The Inca Empire rapidly developed a hierarchical structure . At the highest level it was governed by the Sapa Inca , son of the sun and direct descendant of the god Viracocha. Under him were the priest-nobles – the royal allyu or kin-group which filled most of the important administrative and religious posts – and, working for them, regional allyu chiefs, curacas or orejones, responsible for controlling tribute from the peasant base. One third of the land belonged to the emperor and the state; another to the high priests, gods, and the sun; the last was for the allyu themselves. Work on the land, then, was devoted to maintaining the empire rather than mere subsistence, though in times of famine storehouses were evidently opened to feed the commoners.
Life for the elite wasn’t, perhaps, quite as easy as it may appear; their fringe benefits were matched by the strain and worry of governing an empire, sending armies everywhere, and keeping the gods happy. The Inca nobles were nevertheless fond of relaxing in thermal baths, of hunting holidays, and of conspicuous eating and drinking whenever the religious calendar permitted. Allyu chiefs were often unrelated to the royal Inca lineage, but their position was normally hereditary. As lesser nobles ( curacas) they were allowed to wear earplugs and special ornate headbands; their task was both to protect and exploit the commoners, and they themselves were free of labour service.
The hierarchical network swept down the ranks from important chiefs in a decimalized system. One of the curacas might be responsible for ten thousand men; under him two lower chiefs were each responsible for five thousand, and so on until in the smallest hamlets there was one man responsible for ten others. Women weren’t counted in the census. For the Incas, a household was represented by the man and only he was obliged to fulfil tribute duties on behalf of the allyu. Within the family the woman’s role was dependent on her relationship with the dominant man – be he father, brother, husband, or eldest son.
In their conquests the Incas absorbed craftsmen from every corner of the empire. Goldsmiths, potters, carpenters, sculptors, masons and quipumayocs (accountants) were frequently removed from their homes to work directly for the emperor in Cusco. These skilled men lost no time in developing into a new and entirely separate class of citizens. The work of even the lowest servant in the palace was highly regulated by a rigid division of labour. If a man was employed to be a woodcutter he wouldn’t be expected to gather wood from the forests; that was the task of another employee.
Throughout the empire young girls, usually about nine or ten years old, were constantly selected for their beauty and serene intelligence. Those deemed perfect enough were taken to an acclahuasi – a special sanctuary for the ” chosen women ” – where they were trained in specific tasks, including the spinning and weaving of fine cloth, and the higher culinary arts. Most chosen women were destined ultimately to become mamaconas (Virgins of the Sun) or the concubines of either nobles or the Sapa Inca himself. Occasionally some of them were sacrificed by strangulation in order to appease the gods.
For most Inca women the allotted role was simply that of peasant/domestic work and rearing children. After giving birth a mother would wash her baby in a nearby stream to cleanse and purify it and return virtually immediately to normal daily activities, carrying the child in a cradle tied on her back with a shawl. As they still are today, most babies were breast-fed for years before leaving their mothers to take the place in the domestic life-cycle. As adults their particular role in society was dependent first on sex, then on hierarchical status.
Special regulations affected both the old and disabled . Around the age of fifty, a man was likely to pass into the category of “old”. He was no longer capable of undertaking a normal workload, he wasn’t expected to pay taxes, and he could always depend on support from the official storehouses. Nevertheless, the community still made small demands by using him to collect firewood and other such tasks; in much the same way the kids were expected to help out around the house and in the fields. In fact children and old people often worked together, the young learning directly from the old. Disabled people were obliged to work within their potential – the blind, for instance, might de-husk maize or clean cotton. Inca law also bound the deformed or disabled to marry people with similar disadvantages: dwarfs to dwarfs, blind to blind, legless to legless.
The Inca diet was essentially vegetarian, based on the staple potato but encompassing a range of other foods like quinoa, beans, squash, sweet potatoes, avocados, tomatoes and manioc. In the highlands emphasis was on root crops like potatoes which have been known to survive down to -15°C at over 5000m. On the valley floors and lower slopes of the Andes maize cultivation predominated.
The importance of maize both as a food crop and for making chicha increased dramatically under the Incas; previously it had been grown for ceremony and ritual exchange, as a status rather than a staple crop. The use of coca was restricted to the priests amd Inca elite. Coca is a mild narcotic stimulant which effectively dulls the body against cold, hunger and tiredness when the leaves are chewed in the mouth with a catalyst such as lime or calcium. Its leaves possessed magical properties for the Incas; they could be cast to divine future events, offered as a gift to the wind, the earth, or the mountain apu, and they could be used in witchcraft. Today it’s difficult to envisage the Incas success in restricting coca-growing and use; even with helicopters and machine guns the present-day authorities are unable to control its production. But the original Inca system of control was frighteningly effective.