With the Inca Empire (1200-1532) came the culmination of the city-building phase and the beginnings of a kind of Peruvian unity, with the Incas, although originally no more than a tribe of around forty thousand, gradually taking over each of the separate coastal empires. One of the last to go – almost bloodlessly, and just sixty years before the Spanish Conquest – were the Chimu, who for much of this “Imperial Period” were a powerful rival.
Based in the valleys around Cusco, the Incas were for the first two centuries of their existence much like any other of the larger mountain tribes. Fiercely protective of their independence, they maintained a somewhat feudal society, tightly controlled by rigid religious tenets, though often disrupted by inter-tribal conflict. The founder of the dynasty – around 1200 – was Manco Capac , who passed into Inca mythology as a cultural hero. Historically, however, little definite is known about Inca developments or achievements until the accession in 1438 of Pachacuti, and the onset of their great era of expansion.
Pachacuti , most innovative of all the Inca emperors, was the first to expand their traditional tribal territory. The beginnings of this were in fact not of his making but the response to a threatened invasion by the powerful, neighbouring Chanca Indians during the reign of his father, Viracocha . Viracocha, feeling the odds to be overwhelming, left Cusco in Pachacuti’s control, withdrawing to the refuge of Calca along the Río Urubamba. Pachacuti, however, won a legendary victory – Inca chronicles record that the very stones of the battlefield rose up in his defence – and, having vanquished the most powerful force in the region, shortly took the Inca crown for himself.
Within three decades Pachacuti had consolidated his power over the entire sierra region from Cajamarca to Titicaca, defeating in the process all main imperial rivals except for the Chimu. At the same time the capital at Cusco was spectacularly developed, with the evacuation and destruction of all villages within a ten-kilometre radius, a massive programme of agricultural terracing (watched over by a skyline of agro-calendrical towers), and the construction of unrivalled palaces and temples. Shrewdly, Pachacuti turned his forcible evacuation of the Cusco villages into a positive plan, relocating the Incas in newly colonized areas. He extended this practice too, towards his subjugated allies, conscripting them into the Inca armies while their chiefs remained as hostages and honoured guests at Cusco.
Inca territory expanded north into Ecuador, almost reaching Quito, under the next emperor – Topac Yupanqui – who also took his troops down the coast, overwhelming the Chimu and capturing the holy shrine of Pachacamac. Not surprisingly the coastal cultures influenced the Incas perhaps as much as the Incas influenced them, particularly in the sphere of craft industries. With Pachacuti before him, Topac Yupanqui was nevertheless an outstandingly imaginative and able ruler. During the 22 years of his reign (1471-93) he pushed Inca control southwards as far as the Río Maule in Chile; instigated the first proper census of the empire and set up the decimal-based administrative system; introduced the division of labour and land between the state, the gods and the local allyus; invented the concept of Chosen Women (Mamaconas); and inaugurated a new class of respected individuals (the Yanaconas). An empire had been unified not just physically but also administratively and ideologically.
At the end of the fifteenth century the Inca Empire was thriving, vital as any civilization before or since. Its politico-religious authority was finely tuned, extracting what it needed from its millions of subjects and giving what was necessary to maintain the status quo – be it brute force, protection or food. The only obvious problem inherent in the Inca system of unification and domination was one of over-extension. When Huayna Capac continued Topac Yupanqui’s expansion to the north he created a new Inca city at Quito , one which he personally preferred to Cusco and which laid the seed for a division of loyalties within Inca society. At this point in history, the Inca Empire was probably the largest in the world even though it had neither horse nor wheel technology. The empire was over 5500km long stretching from southern Colombia right down to northern Chile, with Inca highways covering distances of around 30,000km in all.
Almost as a natural progression from overextending the empire in this way, the divisions in Inca society came to a head even before Huayna Capac’s death. Ruling the empire from Quito, along with his favourite son Atahualpa , Huayna Capac installed another son, Huascar , at Cusco. In the last year of his life he tried to formalize the division – ensuring an inheritance at Quito for Atahualpa – but this was totally resisted by Huascar, legitimate heir to the title of Lord Inca and the empire, and by many of the influential Cusco priests and nobles. In 1527, when Huayna Capac died of the white man’s disease smallpox, which had swept down overland from Mexico in the previous seven years killing over thirty percent of the indigenous population, civil war broke out. Atahualpa, backed by his father’s army, was by far the stronger and immediately won a major victory at the Río Bamba – a battle which, it was said, left the plain littered with human bones for over a hundred years. A still bloodier battle, however, took place along the Río Apurimac at Cotabamba in 1532. This was the decisive victory for Atahualpa, and with his army he retired to relax at the hot baths near Cajamarca. Here, informed of a strange-looking, alien band, successors of the bearded adventurers whose presence had been noted during the reign of Huayna Capac, they waited.