extended family group with a common ancestor. The economic system was also based on ancient social structures and can be explained through several principles, namely reciprocity, redistribution, and vertical control."

These authors also add:

"Redistribution, a practice employed by the state, ensured that all agricultural goods not exchanged by reciprocity were to be distributed in the different areas of the empire in the case of bad crops."[4]

In essence, the government of the Inca functioned as a safeguard against mass starvation.


  1. ^ McEwan, Gordon Francis (2006). The Incas: New Perspectives. W. W. Norton. pp. 93–96. ISBN 0-393-33301-9.  There is some debate about the size of the population.
  2. ^ Incas: lords of gold and glory. New York: Time-Life Books. 1992. pp. 130. ISBN 0-8094-9870-7. 
  3. ^ Machu Picchu: Ongoing Investigations
  4. ^ Darget-Chamot, Ferreira '''Cultures and Customs of Peru; Greenwood Press; Westport Ct/London; 2003; pp 13

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